Burnside: Greetings, my friend. Well, every day it seems the playoff picture in both conferences becomes murkier and murkier. And the Anaheim Ducks are doing little to clarify the situation by continuing to collect points at an alarming rate. Wednesday they knocked off Carolina in overtime, two days after besting Calgary in a shootout. In their past 15 games, the Ducks are 11-2-2, and while they remain in 13th place in the Western Conference, they have pulled to within eight points of the eighth and final playoff spot.
Remember last season when the Ducks pulled off a late-season charge thanks to Corey Perry’s goal-scoring heroics and jumped into the postseason as the fourth seed? When you handicap all the playoff hopefuls in the Western Conference from the eighth place Minnesota Wild on through Phoenix, Calgary, Dallas, Colorado and Anaheim, you can certainly make a case for the Ducks having as good a shot as any in spite of their current place in the standings. First, they are healthy, and that’s something not everyone ahead of them can say. Second, they have guys who’ve been in the trenches before, like Perry (whose exploits last season earned him a Hart Trophy), Ryan Getzlaf and the ageless Teemu Selanne. And they’re getting solid netminding from Jonas Hiller, who has endured some significant ups and downs since getting his bell rung at last year’s All-Star Game in Raleigh. The Ducks still face a long, uphill road, but they’re sure making it interesting, not to mention uncomfortable for the rest of the residents at the bottom end of the Western Conference standings.
LeBrun: When things are going well, you catch some breaks that weren’t going your way previously. Case in point, Corey Perry scores in overtime last night after getting away with an obvious trip on Carolina’s Jussi Jokinen.
I had a chance to catch up with Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau before the team departed for Detroit this morning. There’s definitely a buzz in the Ducks' dressing room that something special could be happening, despite the long odds.
"There’s a sense of optimism for sure," Boudreau told ESPN.com.
"The guys are believing that it’s possible. If we ever get to within six or four points, it’ll be a real race."
This is the kind of turnaround Boudreau wishes he could have had when he first arrived on the scene earlier this season, but that wasn’t the case, the Ducks further digging themselves a hole in the standings despite the coaching change in which Boudreau replaced Randy Carlyle.
"You get spoiled by it happening the one time, when I went to Washington it happened right away and you hope it happens again that way," Boudreau said of a quick turnaround. "But it takes some time, especially when the coach has been there for a while. Guys were so used to Randy. I’m a completely different personality. It was a little bit of an adjustment for the players, I’m sure."
A big factor, Boudreau said, in the current run has been the play of Hiller. Funny a goalie can make a coach look good, right?
"The last 15 games, Hiller has been fabulous, he’s been great," said Boudreau. "Goaltending is so important. He’s been keeping us in games. Good things happen when you get that."
Now comes the road trip that will make or break Anaheim’s season. Eight games in Detroit, Columbus, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, New Jersey, Florida, Tampa Bay and Carolina.
"If we come back from this trip and we’re within six points, it’ll be a real interesting last 20 games," said Boudreau.
Burnside: No doubt Bruce Boudreau and the rest of the Ducks will be watching tonight’s clash between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Calgary Flames in Phoenix and hoping for a decision in regulation one way or the other. That’s the challenge for any team trying to dig itself out of a hole right now is the preponderance of three-point games. The Ducks have been on the right side of those contests recently, but the league’s ongoing insistence on rewarding teams that lose (I know this is a pet peeve of yours) clouds the issue even further.
Both the Coyotes and Flames are continuing to make noise in the Western Conference playoff race when it looked at various times like they were both dead in the water. The Yotes have won three in a row and are tied with Minnesota for eighth place, while the Flames were coming off a big win in San Jose to pull to within a point of the final playoff spot. Mike Smith has returned to form after wobbling a bit (what were you saying about goaltending?), while Miikka Kiprusoff won his 300th for the Flames on Wednesday. Neither team is particularly deep, so the goaltending is absolutely crucial to the playoff dreams of both clubs. The oft-maligned Olli Jokinen, a former Coyote of course, had a hat trick for the Flames on Wednesday, but they need newcomer Mike Cammalleri to get going; he has just three points since joining Calgary. I talked to GM Jay Feaster, who said it’s taken some time for Cammalleri to get adjusted, but he's confident he’ll start to roll.
LeBrun: After Phoenix tonight, the Flames return home, where they’ll play six of their final eight games this month. It’s a huge opportunity for them to make a move. That’s what this playoff race for the eighth spot is waiting for -- one team to make a move. Minnesota, Phoenix, Calgary, Colorado and Dallas have not won more than five games in their last 10. All of which has allowed Anaheim to feel alive again. And yes, just further alienating me when it comes to the point system in the NHL. If teams would be rewarded with three points for a regulation-time victory, you would see more movement in the standings. Not to mention a more accurate reflection of the true pecking order. But I understand why the league likes it this way: the Wild, Flames, Coyotes, Avs and Stars all separated by two points. It’ll be close to the finish.
Burnside: OK, before I let you go, I will also be watching closely the battle in Washington between the Caps and the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday night.
The Capitals are coming off that big 4-0 victory over Florida on Tuesday that vaulted them into first place in the Southeast Division. The Caps haven’t won back-to-back games in almost a month, and I know everyone (well most of us, anyway) keep waiting for the Capitals to go on a tear and start to put some distance between themselves and the rest of the pack in the slumbering Southeast. But here’s the thing: If the Jets, who have been miserable away from home this season with a 9-16-4 record, can steal two points, they would move within a point of the Caps and first place in the division (although they will have played two more games). We saw a glimpse of the Alex Ovechkin of old the other night as he scored twice and Tomas Vokoun was terrific, but until the Capitals start to put together some quality starts in a row, the jury is still going to be out on them, and the Southeast Division is going to continue to be a dog’s breakfast. Thoughts?
LeBrun: Once the Jets are done with their game Saturday afternoon in Pittsburgh, they’re looking at a schedule that sees them play nine of 10 games at home, where they’ve been rock solid. The Jets have got some bodies back, notably Evander Kane, although the flu bug is going through the team and has taken down Kyle Wellwood. That team can’t ever seem to ice its full roster. I don’t like the Jets' chances tonight in Washington, but I think that home-friendly schedule to finish off February will help them stay in that turtle race known as the Southeast Division.