Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun look at the playoff races and debate whether Atlanta or Buffalo will win a spot in the East:
Burnside: Well, if you ever needed an illustration of how hard it is to make up ground in the National Hockey League down the stretch, take a look at last night's action. Five one-goal games, four of which went to either overtime or a shootout. The Devils won again, but Toronto, Montreal and Florida each earn a point in "losing efforts." I know that's why you love the current points format ... or not. That's why streaks like the Devils' current run can be deceiving.
But let's keep looking forward. There are eight tilts Friday night, which is usually a quiet night in the NHL. I'm curious to see how Detroit rebounds after losing 4-1 to Nashville the other night. The Red Wings have lost three of four and managed just one goal in those losses. A lot of people are looking at the goaltending in Detroit, but it seems the Wings are a bit unsettled on a number of fronts right now.
LeBrun: First off, let me just say John Mellencamp rocked the house last night at Toronto's Massey Hall, the legendary hall you've been to a few times. Your man Neil Young recorded a live album there, of course. So I exchange pucks for rock last night, and I can report, at 59 years old, Mellencamp hasn't lost a step.
OK, back on the pucks ... yes, making up ground late in the season seems like skating in quicksand, unless you're the Buffalo Sabres. Another win last night, and suddenly the Sabres are just two points out of the eighth spot in the East with two games in hand on Carolina. You heard here first: the Sabres are making the playoffs this season.
The Red Wings have sputtered of late. Some nights, they can't score; other nights, they can't stop the puck. It's so uncharacteristic for them, and they have a mighty test tonight in Boston in a special Original Six matchup.
Burnside: I am not sold yet on the Sabres, although having won eight of their past 11 contests is surely impressive. The power play is also starting to cook, which is crucial. During this stretch, they have beaten Tampa Bay, Boston and Montreal. That's the key if you're trying to make up ground, beating the also-rans and getting points against good teams. The Sabres have done that.
But I will say this: you are wrong, my friend; the Atlanta Thrashers will get up off the ground and keep the Sabres from charging into the playoffs. At least at the Thrashers' expense. The Thrash host the slumping New York Rangers on Friday night, and I am guessing you'll see coach Craig Ramsay's young squad start to turn things around, even though they've won just twice in their past 13 games. Watch for Zach Bogosian to have a big night despite trade rumors.
LeBrun: You're crazy! The Thrashers are going backward and you know it. But as a local Atlanta boy, you can't say it. You mentioned the Rangers; they've got to get that 24th-ranked power play going if they're going to hang on to their playoff spot. I can't tell you how good Toronto's Tomas Kaberle or Florida's Bryan McCabe would look on that power play. Problem is, as Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli told me this week, at least 14 teams are looking for defensemen.
Another club looking to add on the blue line is the Chicago Blackhawks, who roll into Dallas tonight in what seems like yet another must-win game for the defending Cup champions. They're three points out of the safe zone. The Hawks made a trade Wednesday night, acquiring Michael Frolik in a package with Florida. He's a versatile player and the Hawks hope he can rediscover that touch that helped him post back-to-back 21-goal seasons in his first two seasons in the league.
Burnside: We'll see. For most of the first half of the season, the Thrashers were skating as well as any team in the league. Players like Andrew Ladd are going to help get them on track. Interesting you should mention McCabe. The Panthers aren't completely out of the playoff race (six points out of eighth with a game in hand as of Friday morning), but you know GM Dale Tallon is looking at clearing out as much salary as he can to accelerate the rebuilding process. Given the demand for defensemen, Tallon's phone will be ringing for McCabe, as well as netminder Tomas Vokoun.
A source told me yesterday that the issue is McCabe and Vokoun have no-move clauses, and their big salaries (Vokoun's cap hit is $5.7 million, McCabe's is $5.75 million) suggest GMs will wait until closer to the Feb. 28 trade deadline in order to save money and cap space. With deals already being made well in advance of the deadline, another source said GMs, especially in the tightly-packed Western Conference, are getting nervous. No one wants to miss the boat on an asset that could help secure a playoff spot, but no one wants to overpay for an asset or make a move before they have to.
LeBrun: A couple of nice pieces you wrote yesterday on the Thrashers, by the way. They're an interesting story, on and off the ice, as Quebec City announced plans to build an NHL-sized arena.
It's a good point about the Panthers not being out just yet. That's why I think Tallon will wait until closer to the deadline to decide on McCabe and Vokoun, both of whom he's had preliminary discussions with regarding contract extensions, which would need to be economically friendly. If they're eight or more points out come Feb. 28 and neither player has signed an extension, they may both be gone. Have a great weekend, you lovable redhead!