Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun debate which team will face Vancouver in the first round and how far San Jose can go this postseason:
Now, the question is whether they can follow the Detroit Red Wings' script from 2008, when Detroit turned a top regular-season performance into a Stanley Cup parade. Or will Vancouver follow the Red Wings' script from 2006, when they won the Presidents' Trophy and were ousted in the first round by eighth-seeded Edmonton?
One thing remains unsettled in the Western Conference: which team the Canucks will face in the first round. I suggested a while ago that no one was going to back into the playoffs in the West, but I may have been a bit hasty in that statement. With Dallas losing again Thursday night, a 6-0 decision to the now-second-seeded San Jose Sharks, the final playoff berth is there for Chicago's taking. Or rather, as long as the Hawks just tread water in the final week, they will inherit a playoff berth given the tepid play of Dallas, Calgary, etc.
LeBrun: I stayed up to watch both those Canucks and Sharks victories Thursday night and thought it was a nice touch when Vancouver players stood at center ice after the game and saluted the fans in celebration. But what does it mean to have their names engraved on that Presidents' Trophy?
"Nothing," Hart Trophy candidate Daniel Sedin told Vancouver Sun columnist Iain MacIntyre after the game. "Ninety-five percent of this team has been through playoff failure, and we don't want to be part of that anymore. I don't think it's about learning anymore; we've learned enough.
"We're focused every game on playing the right way, and that can't change in the playoffs. That's the mindset we have to have. We don't need to do anything extra, just go out there and take care of business."
That's the attitude you need to have. If the playoffs began today, Vancouver and Chicago would face off in a series for a third straight postseason. How compelling is that? But there are still 10 days to go in the regular season, and in reality, the Canucks have numerous possibilities at play for a first-round matchup.
Will the Stars be an option? Judging from Thursday night, I doubt it very much. The loss in San Jose seemed to be the exclamation point on the Stars' derailment. As Mike Heika of the Dallas Morning News pointed out in his story Friday, the Stars led the Pacific Division on Jan. 14 with 57 points but have since gone 12-14-6, including a 1-4-3 record in their past eight games.
Meanwhile, the Sharks gave gone hog-wild (24-4-4) during that same span to take their rightful place back atop the Pacific Division. Oh, and by the way, San Jose moved one point past Detroit for second in the West on Thursday night.
I'll say it again -- no one is talking up the Sharks this season, and that may be perfect for them.
Burnside: Like Vancouver, the Sharks still have to prove they are a team built for the playoffs, not just piling up regular-season points. At a time when "must-win" is the more overused descriptor in hockey, the Stars have one last chance to stay alive when they visit Los Angeles and Anaheim this weekend. If they don't earn four points, I think they can officially kiss the playoffs goodbye.
The Kings still have a shot at home-ice advantage by finishing in fourth but will need to get some offensive chemistry going, something that's going to be a challenge without Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams. I think you're going to see all three California teams in the playoffs, and I'm looking forward to an all-California matchup in the first round. I'm just not sure if it'll be the Kings or Ducks trying to knock off the red-hot Sharks. As mentioned, the Kings' success will have to come despite injuries to key personnel, but they're hardly unique in that challenge.
LeBrun: I know you watch games only in the Eastern Conference, but when you say the Sharks still have to "prove" they are a team for the playoffs, I guess you missed their second-round win over Detroit last spring and trip to the Western Conference finals. But I digress.
Moving on to the Kings, the key for them is to play a real low-risk, grind-it-out defensive game and hope to take advantage of power-play opportunities. They've got great goaltending, a terrific blue line and some real sandpaper up front to forge that kind of identity. They can wheel and deal without Kopitar and Williams. If they can match the kind of game the Nashville Predators play so brilliantly (another win Thursday night), the Kings might be able to do better than people expect. Speaking of expectations, the Flyers had hoped to get Chris Pronger back before the end of the regular season, but GM Paul Holmgren revealed Thursday night that won't be the case. Concerned?
Burnside: I watched enough of the Sharks to watch them roll over in four games in the West finals to Chicago. But I know all you Sharks apologists will point out they were close games. Blah, blah, blah.
As for the Kings, I'm not sure you just forge that kind of identity overnight. I don't like their chances of getting out of the first round. Sorry.
As for the Flyers, another strange night for the best team in the East; they were shut out by Atlanta and now lead Washington by just one point for the top seed (but have a game in hand). The loss came with the news that Pronger won't be available until the postseason, and I think there should be a little concern for a Flyers team that seems to have lost just a bit of swagger. Still, I don't think that's as big an issue as getting Pronger back into the lineup for the playoffs. Talk swagger, and Pronger brings that in bunches. That will be key for the Flyers to get into a groove early in the tournament.
LeBrun: You mentioned the Caps' being only one point behind the Flyers for the top seed after their overtime win Thursday night, but that was tempered by the news of Dennis Wideman being hospitalized with a hematoma in his right leg. (The Washington Post confirmed the story first reported by Bob McKenzie of TSN.) At this point, it's unclear when Wideman will be back. The team says he's week to week. Throw in the injuries to Mike Green (concussion) and Tom Poti (groin), and suddenly you've got a depleted Caps blue line less than two weeks from the start of the playoffs. That's an unsettling situation for the Caps, who have played so well in the second half.
It paints an interesting picture at the top of the Eastern Conference. Sidney Crosby is still uncertain to return this season for the Penguins, the Flyers are missing their top defenseman and the Caps are limping into the playoffs with key injuries. Are the doors opening for the Boston Bruins? We'll find out in a few weeks.
Have a great weekend, Scotty, and lay off the Sharks.