Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Races

As we head into the final month of the season, I can't remember a time when there were so many battles for position. Even in the west, where the eight teams who will make the playoffs are pretty much already decided, the battle is far from over. Here is my look at the current races going on in the NHL standings.

Top Spot In The West

A three team battle between Nashville (current leader), Detroit and Anaheim. This is an important race for Nashville and Detroit as the loser will finish fourth, and will only be guarenteed home ice in the first round. Detroit currently trails by one point with a game in hand, while the Ducks sit at even games and three points back. All three teams are currently dealing with injuries, so it's hard to judge much on their recent play. With that said, in their last 30 games they've lost a combined two games in regulation, with Detroit going 7-0-3 in their last ten. This shows that these three teams are all getting hot at the right time of year, and it's likely a coin flip to see who finishes on top. I'll take Detroit though, but much will depend on the health of Hasek, who has been dealing with several injuries over the past month.

Top Spot In The Northwest

Vancouver currently has a four point lead, and having gone 8-1-1 in their last ten it will be tough for anyone to take the lead away from them. Minnesota and Calgary are both strong teams, but Vancouver has been really strong for the past few months and it would take a serious slip up for Vancouver to lose the lead. All three Northwest teams seem to be in the playoffs for sure, so for Calgary and Minnesota it's more of a battle for 5th-8th.

5th-8th in the West

This may be the most exciting battle in the NHL. Four teams currently seperated by just two points. All four teams will start the playoffs on the road, but who they will face is what they are playing for. Minnesota, San Jose and Dallas are all currently tied for 5th with 83 points, while Calgary sits just two points back with 81. Calgary also has a game in hand on San Jose, and two on Minnesota. If I'm one of these teams, do I really want to finish 5th and play either Nashville or Detroit in the first round? 8th is faced with the same problem, while 6th and 7th would still find it tough against Anaheim and Vancouver. That being said, all four teams are gunning for that 5th place spot, as with such a strong conference, there are bound to be upsets, and that fifth spot may mean home ice in the playoffs at some point. I'm going to give this to Minnesota, but it will be very close. Minnesota, San Jose, Calgary and Dallas, thats the order I see.

Top Spot in the East

A two team battle between New Jersey and Buffalo (by the way, these two teams play tonight(March 10th)), and New Jersey has really closed the gap. Both teams have been playing well all season long and many are predicting these two could meet in the Eastern final. Buffalo has the most explosive offense in the NHL in my opinion, while New Jersey has the best goaltender of all time. It will be a close call for first in the east, but I will give it to the Sabres, they've led all season long and I don't think they have any reason to give that up.

Top Spot in the Southeast

Defending Stanley Cup Champs the Hurricanes are not in this one, but the Thrashers and Lightning are. Atlanta has gotten hot at the right time and climbed into top spot, but only lead Tampa by two. The lightning had a very strong February and seemed poised to steal the lead from Atlanta, and did for a short period of time, but the Thrashers have been very dominant since making a few deadline moves and are playing like true cup contenders. It will be an interesting battle, but Tampa still has those goaltending problems, and Atlanta doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon. Atlanta will take the Southeast.

Battle For Home Ice

The battle for 4th place in the East is a two team battle, though Tampa shouldn't be counted out yet either. That being said, the focus is on the Ottawa Senators and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Ottawa currently leads by two points with 84, but Pittsburgh has a game in hand. Both teams have had their share of struggles as of late, combining for just 11 wins over their last combined 20 games, not a number their fans are used to. This is an important battle, with the winner getting home ice in a first round series, which will likely be against each other. Both teams are only five games over .500 on the road, which is the lowest of the top five teams in the East. Home ice advantage is always imporant, and this will be a great battle down the stretch. I'll take Ottawa, but it's anyone's guess at this point.

Battle for 7th and 8th in the East

And so we get to the final playoff spot battle, which happens to be the battle that involves the most teams. The Islanders currently hold 7th, Carolina 8th, Rangers 9th, Leafs 10th, Habs 11th and Bruins 12th. Islanders seem to have 7th spot tied up, but their play has struggled in the last few games and for them to fall back to the rest would not be surprising. Carolina has a two point lead over Toronto and NYR for 8th spot, but the Leafs have a game in hand while NYR has two. Montreal seems to be out of it, as they sit three points back and have played two more than Toronto, three more than NYR and the same as Carolina. For them to make the playoffs it's all up-hill. As for the Bruins they also have an up-hill climb, currently sitting six back but with two games in hand on the Hurricanes.

The Islanders have a tough schedule remaining, with two games against Ottawa, NYR and New Jersey, while they also will have tough games against Buffalo, Tampa, Pittsburgh and Toronto. They also will play two teams who have played very well as of late in Florida and Philadelphia. Easy wins should come against Washington and Montreal.

As for the Hurricanes, they also have a tough road ahead. Three games against a Panthers team who have only two in regulation in their last ten games. Two games against very strong Tampa Bay and New Jersey teams, and then a lot of tough singles against San Jose, Toronto, Philly, and Atlanta. The only "easy" game should come against Washington.

The Rangers, not so easy for them either. Three games against Pittsburgh is nothing to look forward to, while pairs of games against the Islanders, Bruin and Flyers will also be tough. Singles that will be battles will be Carolina, Atlanta and Toronto. Easier games will come the Rangers in the form of a pair of games against Montreal, who once Huet returns could be much better then they are now. The Rangers have a battle ahead of them.

As for Toronto, it's a tough road ahead. Pairs of games against Buffalo will be tough wins for the Leafs. Other than the Sabres, the only team who the Leafs play more than once is Montreal, who we all know have struggled as of late. After that, it's all tough singles for Toronto. Ottawa, Tampa, Atlanta, New Jersey, Carolina, Pittsburgh, NYR, Philly and NYI. An easy game against Washington is really all Toronto has to look forward too. With that said Toronto usually plays Tampa, Atlanta, New Jersey, Carolina and Philly well, but all games will be tough wins for Toronto.

Montreal and Boston are both climbing hills, so I will exclude them from this list. My point with this is that all of the teams in the thick of the playoffs have very tough schedules. I believe the Rangers have the hardest schedule because they play Pittsburgh three times and several teams twice, with only three singles in their remaining games. Carolina will have either an easy schedule should they be able to handle the Panthers, or a very uphill battle should they have a hard time with the Panthers. Toronto's is tough but success is possible, while the Islanders is very tough but they're recent success should help them win more than they lose.

I will say the Islanders take 7th, Leafs 8th, Carolina 9th, Montreal 10th, Bruins 11th, Rangers 12th. Why so hard on the Rangers? They've been out of the playoff race longer than any of the other teams (with exception of the Bruins), I just don't think they can keep their current run going long enough to pull into a playoff spot.