It is the sort of playoff race the NHL mandarins dreamed about when they realigned the league in 1998-99.
Five teams are chasing three playoff spots in the Western Conference this week with third place included in the sweepstakes. The inclusion of third place is a problem with some hockey types because the NHL’s playoff seeding system grants the top three seeds to the division winners. While this allows for extra excitement in the playoff race, it also means often the third seed is not the third-best team in the conference.
This is an especially sore point in the Eastern Conference, where the Florida Panthers and Washington Capitals are fighting for the Southeast Division lead and the eighth playoff spot. No matter who wins, it means one of the Philadelphia Flyers and Pittsburgh Penguins, the second- and third-best teams in the conference by points, will not make the second round of the playoffs because they have to play each other in the first round.
The gap is a little closer in the West, where the Los Angeles Kings, who sit third with 91 points thanks to their Pacific Division lead, are seven points behind the fourth-ranked Nashville Predators. But it still means someone among the Predators, the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks is guaranteed to be knocked out in the first round because of the fourth-versus-fifth matchup.
But putting that aside, a great final week to the regular season lies ahead, with the final playoff order quite likely coming down to the final game on the final night – the Kings at the San Jose Sharks, which starts at 10:30 p.m. Eastern. That will finish a home-and-home series that starts Thursday in Los Angeles.
The other big game in the Western Conference race comes Tuesday when the Sharks and Dallas Stars complete a home-and-home set in Dallas. The Sharks pushed the Stars out of eighth place with a 3-0 win in San Jose on Saturday.
At this point, the Sharks, Kings and Phoenix Coyotes appear to have the better grip on the three remaining playoff spots. All three are playing well with winning records in their past 10 games, while the Stars and Colorado Avalanche fell back.
The Stars went 1-3-0 on a road trip that concluded with the loss in San Jose and they are 3-6-0 in their past nine games. The only advantage they have left is 35 wins in regulation and overtime, which will give them the tiebreaker if they are tied with anyone come Saturday night.
But, admitted Stars captain Brenden Morrow, “It’s probably three wins or nothing for us now.”
For much of the season, the Sharks stumbled because of their goaltending, penalty killing and secondary scoring. However, all three areas clicked into gear at the right time.
Much-reviled Sharks goaltender Antti Niemi is hot. His save percentage in five of his past six games, including the shutout over the Stars, is .925 or better. This, in turn, boosted the penalty-killing unit, which was in the bottom three for most of the season. It blanked the Stars on all three of their opportunities, although it must be noted they have the worst power play in the league. And second-line centre Joe Pavelski has seven goals in his past nine games.
MOST IMPORTANT COMEBACK
Forget Alexander Radulov. By the end of the playoffs, the most important returnee that NHL fans could be talking about is Washington Capitals centre Nicklas Backstrom.
He was back in the lineup Saturday night for a shootout win over the Montreal Canadiens after missing 40 games with a concussion. While Alexander Ovechkin got most of the blame for the Caps’ season-long woes, his dip in scoring was directly attributable to the loss of Backstrom on Jan. 3.
“It’s exciting,” Caps defenceman Mike Green told The Washington Post. “He’s so [important]to this team playing well, and with him being out, we definitely lost an element of our game that has hurt us.”
One element was the power play. The Caps’ power play dipped to a mediocre 14.7-per-cent success rate in the 40 games Backstrom missed.
However, there is one more problem for the Capitals, who are more likely to hold on to eighth place ahead of the Buffalo Sabres rather than catch the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division lead and third place in the conference. Veteran goaltender Tomas Vokoun is out again with a groin injury.
But youngster Michal Neuvirth, who faltered down the stretch last season, showed things could be better this time around. He made 39 saves against the Canadiens for his second win in a row.
SABRES SLIPPING BADLY
Losing on the weekend to the sad-sack Toronto Maple Leafs left the Buffalo Sabres on life support in their attempt to grab the last playoff spot in the Eastern Conference from the Capitals. It was the Sabres’ second loss in a row after a long hot streak and now they have three games left to make up a minimum of three points on the Caps, since the Sabres will come up short on the tiebreakers.
But it’s not an easy road, as the Sabres have one easy game on Tuesday against the Leafs and then finish against the Boston Bruins and Philadelphia Flyers.
Then again, the slip may have been inevitable, as the Sabres had to depend too much on goaltender Ryan Miller. He put a bad first half behind him in January but finally slowed on the weekend when he allowed four goals in each of back-to-back games since mid-January.
The Sabres also have to contend with injuries to their defence. After losing Christian Ehrhoff (knee) last week, the Sabres lost two more in a loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins last Friday. Mike Weber, who replaced Ehrhoff, was knocked into the boards and then, worst of all, the Sabres No. 1 defenceman, Tyler Myers, suffered a foot injury blocking a shot. Officially, Myers’ status is day-to-day, just like his team’s.
SURELY YOU’RE JOKINEN
Who would have seen this two years ago – the Calgary Flames and centre Olli Jokinen, 33, now say they would like their shotgun marriage to continue.
In February of 2010, former Flames general manager Darryl Sutter traded Jokinen and Brandon Prust to the New York Rangers after a second so-so season in which the Finnish star’s production failed to match his $5.25-million (all currency U.S.) salary. Then Sutter surprised everyone by signing Jokinen as a free agent in the summer of 2010, albeit at a smaller annual stipend. That was one of the reasons Sutter is now coaching the Los Angeles Kings.
Now, after another typical Jokinen season – he hit 60 points for the fifth time in his career but had two goals, one assist and was minus-14 in his past 11 games as the Flames fell out of the playoff race – both Flames GM Jay Feaster and Jokinen say they would like to agree on a new contract. Jokinen is set to become a free agent on July 1 and the market for centres is such that he would be one of the top two available if you count Zach Parise as a centre.
“Nothing has changed. Why would I change?” Jokinen said to the Calgary Herald in a comment that may be more telling than he intended.
NEW WAY FOR OILERS
Another Alberta team that is out of the NHL playoffs, the Edmonton Oilers, signalled a passing of the baton to their large group of young players. Head coach Tom Renney, who may or may not get a new contract, had some interesting things to say to Edmonton Sun columnist Terry Jones about his approach next season if he does return.
Renney suggested the important ice time will now go to prodigies Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle et al and veterans on the team should get used to “the new normal.”
The coach also admitted that sometimes this doesn’t work out.
“I think the honest answer here is, yeah, I think there’s some difficulty in those areas,” Renney said. “With the transitional players or the veteran players coming back, when you see this youth movement blossom in front of you, you say ‘Okay, where am I in the grand scheme of things?’ From a coaching perspective there’s psychology you have to work with in that, but you also have to realize these kids are the future. And how you allow others to participate and be part of that and feel some self-worth is really critical.
“If you don’t do that, then there’s cancer. There’s poison. It becomes a little bit polluted and contaminated by the wrong attitudes. And you’ve really got to work on that.”
“Those guys hadn’t played in 12 minutes. It was a gutless move by their coach. It’s just gutless,” Philadelphia Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette said after Pittsburgh Penguins counterpart Dan Bylsma sent out a line of bruisers Deryk Engelland, Arron Asham and Joe Vitale late in a 6-4 Flyers win on Sunday. A line brawl ensued, Laviolette was ejected for a confrontation with Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato and a certain first-round playoff series between these teams suddenly became a lot more interesting