Stretch drive forecast: who will rise, who will fall
With half the schedule done, NHL teams are gearing up for the home stretch in this sprint of a season. There are just six weeks left before playoff hockey starts, and fans are promised a wild finish, particularly in the West, where just eight points separate third through 15th place. Apart from the Blackhawks, whose record-breaking start helped them build a four-point lead atop the conference, and the Ducks, who have a healthy 11-point lead over the rest of their division, there are no safe bets. A couple of cold streaks or a hot run could change the playoff complexion overnight.
Take, for instance, the L.A. Kings, who less than a month ago, sat in 13th place in the conference. After an 11-4-0 run, they're comfortably in fourth and starting to resemble that Stanley Cup-winning team from a year ago. Or the Tampa Bay Lightning, who won six of their first seven games before going on to lose 14 of their next 19. Fortunes can change, and change quickly.
Here's who I think will rise and drop by the time April 27 rolls around:
San Jose Sharks
Postseason regulars since 2004, are sitting square on the playoff bubble. It's uneasy territory for a franchise that demands the success that the team almost always falls short of realizing. San Jose got off to a hot start and cooled considerably, but as the games begin to mean more and the Sharks begin the see the reality of missing the playoffs, expect this group of veterans to turn it on and close the season with a serious push. Winger Ryane Clowe is a much better player than his 0 goals and nine assists this season suggest, and when he regains his game, he'll help make the Sharks into contenders again.
Winning four of their last five, including Thursday night's 3-1 triumph over the Rangers, has put them in eighth place in the East. Winnipeg is beginning to look like a team that could see postseason action. Since Feb. 18, the Jets have racked up as many wins (9) as the Penguins and Canadiens, and the good news is that the brunt of their schedule is behind them. The weary travelers of Manitoba will enjoy 12 of their remaining 21 games at home, where they were 23-13-5 last season.
With so much player turnover and heightened expectations in Minnesota, it wasn't completely surprising to see the Wild get off to a pedestrian 6-6-2 start. But they're 8-4-0 in their last 12 games, and that's thanks in large part to their big offseason investments. Over the last nine games, winger Zach Parise has pitched in four goals and five assists, while defenseman Ryan Suter has points in eight of those contests. Both players have loads of playoff experience as well, which will make Minnesota a sleeper if it makes the postseason for the first time since 2008.
Detroit Red Wings
They haven't missed the postseason since 1990, but even before this season began, GM Ken Holland warned that there was a possibility that this year might see the end of the streak. Injuries to Darren Helm and Mikael Samuelsson are hurting the Red Wings' depth, and teams are making them pay for mistakes. Detroit is being outscored by opponents for the first time since 1990-91. And though the Wings can look forward to joining the Eastern Conference next season, thus lightening their travel woes, for now they are stuck in the West and looking at a weary stretch ahead. Thirteen of their remaining 21 games will be on the road, where Detroit has struggled this season. Away from Joe Louis Arena, the Wings are 3-6-2 this year.
New Jersey Devils
Goalie Martin Brodeur, 40, has been sidelined with a sore back for the last eight games, and the Devils have gone 3-4-1 during that stretch, and they've also felt the brunt of injuries to forward Dainius Zubrus and defenseman Henrik Tallinder. Brodeur is close to returning, but what this team really needs is more scoring. Take away two five-goal games against the Flyers (more a matter of Philadelphia's stagnant defense than New Jersey's offense), the Devils are averaging just 2.32 goals per game, which leaves them 26th in the league. Despite sitting in sixth place, they've surrendered seven more goals than they've scored this season. Top-heavy when it comes to offense, the team can't keep leaning on Patrik Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk alone.
With forwards Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek, defenseman Erik Karlsson and goalie Craig Anderson all on injured reserve, Ottawa is ailing to say the least. It's a wonder that with so many injuries they remain fifth in the East. Head coach Paul MacLean should be commended for the job he's done keeping things together, but the wear is bound to catch up with the Sens. They've been able to eke out points by just making it through regulation -- nine overtime games this season -- but if this playoff race comes down to tie-breakers, as I suspect it will, those shootout wins won't help.