Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun look at where teams stand at the All-Star break:
Burnside: Well, my friend, the All-Star break has arrived, the unofficial start of the stretch drive. There were a couple of interesting games to close out this part of the NHL schedule on Wednesday night, most notably here in Atlanta.
With even more bad news on the ownership front in recent days (they're suing their own lawyers), the Thrashers have been in danger of falling right out of the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. But on Wednesday night, Ondrej Pavelec was terrific in net and one of the worst defensive teams in the NHL buttoned up and shut out Washington 1-0. The win keeps the Thrashers in eighth place, just ahead of surging Carolina. What caught your eye last night other than the nonstop commercials for this weekend's All-Star shindig?
LeBrun: As you know, I love my Western Conference hockey, and that's really where the action was last night. The Sharks and Kings put on some kind of show, especially in a wide-open overtime period. The single point finally put San Jose back in a playoff spot at the break, a real important mental development for the Sharks. They streaked into the break with a five-game points streak (4-0-1) and I just don't see how they could possibly miss the playoffs now. They've figured it out.
Similarly, the Kings roar into the break with a three-game winning streak, and their celebration after the shootout last night was playoff-like. They needed that one badly. They're only a point out of eighth in the crazy West and, like the Sharks, seem to have turned the corner. But it won't be easy for either team; only two points separate seventh from 12th in the conference.
Burnside: Having spent some time in Denver last week and seeing the Avs turn in a solid effort against St. Louis on Monday, it was surprising to see them play so poorly against Phoenix last night in a 5-2 loss at the Pepsi Center. Once again, the Avs dropped out of the top eight.
Chatted with Avs GM Greg Sherman last week and he insisted he's comfortable with his goaltending tandem, but once again the goaltending was average Wednesday. I don't know if they can make the playoffs without upgrading that position. As for the Coyotes, there's just no quit in coach Dave Tippett's team; it looks like a squad destined for the postseason.
LeBrun: While you were in Denver, I was in Vancouver, and one of the games I caught was Calgary's big shootout win over the Canucks. The resurgent Flames enter the break on a 10-3-3 run, a stretch that began with coach Brent Sutter breaking the rest of the season into three-game segments and convincing his players all they needed to do is get four out of six points in those segments and they'd be in the playoffs. Well, they're only two points out of a playoff spot at the break, perhaps one of the most stunning turnarounds of the season.
There are other teams to jump over and it's going to be difficult, but the Flames have given themselves a shot, which is more than anyone would have predicted. Let's jump back to the East, where the Hurricanes enter the break one point back of the Thrashers for the eighth and final playoff spot, only three points behind Montreal. How do you see that playing out?
Burnside: I still think the Canes are the only team capable of cracking the top eight right now, but it is interesting to note that Buffalo is 7-3-0 in its past 10 games and has three games in hand on the Atlanta Thrashers. The Thrashers, especially because of their defensive shortcomings, seem the most vulnerable. The Canadiens, hammered Tuesday by Philadelphia, aren't safe and sit just two points ahead of Atlanta, although they have two games in hand.
Then there's the New York Rangers; they're only five points ahead of ninth-place Carolina and have played two more games. It's not as jam-packed as the Western Conference, but I foresee much drama at the bottom end of the East standings. Remember last season? The Flyers earned a playoff berth on the final afternoon of the regular season in a shootout.
LeBrun: I wouldn't worry one bit about the Rangers. They were really unlucky to lose that game against Florida earlier this week, and the consistency of their effort, night in and night out, is superior to Atlanta and, to some degree, Montreal. The Rangers are in. I've always had a soft spot for the Sabres and their loyal fans, but I just don't see them getting back in. Despite their recent play, losing Derek Roy is just too big a blow.
Well, I will see you in Raleigh tomorrow morning as we arrive for the All-Star festivities. I will try to keep an open mind about the whole weekend!