Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun tackle the big topics of the day, which these days means playoffs, playoffs, playoffs.
BURNSIDE: Good Friday, my friend. The final week of the regular season is upon us, and there's still much to be decided in terms of playoff-dance invitations and partners. Once again, you have to hand it to Dave Tippett and his plucky Phoenix Coyotes. Facing a must-win Thursday night at home, the Yotes blanked the San Jose Sharks 2-0. Radim Vrbata, who had been sidelined with an allergic reaction, scored twice, and the ageless Ray Whitney added two assists as the Coyotes again pushed the Sharks out of the top eight. The game marked the return of Phoenix captain Shane Doan from a three-game suspension, and Mike Smith, also sick earlier in the week, turned aside all 38 shots he faced.
The Sharks again left points on the table and are tied for eighth with four games remaining. Two of those games are against a very tough Los Angeles Kings team also vying for one of three available playoff spots (the Pacific Division title or the seventh or eighth seed), while the other two games are against current division leader Dallas. Wow. What do the Sharks need to get in? 3-1, 2-1-1. Given their current level of play, I don’t like their chances at all. This time you couldn’t blame Antti Niemi, who stopped 31 of 33 shots he faced Thursday night.
So, where are the guys in the Coyotes' locker room to drag this team over the hump? Where were the fans? The announced crowd of 14,446 more than aptly illustrates why it’s time for the league to get out of the desert. Talk about wasting an opportunity to capitalize on a hardworking team that could be headed for its third straight playoff berth. Not blaming the fans who have endured three years of uncertainty with the league owning the team, but it’s time to move on, my friend, time to move on.
LEBRUN: Here I am listening to "Here Comes The Sun" from The Beatles, and you ruin my mood by being Captain Negative. So you woke up this morning and decided you wanted to move the Coyotes out of Glendale and eliminate the Sharks from the playoffs? Have you not learned from predicting the Sabres’ demise that you don’t have that kind of power? (That’s me laughing.) In all seriousness, indeed, given the uncertainty of the Coyotes (once again), you have to admire the way they were able to come out Thursday night in their biggest game of the season and deliver that kind of performance. I know from talking to players on the Coyotes last spring during their four-game sweep loss to Detroit in the first round -- when there were rumors they might head to Winnipeg -- just how hard it is on their families. Who knows, maybe after three years of this, they’ve hardened themselves to the point where it’s all white noise to them at this point.
Meanwhile, nobody wants to win the Pacific Division, it would appear. The Stars are in first, but check out their remaining schedule: at Vancouver on Friday night, then a home-and-home with San Jose, then at Nashville on April 5 and the capper a home date with the best in the West, St. Louis. Ouch. You have to think the Pacific likely will come down to the winner of the home-and-home between the Kings and Sharks.
BURNSIDE: Agreed that it has taken a remarkable amount of intestinal fortitude for the Coyotes to remain as competitive as they have, given the circumstances under which they have toiled the past three years. And, again, this is no slight against fans who faithfully support the Coyotes. But last night illustrates just what a wasted opportunity this has been to really define what the market in Arizona is capable of.
And yes, I was woefully off target when I suggested Washington would win that big home date earlier in the week against Buffalo. The Caps, as is their wont, are doing nothing the easy way, as they blew a 2-0 lead to Boston, lost starter Tomas Vokoun to an injury, and still somehow managed to come away with two points Thursday in a shootout win over Boston. That win moved them back into a tie with Buffalo for eighth place in the Eastern Conference. The Sabres technically hold the advantage with one more game to play, but they will use up that game in hand Friday night, when Pittsburgh comes to town. The Pens somehow managed to lose both ends of a home-and-home with the New York Islanders this week and will no doubt be in an ornery mood. Still, even with a loss to the Pens (and, sit down, thin-skinned Sabres fans, I’m not predicting it will happen, having learned my lesson earlier this week) the Sabres definitely would be in the driver’s seat. They have two more games against the Toronto Maple Leafs who, coming off a 7-1 shellacking at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers, might well be the worst team in hockey right now.
LEBRUN: Oy, is there a more embarrassing sight than seeing Leafs fans high-five Flyers fans after every Philadelphia goal Thursday night at the Air Canada Centre? Leafs fans, of course, are cheering for the team to lose every game remaining to ensure the best possible position in the lottery draft April 10. I don’t blame them for that, but it’s an absolutely ugly way to finish a season, perhaps the ugliest in the 17 years I’ve been based in Toronto. The Flyers, meanwhile, have crept up to within just two points of the suddenly stumbling Penguins. Home ice in the Battle of Pennsylvania is definitely worth fighting for over the final week. Who knew the Islanders were the mighty Penguins’ kryptonite?
Before we go, we should touch on another big game Friday night in Detroit, where the Red Wings play host to what likely will be their first-round matchup in Nashville. Just like Flyers-Penguins in the East, Predators-Wings in the West is a sensational matchup to start the playoffs, resulting in a very good hockey team going home early this season.
BURNSIDE: Agreed that those two series featuring the fourth and fifth seeds in both conferences will be must-see viewing when the playoffs start in less than two weeks. Neither the Predators nor the Red Wings are tearing it up right now, and the Wings, winners of just two of their past nine games, have to be worried about their goaltending situation, as neither Jimmy Howard nor Joey MacDonald was able to go in an ugly loss to Columbus earlier this week. Howard appears healed from a sore groin, although it’s not clear whether head coach Mike Babcock will rest him one more game. And getting Nicklas Lidstrom back is key, of course, but I dare say home ice in this series could be the tipping point given how well the Wings have played overall at home this season and how brutal they’ve been on the road. Detroit is 16-21-3 away from the comfy confines of Joe Louis Arena. Meanwhile, the Preds are still trying to figure out what they’ve got in Alexander Radulov as well as assimilating the other trade-deadline additions. There’s also been a bit of a wobble shown by Pekka Rinne, who has just two wins in his past seven appearances and has allowed three goals or more in four of those games. That’s not what you want from your No. 1 goalie at this point in the season.
LEBRUN: Lay off Mr. Rinne, sir, he’s done a whale of a job helping yours truly hold on to the top spot in the Media Hacks Hockey Pool fantasy league. How’s eighth place treating you, Burnside? Just checking. Like the Pens and Flyers, home ice will be gigantic if it’s Preds-Wings in the first round, and that’s why Friday night’s game means so much. Both teams are so much better at home, and the Wings are coming off back-to-back second-round exits against the Sharks over the past two years; home ice certainly mattered last spring with Game 7 at HP Pavilion in San Jose. Lots on the line Friday night in Detroit.
Enjoy your weekend, Scotty, and in honor of the news that a sequel is on tap for "Anchorman," also stay classy, Burnside.