1. Leafs' coaching
There is now a clarion call for Ron Wilson’s head in Toronto as the Maple Leafs have sunk like a stone beneath the playoff waters in the Eastern Conference. The team’s 5-4 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Wednesday evening dropped the Leafs' record in the past 11 games to 1-9-1. They sit just four points out of eighth place in the Eastern Conference, but it might as well be 40, given the mental fatigue from which this team seems to be suffering. The Leafs blew a 3-1 lead against the Blackhawks on Wednesday. In the game before, they gave up a goal 13 seconds in against Florida and were down 2-0 by the three-minute mark en route to a 5-3 loss. The goaltending has been substandard for the most part, but the mistakes that have contributed to their slide out of playoff contention have come from all quarters. So, what would be accomplished by firing the coach? Maybe nothing. But -- as is the case with all coaches, good, bad or indifferent -- there simply comes a time when it’s, well, time. You can argue that the time came long ago for Wilson as the team under him has never been able to correct its special-teams issues; the penalty kill ranks 29th, and the team is poised to miss the playoffs for the seventh straight season. The only reason not to make a change now would be if GM Brian Burke were looking to expand his field of potential replacements in the offseason. But if, as many believe, Burke is likely to call his former coach Randy Carlyle or promote the Leafs’ AHL coach, Dallas Eakins, there really is no good reason not to make a change now. None at all. As for Burke’s admirable loyalty to his friend Wilson, one might argue that it would be a greater display of friendship to end the ugliness now rather than let Wilson twist in the wind these final few weeks of the season, given that his departure seems inevitable with only the timing unknown.
2. Clear the schedule
Here’s something the NHL’s GMs could kick around when they meet in less than two weeks in Florida: When trade deadline day rolls around next year, why not make sure there are no games on tap that night? This year, there were five games scheduled for Feb. 27, so one-third of the league’s teams were in action while their GMs were trying to swing deals, some of which they hoped would positively impact this season. By forcing teams to play on deadline night, it gives an unfair advantage to the other teams, which, for the most part, are able to get new pieces into their lineups within 24 hours. The Boston Bruins, for instance, had Mike Mottau and Brian Rolston in their first post-deadline game Tuesday night versus Ottawa, and the Senators had defenseman Matt Gilroy in their lineup that night. Teams that play on deadline night must either consummate their deals before the deadline or possibly play short-handed if they’ve traded an every-day player. With points at a premium, it would seem to be a simple thing to darken the schedule for one night. League executives told ESPN.com on Thursday that it’s not that simple and isn’t really an option but that they do try to minimize the number of teams scheduled on deadline night. Still, beyond the level playing field, clearing the schedule for one night also would give the league a chance to further showcase what has become one of the most important days on the calendar in terms of fan interest.
3. Ducks' playoff push
You could almost see this coming, no? The Anaheim Ducks return triumphant from a grueling eight-game road trip, win their first home game against Chicago, but now seem to have hit a bit of a wall, losing to the Colorado Avalanche and Buffalo Sabres. They’ve been outscored 6-1 in those two games and, as of Thursday, were seven points out of eighth place in the Western Conference. We saw the same kind of dynamic a year ago when the New Jersey Devils under Jacques Lemaire threatened to rise from the ashes and sneak into the Eastern Conference playoff bracket. They never quite made it and, in the final few weeks of the season, fell back to the pack, having expended so much energy merely getting back into the hunt. If the Cinderella Ducks hope to avoid the pumpkin treatment, they’ll need to right the ship quickly. The next five games -- versus the Calgary Flames, Los Angeles Kings, Edmonton Oilers, St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars -- will reveal whether the plucky Ducks have indeed hit the wall or have some more magic left in their skates as they pursue an unlikely playoff berth.
4. Penguins' injuries
Scary night for the Pittsburgh Penguins -- and how often has that been written in the past 15 months or so? -- as top defenseman Kris Letang was clipped in the head by a speeding Eric Nystrom of the Stars. Letang went down clutching his head, then was helped off the ice. Nystrom went for roughing, and it was one of those hits that leaves no distinct impression of whether supplemental discipline will result. That’s a moot point for the Penguins, though, who were without Letang for 21 games earlier this season because of a concussion and, of course, have been without captain Sidney Crosby for more than a year apart from an eight-game span in November when Crosby briefly returned to action. Although Crosby continues to skate with the team, he has not been cleared for contact. There is optimism that he’ll be ready for the playoffs, but no one knows for sure. Even without Crosby, the Penguins have enjoyed success and were in fourth place in the Eastern Conference with the second-most points in the conference (79) after Wednesday’s shootout victory. The question as the season has progressed has been whether the Penguins can win a Cup without Crosby. The bigger question today is whether they can win one without Crosby and Letang. Hard to imagine that answer would be in the affirmative.
5. Blues battle in the West
Game of the night -- and maybe the week -- will feature St. Louis visiting the Vancouver Canucks. The Blues are coming off a 5-2 thrashing of Edmonton on Wednesday that moved them into a tie in points with Detroit atop the Central Division, although the Blues have one more regulation/overtime win, which is the first tiebreaker. Beyond reeling in the Red Wings for what will be a key spot atop the division when it comes to first-round playoff matchups, the Blues have a shot at overtaking the Canucks for first in the conference and a possible date with the Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the NHL. The Blues trail Vancouver by just a single point, so a regulation win Thursday would give them the top spot in the league, at least temporarily. The two teams have combined for a 13-4-3 record in their past 10 games. As we have often pointed out, finishing atop the Central Division will be key, given the preponderance of talent in the division, with the Blues, Red Wings, Nashville Predators and Hawks all capable of going on long playoff runs. To finish on top in the conference, though, remains an important distinction for whichever team manages that feat, given the top-end talent through the upper part of the Western Conference playoff bracket.