Know what makes an exciting playoff race? When the teams in a playoff position start to fade, and the teams on the outside start to charge.
Welcome to the NHL’s playoff race, circa 2006.
It’s a good race, in the sense it’s close and a lot of teams are vying for the last couple spots in each conference. But it’s a bad race, in the sense that, well, nobody appears to really want that eighth seed.
At least that’s what it feels like in the weeks immediately following the Olympics.
In the West, teams on the outside such as Anaheim (7-2-1 since the Olympics) and San Jose (6-2-2) heated up as the calendar hit March. Colorado (6-4-0), Edmonton (4-3-3) and Los Angeles (5-5-0) hung tough, while Vancouver (3-6-1) started to swoon.
The Canucks have only win in their past seven games and desperately need a big finish to avoid a disaster. Vancouver, remember, was touted as a potential Stanley Cup contender in October. With 20 goals in the 10 games since the Olympics, the Canucks need to start scoring, and hope their depleted blueline can stand up until Ed Jovanovski and Sami Salo return.
Meanwhile, in the East, as many as five teams that thought they had a chance to get in, will not. The Boston Bruins, on the wrong side of OK for most of the season, are the longest of the East’s long shots, needing to catapult over five teams to squeak in with the eighth seed.
Boston basically needs to win its final 13 games to get in; that would give the Bruins a total of 91 points. Don’t hold your breath – their longest winning streak this season is three games. The B’s did it to themselves with a five-game losing streak and 3-7-1 record since the Olympics.
The Islanders have gone 6-5-0 since Turin, but their win-three, lose-three, win-two, lose-two ways don’t bode well for the 12 wins they need in their final 15 games.
Florida, surprisingly, has been the best in East – among playoff bubble teams – since the end of the Olympics. The Panthers have gone 7-3-1, and they’ll have to be at least that good the rest of the way to have a ghost of a chance.
Toronto continues to tease, losing to Washington to almost fall hopelessly behind, before rallying with a couple wins to creep back into the race. The Leafs, 4-5-1 since Turin, are simply another team that’s stumbling towards the end of the season, and appear to be hoping the other contenders fall down altogether. (Which, for the most part, they have been).
Atlanta did most of its Â“Michael Douglas in Falling DownÂ” routine before the break, losing seven in a row and eight of nine. Since the Olympics, the Thrashers have gone 7-3-0 – five of those wins came in overtime – and are poised to make the playoffs for the first time in franchise historyÂ…assuming they keep it up and pass Montreal, or even New Jersey (4-3-2) or Tampa Bay (4-6-1).
Montreal has gone 6-4-1 since the Olympics to cling to the eighth seed, but lost three in a row to fall back to the pack before beating lowly Washington on March 20.
In the East, it says here Tampa (No. 6 seed), New Jersey (No. 7) and Atlanta (No. 8) will get in, while Montreal, Toronto, Florida, Boston and the IslandersÂ…will not.
In the West, Colorado (No. 5), Anaheim (No. 6), Edmonton (No. 7) and San Jose (No. 8) are the picks.
The Calgary Flames won’t be the big surprise team in the playoffs this season. But only because they can’t sneak up on anybody anymore. The Flames appear to be in good position to win the Northwest Division and enter the playoffs as the No. 3 seed in the West.
That’s not bad for a team that’s easily the lowest-scoring among post-season clubs in the West. Calgary had 175 goals through 67 games; that’s only 2.62 goals per game. They’ve surrendered 170 goals; about 2.54 per game. Anaheim, meanwhile, has scored the next-fewest goals among West playoff teams; the Ducks have 198 in 67 games (2.96 per game). Detroit’s 252 goals in 67 games (3.76 per game) is the most in the West.
However, there could be good news for the Flames on the scoring front. Jarome Iginla has six goals in 10 post-Olympic games (a 50-goal pace) after scoring 25 in his first 61 games (a 34-goal pace). Iginla, who fired 22 goals in his final 32 games in 2003-04 (and 13 more in 26 playoff games) usually heats up in the second half of the season. That’s good news for Flames fans, and bad news for everybody else.
Calgary, of course, has been winning this season mostly thanks to goalie Miikka Kiprusoff (34-17-8 record, 2.18 GAA, .918 save percentage and a league-high eight shutouts) and a deep, talented defense corps.
Three Questions of the Week
1. Can Carolina win in the playoffs?
2. Can Buffalo?
3. Who is Peter Budaj?
With a follow-up question: Why is he Colorado’s No. 1 goalie? (Hint: he’s a 23-year-old Slovak rookie who is playing while new Avs goalie Jose Theodore recovers from a broken heel.)
Remember all that stuff we were saying about Calgary’s great defense?
Not in Nashville.
The Predators pounded the Flames 9-4 last Saturday.
Jonathan Cheechoo has doubled his productivity since the Joe Thornton trade. The Sharks winger has 35 goals and 54 points in 42 games this season since San Jose acquired Thornton from Boston Nov. 30.
Before the Thornton deal, Cheechoo had seven goals and 15 points in 24 games.
In his career, Cheechoo had 44 goals and 71 points in 171 games before Thornton’s arrival.