Craig Custance and Pierre LeBrun take on the big topics of the day. Let's go!
CUSTANCE: Good morning, Pierre. Huge game last night in Washington with the Sabres picking up an impressive 5-1 win over the Capitals, seizing control of the No. 8 spot in the East. I thought you did a great job of capturing the moment the game turned in your recap focusing on the Sabres' shorthanded goal that gave Buffalo a 4-1 lead in the second period. There was a lot of hype leading up to this game and the Sabres have certainly gained control of the race for the final playoff spot, but this wasn't the clincher. That was the Capitals' message from Brooks Laich to reporters after the game. "The season isn't over. There's five hockey games left," he said. "It's a tough loss but not a devastating one. We reduce ourselves to fighting every day." But now they need help, and when you look at the Sabres' schedule and see two games remaining against the Maple Leafs, the reality is the Caps might not get any.
LEBRUN: And on the surface, the Sabres have two tough ones to end their schedule with road games at Philadelphia and Boston. On the other hand, those games might likely be meaningless to those teams, which should play into Buffalo’s hands. The focus for so long has been on the eighth spot in the East for the Sabres but now they’re just two points behind seventh-place Ottawa, as well. There’s still lots to play out but it’s hard to see the red-hot Sabres not getting in at this point. Speaking of teams trying to get in, the Western Conference race gets back at it tonight with Pacific Division clubs Los Angeles, Dallas and San Jose all back at it in separate games. The Sharks, in Anaheim on Wednesday night, lead the division by one point over the Stars and Coyotes, and only two points over the Kings, who are in Calgary on Wednesday night. The Flames refuse to go away, sitting two points out of a playoff spot in the West, setting up what should be a playoff atmosphere between the Kings and Flames in Calgary on Wednesday night. The Kings are coming off two straight losses, having been shut out 1-0 in Vancouver on Monday night. Scoring first will be huge tonight for a team that’s been shut out 10 times this season.
CUSTANCE: For the Kings, scoring at all will be huge. But even with their consecutive losses, the way Los Angeles has been grinding out wins over the past few weeks has impressed opposing coaches. The Kings are miserable to play against and have been in full playoff mode for a while. I still think they get in. San Jose plays Anaheim, with the Sharks wrapping up their season playing only teams in the Pacific the rest of the way, a fact not lost on their rivals. "Of all the teams in the division here, they have the most games against the teams in the race -- two against L.A., two against Dallas," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said during a Monday chat. "They can really control their own destiny playing the teams in our division." But you're right, that game between Calgary and Los Angeles is a huge one. Calgary is hanging around but the Flames' playoff hopes would be all but extinguished with a regulation loss there. I feel for the Coyotes, off since Sunday, who have to feel a bit helpless sitting and watching Western Conference rivals pick up crucial points in the playoff race.
LEBRUN: Speaking of helpless, the young-and-gun Colorado Avalanche play in Vancouver on Wednesday night and likely either have to run the table on their final four games or at least win three games to have any chance. The Avs sit only one point back of the eighth spot but have played more games, 78, than any of the other teams battling for those two final playoff spots. The Avs will face Cory Schneider in goal for Vancouver on Wednesday night. Our colleague, the veteran Iain MacIntyre of the Vancouver Sun, had a terrific column in today’s paper, musing about the fact veteran Roberto Luongo is taking a seat despite coming off a 38-save shutout of the Kings. MacIntyre’s point is that it’s clear head coach Alain Vigneault is prepping both his goalies carefully in the stretch run as if both might see some playoff action. It’s certainly not a bad thing for Luongo get some rest at this time of year with so little on the line for the Canucks. And I suspect Luongo will still be the starter in Game 1 of the playoffs. But you have that feeling Vigneault won’t be scared to go to Schneider if need be.
CUSTANCE: Nor should he be. Schneider is going to be a great goalie for somebody next season. But I think the rest he's been able to provide Luongo during the regular season could end up paying off for Luongo in the postseason. I'm a little concerned at the number of starts Pekka Rinne, Jonathan Quick and Marc-Andre Fleury are piling up heading into what could be a long spring. And what about St. Louis? What the heck is Ken Hitchcock supposed to do with his goalie situation? Brian Elliott set a franchise record with his ninth shutout last night. Nine! But it's Jaroslav Halak who has the playoff résumé. I asked Hitchcock which way he was leaning for the playoffs. "I don't want to make that decision, to be honest with you," he said. "I'm trying to hold that off as long as I can." It's a good problem to have in St. Louis.
LEBRUN: I’m pumped about beginning my playoff travels in St. Louis this season. Not nearly enough has been said about the Blues’ mind-boggling season. Last night marked their 15th shutout, tying a post-expansion NHL record. The NHL-leading Blues can’t make a bad choice in goal. And like Vigneault in Vancouver, the upside for Hitchcock is that he can switch it up in the playoffs if need be. That’s quite the luxury to have, especially in a salary-cap system that limits the kind of depth teams can accumulate. It’s why I hope Blues GM Doug Armstrong gets strong consideration for the GM of the Year Award.
Enjoy tonight’s action, Craig. Cheers.