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Thursday, March 17, 2011
Daily Debate: Playoff picture in wild West

By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun discuss the playoff race in the West, with the Ducks climbing back in, the Red Wings trying to stay consistent and the Canucks ramping it up.

Burnside: Good day, my friend. I'm back from Boca, where there was a surprising amount of news emanating from the GMs' spring meeting. But the playoff races wait for no man, and so it was that Ray Emery repaid the Anaheim Ducks for their faith in him with a big 2-1 win over St. Louis Wednesday night. Emery started the season looking as if a hip injury would end his career, but Wednesday he stopped 30 of 31 shots and helped move the Ducks into eighth place, at least temporarily. They are tied with Calgary with 81 points but have two games on hand on the Flames. What a story it will be if Emery turns out to be the guy who leads the Ducks into an unlikely playoff berth. What's your gut tell you; can they stay in the top eight?

Ducks vs Blues
Ray Emery stopped 30 of 31 shots and helped move the Ducks into eighth place.
LeBrun: Calgary has suddenly hit a wall, and Nashville can't score ... that's opened the door a bit for Anaheim. The Ducks moved back into a playoff spot last night for the first time since Feb. 19 -- so almost a full month it took to return. The Flames and Preds can jump back in front of the Ducks with wins tonight, but here's the killer for Calgary: It has six fewer regulation/overtime wins (ROWs), the tally that determines the tiebreakers (excluding the shootout wins) at the end of the season, than Anaheim. The Flames must finish with more points than the Ducks or they are cooked. Nashville has 29 ROWs, so it also can't finish tied with Anaheim. And yes, what an amazing moment last night to see Emery get the win after his long journey back from a near-career-ending hip condition. Many people wrote the Ducks off when Jonas Hiller was injured, but they've found a way to stick it out. This is great note from veteran Ducks PR man Alex Gilchrist: "This marks the first time in nearly 11 years that both the Ducks and Kings have been in playoff position this late in the season [defined by games remaining], dating back to March 21, 2000." As you know, Scotty, the Ducks and Kings have never made the playoffs in the same season. I'd hitch my tent in SoCal for the first round if they manage to do it this year.

Burnside: Knowing your love of the Western Conference, this doesn't surprise me one bit, my friend. But you've also managed to spend a few nights in Detroit the last few springs, and I watched with interest a terrific game Wednesday night between the scorching-hot Washington Capitals and the Detroit Red Wings, with the Wings scoring midway through the third period to break a 2-2 tie en route to a 3-2 win. The Wings got Brian Rafalski back in the lineup after he had missed eight games with some back spasm issues, and all he did was chip in three assists. With so much attention focused on Nicklas Lidstrom, who seems poised to win another Norris Trophy, you forget how important Rafalski is to the overall Wings attack. What might be more interesting, though, will be watching the Caps handle their goaltending situation down the stretch. Michal Neuvirth got the start Wednesday and played well but looked bad on the winning goal. The loss ended the Caps' nine-game winning streak. Rookie Braden Holtby had won the previous five games, and GM George McPhee told a small group of us at the GMs' meetings that if coach Bruce Boudreau's decision is that Holtby will start in the playoffs the team will carry three goaltenders. Holtby is the only one of the three (Semyon Varlamov is the other) that could be sent back to the minors without having to clear waivers, but right now he might give the Caps the best chance at playoff success. Stay tuned.

LeBrun: Interesting how the top two-ranked teams in the East, Philadelphia and Washington, aren't sure yet who will be their starting goalies in the playoffs --or at least not for public consumption. But as we saw last year with Michael Leighton and Antti Niemi facing off in the Stanley Cup finals, great teams just need good goaltending, not the best netminding in the league, to get to where they want to get to. That brings us back to the Wings, who have proved for many years that you don't need Vezina Trophy goaltending to win, thanks to a blue line anchored by the great Lidstrom. The Wings looked as good last night as they have in a while. Time to ramp it up just in time for the playoffs, right? I spoke with GM Ken Holland this morning, and he talked about the kind of season it's been for the Wings.

"I go back to training camp, and Mike [Babcock] and I talked to the players about the playoff race and our division and how tough it is," Holland told ESPN.com. "We talked about how important it was to get out of the gates. I thought we played as good as anybody until December, when we got it with injuries.

"We got healthy around the All-Star break but we didn't play the kind of hockey you need to be consistently successful. We gave up too many goals; we were too loose with too many turnovers. I know that the last couple of weeks, Mike has really been hammering on our team about turnovers and attention to detail. And I would say the last little while, like you saw last night, we're playing better.

"I think we've been much more consistent of late. Last night was a good step in the right direction. Tonight's another test [at Columbus]."

Wings fans have been wringing their hands in the second half, unsure exactly what they have on their hands. Of course, they're spoiled by two decades of brilliance.

"We have the same core team that won the Cup in '08 and took us to the finals in '09," Holland said. "And last year we had a great run down the stretch. They've done it before. I guess you can ask, 'Are we too old?' That's been a decade-old question in Detroit. ... There have been some moments of inconsistency this season, no question. In saying all that, we're second in the West."

Ha, great point by the veteran GM.

Speaking of ramping it up, the Canucks won their seventh straight last night to clinch the Northwest Division (as if there was ever any doubt) and of course a playoff spot. One concern, however, for Vancouver is the loss last night of third-line center Manny Malhotra, who was struck in the face by a puck. The extent of his injury wasn't known after the game. He was an important offseason pickup to bolster the third line, and the Canucks are crossing their fingers the injury isn't serious. With a 10-point lead over No. 2 overall Philly, the President's Trophy won't be far behind. Have the Canucks won you over yet, Scotty?

Burnside: They'll win me over when I don't see a tear-streaked Roberto Luongo hunched over in his dressing-room stall at the end of the second round. But there is no doubt about their standing as the best team in the NHL heading into the postseason. There should be reason for excitement in Vancouver, and they should be considered the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. That said, the pressure that comes with all that will be something the Canucks have never had to deal with. Look how it worked out for Washington a year ago.

But let's talk another one of your favorite squads, the San Jose Sharks. They'll play the first of two games without Dany Heatley Thursday night against Minnesota. Heatley was given a two-game suspension for a nasty elbow to the jaw of Steve Ott Tuesday night. After all the talk of GMs wanting stiffer suspensions (I know, next season), I was again disappointed to see the league fail to make a real statement. Still, it would be karmic if the Sharks lost both games and it ended up costing them first place in the Pacific Division. Goodness knows the league doesn't seem to want to punish them; maybe the hockey gods will.

LeBrun: One day you'll have to take back everything you've ever said about Luongo. And it could be this year. But I digress. As for Heatley's suspension, he doesn't have a record, and you know that played a big part. But given the GMs' message to the league to suspend more aggressively, I thought he might get three to four games, so I was also surprised. The Sharks won't blink, however, without him for two games. They're way deep up front and have survived major injuries all season.

Until tomorrow, my friend. Enjoy the action tonight!