NHL: Top 10 Pre-Playoff Headlines

While the Capitals may be the only team to clinch a playoff birth a few other things are certain when it comes to the last 3 weeks of the NHL’s Regular Season.  Here’s Whitsport’s Top Ten Headlines leading up the NHL Playoffs:

#10 – The races for the final playoff spots are slightly less exciting than in previous years. Typically this time in March we discuss three or four teams that are close, or have battled it out for that last playoff spot all season long. That doesn’t appear to be the case this year, sure the B’s and Thrashers are separated by the slimmest of margins, but outside of that, not much else we didn’t expect. Rangers tanking in March? Check! Red Wings going on a run and tying up a berth? No, really?! Fortunately, the predictability will vanish once April 11th rolls around.

#9 – The Phoenix Coyotes will make their playoff debut. Probably the most problematic situation in sports. The Phoenix Coyotes had no fans, no owner, and possibly no home just a few months ago. Now, they share a lead for the top spot in the Western Conf, and they look poised to challenge many of the top guns in the West. Behind Bryzgalov in net, and a nice mix of veterans and youth, the ‘Yotes might continue to surprise people who say “The Coyotes?!… made the playoffs?!”

#8 – Buffalo, New Jersey, and Nashville look to be in good shape headed into the playoffs. When it comes to winning a Cup, most people would agree that Goaltending can win you one. As long as that holds true, teams like Devils with Marty Brodeur and Sabres with Ryan Miller like their chances. Others like the Coyotes and Predators, are blazing hot right now, with win streaks of 9 and 6 games respectively. Both teams would love to keep the pace heading into April.

#7 – Philadelphia, Ottawa, and Chicago should worry about their goalie situations. In Philly, it’s an injury bug… in Chicago, it’s two inconsistent goalies who have done little to impress in the post-season. A handful of NHL teams are going to have to make some major decisions in net next month. Goalie by committee has never won a Cup, and this year likely won’t be the first. Washington’s likely the top contender in the East, but Coach Bruce Boudreau will have a huge decision to make… Theodore or Varlamov… who starts in net? San Jose may be the reigning President’s Trophy winners, but their net-minder has a history of dropping the ball (or puck rather) in the second season.

#6 – What happened to the star power? Guys like Ovechkin, Crosby, and Joe Thornton have cooled down a bit since the Olympic break, and who can blame them. Add a handful of games, and intense games mind you, to the schedule, it’s no wonder some of the game’s biggest names are slowing down a bit this late in the season. Teams like Phoenix and Atlanta, who had very few Olympians playing in February, are fresh and playing well. Will the NHL’s stars rise when the games really count?

#5 – It’s all about the match-ups! The Blackhawks could lock up the #1 seed in the West, but if that means having to play the #8 Red Wings in the first round, they might rather be seeded 2 or 3. Sure ‘Hawks fans would love to get revenge for last year, but wouldn’t they rather see a team like Colorado or LA in round 1? Same goes for a team like Buffalo, who are close to being paired up with the Senators in the playoffs (they are 0-3-1 against Ottawa this season, and would likely prefer to face anyone else). Teams like Vancouver, on the other hand, love their current seeding, which would pair them with the Kings (against whom they’ve allowed just 3 goals in 3 meetings).

#4 – Parity seems evident between the East and West. Right now one could easily make the argument that the Western Conference looks a bit more competitive than the East. Judging by the #8 seeds alone, the Wings have 85 points to the Bruins 76. This means that if teams like Calgary, St. Louis and Anaheim were all in the East, they’d have playoff births. It’s not to say that whatever team that prevails from the West will be handed the Stanley Cup, but they will sure have to earn it on the way there. After the top 3 or 4 teams in the East, the talent pool declines a bit more rapidly than in the West.

#3 – The race for 8th in the West is practically over. The Red Wings put on a show on Monday night, and further distanced themselves from the floundering Flames at the cusp of the Western Conf playoff race. With Franzen, Zetterberg, and Howard playing really well, it looks like Calgary would need a miracle to squeak into the playoffs. Heck, the Wings might even catch a 6 or 7 seed in the West, thus putting the Chicago match-up on hold…

#2 – The race for 8th in the East is heating up! The Bruins and Atlanta may not have the biggest names or the flashiest stars, but their race for eighth in the East warrants some attention. The Bruins have struggled to score goals, but have really picked up the physical play, as was evident against New York on Sunday. The Thrashers handled Philly in a home-and-home over the weekend, and appear to have an easier schedule down the stretch. This one could go down to the wire

#1 – Will the rules change for the playoffs? It seems like everyone is talking about this story. Matt Cooke may not have been the first one to throw a cheap shot and someone and knock them out for the rest of the year, but he certainly started the debate of the season. Will the NHL change the rules regarding head shots just in time for the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Most experts, and people in the know seem to think this is a highly possible scenario. Most hockey nuts will tell you that the hitting and fighting subsides a bit during the playoffs, but the NHL supposedly has a rule drawn up that will be reviewed by the Players Association and could be enacted just in time for the playoffs. What effect will this have on the way the game is played? I guess we’ll have to wait and see.

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