Two Weeks 2 Go! ***Revised for NYI
Two weeks to go and a good look at the East, yet the West is starting to give something interesting as well. Good morning hockey fans. I hope you are enjoying your days. I am down here in South Florida, beautiful weather, great temperature and nice breeze.
We about two weeks to go for season’s end, and the races are still ongoing. The Western Conference appeared to be set, yet the hottest team has changed the picture. The Colorado Avalanche are 8-0-2 in their last ten games. The eight seeded Calagry Flames are just 5-4-1. Yikes? Talk about a team having issues and potentially losing the last seed to the playoffs after making such key trades.
Two people are at fault for the Calgary Flames, though. Darryl Sutter and Darryl Sutter. Darryl Sutter (1) is at fault for making trades that have been completely counter productive, therefore he definitely made a wrong analysis on this team. And, Darryl Sutter (2) for hiring Jim Playfair. Playfair is not a good coach, so I believe. Talk about a guy who can’t get a great looking team to win games. He has an excellent goaltender, solid defensemen, young talented players, very good veterans, a great captain…. what’s this guy doing? And it’s not like he had complications with major injuries either. Yet, I cannot blame him either for the bad moves his boss made, which are a huge shocker. On paper, the trades were very good; the players that Boston received in return were nothing special, but they played a role on the team that came to be a factor. I am so absolutely sure with myself that Darryl Sutter would have this team in the playoffs had he been coaching; and who knows? I doubt he would have pulled those trades. He abandoned the locker room atmosphere and that caused him to make moves that are putting his team at risk.
The Colorado Avalanche on the other hand are coming together to make a great push. You want to talk about a huge difference maker? Joe Sakic was a monster last night against the Vancouver Canucks. This Avalanche team is the kind that is playing like an underdog, as opposed to previous years where the played the underdogs. So, they are on the outside looking in, and they are playing at their best. You’d think this team doesn’t have that many great scorers, yet they are the second highest team with most goals scored (251) in the Western Conference. They have a bunch of veterans, good young players (always had them) and such an awesome, awesome character. Here is a little tid bit. Last month I was analyzing potential goaltenders for the Florida Panthers to pick up next season and I went on a Colorado message board to ask a “scouting report” and opinions on Jose Theodore. I expected a lot of negativity, yet these Avs fans can be so supportive of their players. They gave me fair opinions (upside-downside) on Jose Theodore, and they emphasized on his character; how he is very supportive of Budaj. This is what gets a team into the playoffs, this kind of character. These players bonded and their last ditch effort to make the playoffs got them the 8-0-2 record in the past 10 games. This team was down last night against a solid defensive minded Vancouver team, and Peter Budaj was pulled. Jose Theodore came in, played well despite facing few shots, and the Avs took off. Tied the game, and had Jose Theodore playing the shootouts extremely well.
Good luck to the Avalanche, if they get in then they definitely deserved a lot more than the Calgary Flames. And, if I were a Red Wings, Predators, or Ducks fan I would not be too pleased to face the Avalanche in the first round. Hey, you never know.
On to the Eastern Conference where the race is starting to tighten itself.
6. New York Rangers
I would have never expected to see the New York Rangers reach the sixth seed, despite being just one point ahead. Last month I considered this team out of the playoffs, and look where they stand now. They have one of the best records in the NHL ever since the Trade Deadline Day. Only two teams in the Eastern Conference have allowed fewer than 200 goals, the Rangers and the New jersey Devils. Henrik Lundqvist has found his form and has been winning the one goal games as of late. Impressive? Yes, it is. Yet, I think I have some bad news for my fellow Rangers fans. While there are ONLY six games left, the bigger picture is not looking at the small number six, but looking at the bigger number of twelve possible points. Let’s be honest here folks, the Rangers won some hard fought games, but ever since Brendan Shanahan and Martin Straka came back, this team is playing sloppy. They hold up defensively, but what is with the turnovers and sloppy plays as of late? Let’s hope that Tom Renney gets this group to focus again on the same game plan that has gotten the team this far, especially when missing the injured players. If not, then that playoff spot seems to be in trouble for my tastes. Nothing is guaranteed yet, EVEN IF the Rangers appear to be a team that could possibly make it. They are three points ahead from the New York Islanders, Montreal Canadiens, and the Carolina Hurricanes. Just three points and the rest of the way holds 12 to 14 points for these teams. So, those six-seven games left in the East don’t look so few now, huh? The Rangers have put themselves in a good position for now, but the rest of the schedule remains with the theoretical “four point” games as the Rangers play Montreal twice, Toronto once more, and the Islanders once more. HUGE………HUGE games for the Rangers and those are a total of eight points. If they get 6 points against those teams in the race, theoretically they should be in.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning
This team should move to Orlando and be part of Universal Studios. Roller coaster! Up and down, and why? Goaltending is an issue once again, defense is not nearly as good as it was, and John Tortarella hasn’t been able to get this team to play playoff hockey. This is playoff hockey for the Bolts, and they are risking losing it. This was a team that I did not consider in my last column. These guys should have been locked in by now. Not mathematically, but realistically the Bolts should have been in it without any possibility of losing the sixth seed, yet with a 4-6-0 record in the last ten…how is that supposed to work out?. I think it would be a near guarantee that either Brad Richards or Martin St. Louis gets traded in the summer. There is not enough balance on this team. Will they make it? They play the Florida Panthers two more times and the Panthers give the Bolts a hard time. I think Panthers fans wish that the season would be scheduled with games only against the Lightning and the Bruins. All of Tampa’s remaining games are against the Division, so talk about the Hurricanes having key games up ahead. I think the Lightning will make it, simply because they HAVE to make it. There would be no excuse or good reason for this team to give if it misses the post-season.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Another roller coaster team, yet this one has been on a good streak as of late, winning four in a row and being 6-3-1 in their last ten and the remaining schedule remains easy. I would be shocked if this team misses the playoffs. Their previous game against the Lightning mean absolutely nothing as this is playoff hockey. John Grahame has been pretty good, Cam Ward should be back sooner than expected. They are playing solid hockey and they can easily drive the Lightning out of the playoffs by wining both games against them. The Canes are just two points behind. They win the two games against the Lightning, then they pass them in the standings. Aren’t these games amazing? I would not call them Game 7-ish yet, but Game 6-ish for sure. I can see this team nabbing the sixth or seventh seed in the East.
