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Tuesday, March 13, 2012
Daily Debate: Let's talk playoff races

By Scott Burnside and Craig Custance

Today, the guys are hanging out by the pool at the GMs meetings in Florida. Debating the serious issues, that is!

BURNSIDE: Greetings, my friend. Another beautiful day in South Florida, where we will be reconvening for Day 2 of the GMs meetings. But let’s talk a little on-ice action, and if there was ever an illustration of how hard it is to make a move in the NHL standings at this time of the season, it was Monday night. All four games on the docket Monday night were decided by one goal, two in overtime and one in a shootout. Those three-point games are killers for teams such as Calgary, Winnipeg and Los Angeles that are on the bubble trying to dislodge teams in front of them. But Monday did see a couple of key victories for teams that hope to find their way into the playoff dance. The slumping San Jose Sharks edged the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 for their first win in six games. The Sharks, still outside the playoff bubble in the Western Conference thanks to a brutal stretch, won’t get much time to savor that win as they head to Calgary for a crucial tilt with the Flames. It's still a bit hard to believe the Flames are right in the thick of the playoff race given all their injuries, but there they are, just two points out of eighth and a point back of the Sharks, who crept into ninth place with their win Monday. We’ve been waiting for the Sharks to show that they still have some mojo left after two straight trips to the Western Conference finals; think we’ll see it tonight against the Flames? My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Miikka Kiprusoff continues his all-world play and the Flames leap back over the Sharks.

CUSTANCE: That's been the big difference between the Flames and Sharks, as both fight for a playoff spot. Kiprusoff has been outstanding for Calgary and probably deserves more attention than he's received for his efforts lately. He hasn't lost in regulation yet in March, with a record of 4-0-1, and he's coming off a February that was his best month of the season. Antti Niemi had a rough February and is showing signs of improvement, but he needs to get better if the Sharks are going to emerge from this funk. But I'll take that bet on Tuesday night's game since Niemi and the Sharks have played Calgary tough this season. In three starts against the Flames, the goaltender is 2-1 with a 1.64 goals-against. We'll see if coach Todd McLellan turns to Niemi again on back-to-back nights. The team the Sharks are chasing in the Pacific, the Stars, have a chance to create even more separation with a winnable game against the Wild on Tuesday night. I had a chance to chat with GM Joe Nieuwendyk on Monday about his team's recent run after he opted not to blow things up at the trade deadline.

"They really made a statement even 10 days to two weeks prior to the deadline. The thing you hope gets accomplished is they come together as a team, respect and trust one another, and that's what our team is showing," he said.

It doesn't hurt that Kari Lehtonen has been lights-out for the Stars.

"It helps when you get good goaltending," Nieuwendyk said, smiling.

BURNSIDE: Speaking of goaltending, another interesting clash Tuesday will see New Jersey in Philadelphia to take on a Flyers team that has seen Ilya Bryzgalov morph from crazy netminder to crazy good in the past few weeks. The Flyers have worked hard with their franchise netminder to get him refocused after a roller-coaster ride through the first half of the season. He’s won five straight starts and earned shutouts in three of those games. Now, no one is going to build a statue a la Rocky Balboa until Bryzgalov gets it right in the playoffs, but the Flyers are looking a lot more like the team most of us expected them to be this season, and that means a team that will be tough to dislodge come playoff time. They’re tied in points with the Devils but have played one less game. Both teams still entertain thoughts of home-ice advantage in the first round, although I have to wonder about the lure of finishing sixth in the conference, which would mean a first-round matchup against the Southeast Division winner. With all due respect to Florida, Washington et al, that looks to be a much easier way to start the playoffs than playing Philadelphia, New Jersey or Pittsburgh, assuming the Penguins don’t catch New York for the top spot in the Atlantic. This will be the second time this week the two Atlantic Division foes will play. The Devils spanked Philadelphia with Sergei Bobrovsky between the pipes on Sunday by a 4-1 count. My guess is the Flyers get even Tuesday night.

CUSTANCE: Bryzgalov has been great for the Flyers, and Martin Brodeur gave us a reminder on Sunday at just how consistently great he's been by earning his 650th career win. Unbelievable. Bryzgalov will have his hands full as fellow Russian Ilya Kovalchuk looks to stay hot. The streaky Kovalchuk has nine points in his last five games, and like Brodeur, Kovalchuk is closing in on a milestone. He needs one goal to hit the 400-goal mark at just 28 years old, and chances are he'll get there Tuesday night. In five games against the Flyers this season, Kovalchuk has put up eight points. They don't seem to have an answer for him. Meanwhile, the usually potent Flyers have actually struggled to score goals lately. They're coming off two consecutive games in which they scored just one goal. That won't be enough to get past Kovalchuk and the Devils. Another interesting clash Tuesday night is the Central Division showdown between the Blues and Blackhawks. They played earlier this month in St. Louis, where the Blues beat Chicago quite handily, 5-1. A win would be a nice statement from the Blackhawks, who have concerned GM Stan Bowman with the extreme highs and lows this season.

"The biggest thing we've battled this year is consistency," he said Monday. "When we play well, we're a really good team. When we don't, we've had a little bit more variability than we have had in the past." He said he didn't think Jonathan Toews would be ready to go Tuesday night but remains optimistic that the captain will be back in the lineup within the week. That will help.

BURNSIDE: The Blackhawks are a funny team. You and I watched that game against Los Angeles on Sunday and there were some curious moments defensively for the Hawks. Speaking of the Kings, I might have to stay up late for this one, but I’m curious to see how Tuesday night’s Detroit at Los Angeles game turns out. The last time these teams met, in Detroit on Friday, the Wings scored twice late to stun the Kings 4-3. But the Wings are beat up, and with Nashville’s shootout win over Phoenix on Monday night they are just two points back of the Blues. St. Louis has really opened up space on their Central Division brethren, so it looks like we’re going to see the Preds and the Wings go at each other in the first round -- so getting home-ice advantage is going to be key. The Wings have lost three of four and there is significant concern about their play on the road. We know how dominant they are at home, but away from Joe Louis Arena they are just 16-18-1. The Kings, meanwhile, are clumped together with Calgary and San Jose just outside the playoff grid. Counting Tuesday night’s game, they play five of their next six at home and then play five of seven on the road to close out the season, so they need to start getting the job done. What’s your gut tell you on this one? I think the Wings sneak by, maybe in overtime.

CUSTANCE: I'll pick against you one final time and go with the Kings. I had a good conversation on Monday afternoon with Red Wings senior vice president Jimmy Devellano, and Detroit is very aware of its dramatic road/home splits. That's why it's absolutely necessary for the Red Wings to earn a top-four seed to set things up in the first round. Of all the teams fighting for position at the top of the Western Conference, Detroit needs the home-ice advantage the most. Makes for a great game between a pair of teams that need the points. Well, Scotty, time to go chase down general managers. It's been fun.