Furious stretch drive providing a primer for playoff hockey
The eastern top seed Flyers' lead has shrunk with the pursuing Capitals on tap
Bad blood makes Thursday's Canadiens-Bruins game shape up as a must-see
A mere four point spread holds teams four through 10 in the Western Conference
With the stretch drive rapidly evolving, here are the races to keep an eye on at the top and bottom of each conference's bracket, regardless of your rooting interest.
In the Eastern Conference, the Flyers have held the No. 1 spot since January 8, but their hold on it has shrunk to two points. Meanwhile, the Capitals have shot up the standings to close the gap with the two teams meeting in Philly tonight in a game that will be carried nationally on Versus. The Flyers were the first club in the east to clinch a playoff spot, doing so by way of their 3-2 shootout win on Saturday night in Dallas, and they have two games in hand on the Capitals, so being overtaken probably won't happen without Washington winning a clean two points in regulation tonight.
The Capitals' season-long quest to play comfortably in close, lower-scoring games has paid off. They've gone 13-3 over their last 16, with eight of their wins coming by scores of 3-2 or lower. Captain Alex Ovechkin produced 21 points -- his best stretch of the season -- during Washington's run. But his injury status is now a cause for concern.
TRUTH & RUMORS: Ovechkin injury may be worse than reported
The Caps had planned to rest him against the Flyers, despite their chance to catch them. Having a healthy, rested Ovechkin is more important in April than keeping him rolling in March, and he is now expected to be out up to 10 days, if not more. The Ovechkin plan, his injury notwithstanding, is consistent with the Caps' "big picture" approach to the entire 2010-11 campaign and a function of their doing everything possible to ensure the postseason success that has been eluding them.
Meanwhike, the Canadiens are now with striking distance of the Bruins in the Northeast and the third seed that comes with winning the division. The B's have played two fewer games than the Habs, so Boston is likely to restore the rather comfortable lead it has enjoyed most of the season. Given the stakes and the history of bad blood between these two teams -- most pertinently, this season -- their game on Thursday in Beantown sets up as must-see. You know that the NHL office denizens will tune in to monitor this one, given the teams' brawl game on February 9 and the controversial hit and subsequent ruling involving Zdeno Chara and Max Pacioretty on March 8.
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Less obvious, yet maybe most immediate, is the battle in the middle of the East's Top 8. The fourth-seeded Penguins, who are hoping to get Sidney Crosby back safely and offset the loss of Matt Cooke to a lengthy suspension, lead the fifth-place Lightning by three points.
The two teams have one game remaining head-to-head, with the Bolts hosting the Pens on the last day of the month. Currently, they would square off in the first round of the playoffs, meaning what's at stake is home ice in the conference quarterfinals. Of course, the Habs could overtake one or both in addition to catching the Bruins. So, while these six teams will make the playoffs without the kind of drama that's going on in the Western Conference, seeding and subsequent pairings are all up for grabs.
Out west, a mere four points holds the seven teams in spots four through 10 that are clawing for a playoff berth: Phoenix (89), Los Angeles (88), Chicago (86), Nashville (86), Anaheim (85), Dallas (85) and Calgary (85). The Canucks will win the Presidents' Trophy and the Red Wings look poised to win the Central Division. The Sharks seem set in first in the ultracompetitive Pacific. If they hold on, they have a chance to move from the third to the second seed. Who any of those top three teams will play is anyone's guess until we have the 82-game point tallies.
HACKEL blog: Sizing up the Western playoff chase
So, intrigue abounds in the middle of the west and atop the east where even within the top-spot jockeying scenario there are storylines beyond the points at stake -- the perfect primer for playoff hockey.