9. New York Islanders
Like I said in my last column, if Rick DiPietro missed even just one or two games with tha
t injury, this team was going to be in trouble. He missed three, and lost upon his first game back, which resulted in four straight losses for the Islanders, who are tied with three other teams in points. Want to see the uglier version of it? They missed out on eight points. Look at the standings and then think about eight points, or even six, or four. Four would have put them in sixth with 88 points. So, what is up with this team? Lost three straight against the Rangers picking up only two points out of a possible six. Ouch. Defense plays fairly well despite allowing way too many shots. Offense? Let’s just say that Ryan Smyth has not necessarily made a difference, and I cannot figure out why. Maybe the style of game? Can’t find the right linemates? Pucks are not bouncing the right way for him? I still think he was a good acquisition and the Islanders play good hockey. They have experienced veterans that make some great plays. The problem with the Islanders is their schedule. Next three games are against the Devils, Buffalo Sabres, and Ottawa Senators. All tough teams. And later one, once more against the Rangers, which is a MUST win in regulation time only, and again against the Devils. Toronto is also at the end of their schedule, and they are not an easy team to beat either. It’s just so tough for this team yet there’s a good feel that they will manage to pull it off. Why? My finger is pointin towards the masked man in net. ***And unfortunately for the Islanders, I cannot point my finger in net. Rick DiPietro is done for the season, which could most likely mean that the team will be out of the playoffs. I would have a little faith in Mike Dunham if I was to be an Islander fan, but the three games that DP missed before pretty much shows how this team responds without a great goalie. Not that all hope is lost, but generally speaking…..sorry Isle’s fans. At least you had a good run and Garth Snow has had a good rookie season as GM.
10. Montreal Canadiens
Well, anytime you are in a playoff race and you win four in a row…then you’re making noise. I personally did not expect these guys to still stay within the race as they are tied for eighth with 84 points. Yet, you look at who they beat and teams like Boston and Washington will give you the needed points. So, the real test comes against the Rangers, Senators, and Sabres. After that? Boston is the game to earn two easier points, then two last key games against the Rangers and Toronto. I think by the last game or two, though, we should know who is in it and who is not. Halak has been playing very well, and defensively the team is doing quite well too. I am still unsure of the offense, but if the team can handle one goal games, if they can win playoff-like games (such as 3-2 vic over Toronto), then they should be able to kick either Long Island or Carolina out. This team has a lot to prove against the tougher teams up ahead.
11. Toronto Maple Leafs
The game that will either eliminate or keep the Maple Leafs in the race is on Tuesday night against the Carolina Hurricanes. This is it. If they lose, or only get one point, then they won’t be mathematically out, but theoretically they would be. It would mean being four points behind Carolina holding onto number eight spot. After that, Toronto has just six games left, 12 potential points and you can use logic here. Four points behind Carolina, if the Leafs lose, and a potential twelve points to earn for the rest of the season. Carolina only needs to get four more wins to finish off Toronto. If they can manage one point against Carolina and then a win against the Rangers, or vice versa (better if they beat Carolina), then there may still be some hope, especially if the Islanders lose as well as Montreal. You can’t expect your opponents to lose ther games for you though, so the Leafs have to play over their capabilities. I was really counting on Andrew Raycroft to get hot for a stretch of games, that hasn’t happened yet. I still have faith in the guy, he can pull it off. It was such an ugly loss to the Sabres the other time, very uncharacteristic too, but Toronto came back strong the night after. That’s what builds confidence for a team. So, good reason to be optimistic for two points against the Canes. Will the Leafs make it? Hmmmm………..gotta shake my head on that one yet I believe in hope too.
So, that’s where the race stands and my point of view. The situation is difficult to analyze so it’s not like I said anything so new that some of you don’t already know. But I like to zoom in on things and not generalize much. So, I have this set up for you members, and guest readers, to concentrate on certain teams and just look at the main picture without any other distractions. I think that by the last three games or so, we will know who takes sixth and seventh. I think eighth will be decided in the last two games, maybe the very last one. I am not counting the Rangers in yet. Tampa is in. Carolina in. The other teams, a crap shoot.
Thanks for reading as always,