It’s white knuckle time in the NHL.
The final week of the regular season sees playoff spots still very much up for grabs in both the Eastern and Western Conference. The Washington Capitals, Nashville Predators and Edmonton Oilers begin the week on the outside looking in.
“It seems like it’s going to come right down to the wire with the teams we’re fighting for playoff positions with,” Predators goaltender Dan Ellis told The Canadian Press on Monday. “You just keep watching that scoreboard. You’re in the playoffs, you’re out of the playoffs, you’re in the playoffs – we just have to control or own destiny and put together some wins so we don’t have to worry about what the other teams are doing.”
That’s what everyone on the bubble wants to do this week – win out. Easier said than done.
The Predators are one point behind Vancouver for the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, with the Oilers another point behind Nashville. That Edmonton is even in the mix at this point is nothing short of stunning. But a 17-9-2 record in February and March has the babyface Oilers in a race no one thought would include them.
“Most people counted us out a long time ago,” veteran defenceman Steve Staios said Monday in a telephone interview from Edmonton. “We’ve done a real good job of just putting losses away right away and starting fresh the next day. The same with wins, we haven’t been getting too far ahead of ourselves.
“It’s created an environment in our room that wherever we are, we’re having a good time and we have each other’s back and a positive attitude.”
In the East, the Caps have used a 16-8-3 record over February and March to keep their playoff hopes alive.
“We’re playing the best hockey we’ve played all year,” Caps blue-liner Shaone Morrisonn said from Washington. “We see ourselves as a team that can beat anybody in the league right now. We just want to get in and we think we can do some damage.”
Washington is three points behind Boston and Philadelphia for the final two playoff spots in the conference but only two points behind the No. 3 seed held by Carolina. On Tuesday night the Southeast Division-leading Hurricanes visit the Caps in as big a game as there has been this season for both teams.
“Home ice is huge in the playoffs,” said Morrisonn. “To win our division would be something special for us. Basically we’re just concentrating on tomorrow to get that win. Hopefully we’ll get some help around the league and keep winning games.”
The Caps finish out at home, also hosting Tampa Bay on Thursday and Florida on Saturday.
“It’s a huge week for us,” said Morrisonn. “We basically have to win our last three games.”
The Predators have a home and home with St. Louis on Tuesday and Thursday before finishing at Chicago on Friday night.
“We have three games remaining and they have to be our best three games of the season,” said Ellis.
The Oilers’ last game is Thursday at Vancouver. Edmonton first hosts rival Calgary on Tuesday night in a Rexall Place that should be shaking with excitement. The Flames are four points ahead of the Oilers in the seventh spot. Staios says they’ll treat it just like any other game they’ve had of late and not build it up any more than that.
“It would be a mistake if we got too uptight and put too much pressure on ourselves and changed our attitude right now because we’ve been so successful the way that we have been doing things,” said Staios. “It’s something that we have to guard against tomorrow.”
The Predators had enough of a challenge over the last month trying to chase down a playoff spot in the West before the Oilers made things even harder by forcing their way into the picture.
“They’ve been outstanding,” Ellis said of the Oilers. “I think every single person that watches hockey counted them out. And they’re right in it with everyone else. They’ve got just as good a chance at making the playoffs as any of the other three or four teams that are battling for it.”
Well, not according to the math geniuses at www.sportsclubstats.com. They’ve got Nashville with a 37.0 per cent chance of getting in, followed by Edmonton at 8.1 per cent and Chicago (four points behind Vancouver) at 2.3 per cent.
In the East, Washington is listed at 33 per cent to get in while Buffalo, like Chicago just barely hanging on and four points back, at 2.1 per cent.
The Oilers must win their two games and then sit back over the weekend and watch TV.
“As little hockey as I’ve watched down the stretch, I think I’ll be watching a lot of it the last three days of the season when we’re not playing and we’re hoping for good results from the out-of-town scoreboard,” said Staios.
The last time the Oilers snuck into the playoffs was 2006 when the eighth-seeded club reached the Cup final.
“That’s a great thought and a good feeling – but we have to get there first,” said Staios. “I haven’t done a lot of thinking about that. Really it’s been day to day preparation and making sure that everybody is upbeat and positive. You can’t let yourself think too far ahead.”
The Oilers will need help. The Canucks have three games left and all at home – Colorado, Edmonton and Calgary. The Flames play all their final three games on the road – Edmonton, Minnesota and Vancouver.
On paper, Nashville’s schedule seems easier than Edmonton, Vancouver and Calgary but the Blues would like nothing better than to hurt the Predators’ chances.
“Teams like that can be the spoilers, they can ruin other peoples’ seasons,” said Ellis. “Sometimes those are the teams that are more deadly than others. You look at what L.A. has done, they have beat other teams lately and playing good hockey. So you don’t want to ever take these games for granted.”
The Predators were written by most last summer after losing Peter Forsberg, Paul Kariya, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell and Tomas Vokoun. Getting into the playoffs would be sweet.
“It would be wonderful,” said Ellis. “I don’t think a single media outlet had us making the playoffs. It seems like we’ve had a character group all season long. Nothing has been easy for this team. We don’t have any superstars. We win as a group of 20. We believe in our locker-room that we will get into that playoff picture as a group of 20.
“It’ll be great to be able to get there and prove a lot of people wrong.”