The post-season is coming.
And on a night when many will be watching the Game of Thrones season premiere, it’s fitting that Sunday saw plenty of intrigue as teams set their sights on the playoffs.
Take the Pittsburgh Penguins. With top spot in the Metropolitan Division assured, Sidney Crosby, Brooks Orpik, Olli Maatta and Chris Kunitz joined the already injured Evgeni Malkin on the sidelines with various upper- and lower-body injuries.
Those are five names this team will lean on heavily come playoff time, so while Malkin’s broken foot is a well-documented, long-term issue, sitting the other four has me raising an eyebrow.
Are these players really dealing with injuries?
Probably, to a degree. The bumps and bruises sure build up over 82 games. Still, you can bet those four players would be in the lineup if this were the playoffs.
But we’re not there yet, and the Pens are basically playing out the string. Win or lose, they won’t be moving in the standings.
Are the Penguins obligated to play their best lineup?
Certainly not, and they won’t be the only team to sit its stars. You can probably expect to see a lot more of the Providence Bruins – and a lot less of Zdeno Chara – over the next week, because Boston has top spot in the East all sewn up.
But while the class of the East can afford to take a few nights off, Western Conference teams don’t have that luxury. The standings are ultra-tight, and while the top six teams have all clinched playoff berths, a win here or there could change post-season matchups dramatically.
Then there are the wild card slots, where it’s still anyone’s game on both sides of the continent.
In the West, the Dallas Stars had a chance today to put some space between themselves and the 9th-ranked Phoenix Coyotes, but they squandered their game in hand with a 3-2 loss to lowly Florida. That leaves the Stars just one point ahead of the Coyotes now, with four games left to play for each squad.
Oh, and the Stars’ last game? It’s against the Coyotes in Phoenix next Sunday.
Then there’s the East, where all but the most diehard Maple Leaf fans have written off Toronto’s playoff hopes, and where the Columbus Blue Jackets took another step today toward securing a wild card spot with a win against the Islanders. Barring a Red Wedding-ish catastrophe (translation for non-Game of Thrones watchers: something unthinkably awful), the Detroit Red Wings and the Jackets look like they’ll make the playoffs.
The 10th-place Leafs and the 11th-place Washington Capitals have nearly run out of games, but if anyone looks capable of jumping up, it’s the New Jersey Devils. Jersey has four games remaining and, with three non-playoff opponents and the Boston Providence Bruins left on the schedule, they stand the best chance of dethroning Detroit or Columbus. They sit just three points back of Columbus.
Seven days left, folks.
Then, it's playoff season.