Kings' playoff hopes, East's dismal playoff 'race'
1. Will the Kings hold on?
Here's a sense of just how rare playoff successes have been for the Los Angeles Kings.
They enter the week in fourth place in the Western Conference. If they were able to hold onto that fourth seed (San Jose is running away with the Pacific Division lead) and the home-ice advantage that comes with it, it would mark the first time the Kings had home-ice advantage in a playoff series since 1992.
Now, there's a lot of hockey to be played between now and the final day of the regular season on April 11, and there is the matter of the Phoenix Coyotes, with whom the Kings were tied in points to start the week.
For you history buffs, the 1992 series marked the third straight season Wayne Gretzky and the Kings were eliminated by the Great One's old teammates from Edmonton. A little trivia: One player from the 1991-92 team who remains active in the NHL is San Jose captain Rob Blake.
2. More Pens-Caps magic
Here are a couple of thoughts after watching this season's second installment of the Battle of the Titans on Sunday, otherwise known as the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Never mind the external issues (locals called the snowstorm that buried the Washington, D.C., area "Snowmageddon," and it forced the Pens into a difficult five-hour bus trip to get there before game time at noon ET); this game reinforced that whenever Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin meet, something magical happens.
On Sunday, it was so. Ovechkin scored a hat trick and set up the overtime winner to help the Caps rebound from a 4-1 deficit en route to a 5-4 victory that extended Washington's winning streak to 14 games.
Yes, Alexander Semin sold the high-sticking penalty by Brooks Orpik that set up the winning goal, but what theater. And with Crosby (two goals Sunday) and Ovechkin seemingly bound to meet at some point during the Olympic tournament, this was a grand set-up piece. And let's be honest, is there a hockey fan anywhere who isn't salivating at a potential rematch between these two teams come playoff time?
As for those external weather issues, there was some discussion about the propriety of the game being played (the NBA game in Washington was canceled the night before), but a couple of things to consider beyond the fact that this was a nationally televised game.
First, the NHL is loath to reschedule games, as it ticks off fans who have paid handsomely for tickets and generally creates significant logistical headaches for both teams. Secondly, teams regularly get into town late thanks to flight delays and weather issues throughout the season, so it's not that unusual. Yes, the mode of transport -- having to take a five-hour bus ride from Newark, N.J., because it was the best the Pens could do after their game in Montreal on Saturday afternoon -- was unusual.
But officials with the NHL Players' Association told ESPN.com that union counsel, along with Southeast Division rep Steve Webb, had been in contact with Pens player rep Matt Cooke to ensure that the biggest issue -- safe travel -- was being monitored, and they ultimately deemed the plan safe. Ideal? Hardly, but the product didn't seem to suffer one iota.
3. The East? We call it junk
How bad is the Eastern Conference? Well, the Boston Bruins won Sunday for the first time in 11 starts with a 3-0 decision over Montreal and began the week tied for eighth with Philadelphia and the New York Rangers. Philly technically owns the final playoff spot because it has more wins and has played fewer games, but all three teams have 59 points. Imagine that.
The last time the Bruins won a game before Sunday was Jan. 14 and they're tied for the last playoff spot. Some call it parity; we call it junk. But that's just us. Not that the Bruins are the only ones. Philadelphia was so bad earlier this season that it fired coach John Stevens, but it is still in the driver's seat to be a playoff team.
Atlanta and the Rangers have both disappeared for long stretches, and both have their sights set on a postseason berth. Ditto for Florida and the New York Islanders. In fact, eight teams currently residing between sixth and 13th are separated by just eight points. In theory, whichever teams end up with the East's top three seeds should roll through the bottom three seeds in the conference. But the great thing about the playoffs is that you know that's not necessarily going to happen.
4. Second chance at Olympics
We had a chance to catch up with Ryan Whitney, one of two players added to the U.S. Olympic team late last week after injuries scuttled the dreams of defensemen Mike Komisarek and Paul Martin. Talk about a bittersweet call. Whitney ostensibly replaces Martin, the smart puck-moving defenseman from New Jersey who graciously bowed out of the mix after his broken forearm didn't respond on schedule. Whitney said he didn't know Martin well before August's orientation camp but came instantly to like and respect the Minnesota native.
"That's not really the way you want to go [to the Games]," Whitney said.
Whitney, dealt to Anaheim last season by Pittsburgh after being part of the Penguins' run to the 2008 Cup finals, admitted that he was disappointed when he found out he wasn't initially named to the 23-man roster on New Year's Day in Boston. "I was pretty upset. I'm not going to lie to you," Whitney said.
But at the time, GM Brian Burke told Whitney that this wasn't the end for him and that he needed to keep playing well. It was Burke who called back late last week to tell Whitney he'd be headed to Vancouver.
One of the perks for Whitney will be a chance to reunite with old friends Ryan Malone and Brooks Orpik. The three were part of a clutch of homegrown talent that helped propel the Penguins to prominence over the past couple of seasons. Malone went on to sign a long-term deal with Tampa after the 2008 season, Whitney is now in Anaheim, and Orpik remains with the Penguins.
Whitney said the three stay in touch, but the chance to share a dressing room once more is going to be a treat for the old friends.
"That's been in my mind. It's really special," Whitney said. "That's something I'm really looking forward to."
5. Second chance at Olympics, Part II
The other addition to the U.S. squad is Carolina defenseman Tim Gleason, and there's more than a little symmetry with his addition. He came to Carolina in a much-heralded trade in September 2006 for another member of the U.S. Olympic team, defenseman Jack Johnson.
While Carolina GM Jim Rutherford came under some criticism for the deal (Johnson was the third overall pick in the 2005 draft), Gleason has become a key part of a Hurricanes franchise that reached last season's Eastern Conference finals. Playing mostly against other teams' top offensive units, Gleason has developed a reputation for solid play and a surprising amount of grit, something that made him attractive to Burke.
It's not much of a stretch, given his style of play, to imagine Gleason might even line up alongside Johnson, a more daring, offensive player, in Vancouver just to make the circle complete.
Although he was naturally disappointed not to be named to the team initially, Gleason's parents had no doubt how things would turn out. They bought tickets to the Olympics after Gleason was invited to the U.S. orientation camp and refused to return their tickets after he didn't make the initial roster. Gleason called his parents as soon as he found out he'd been added to the team.
"They were happier than heck," Gleason said. "They kind of thought it was going to happen."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
What To Watch This Week
1. They used to call the NFL's St. Louis Rams "The Greatest Show on Turf," or something like that. Hard not to apply the same sentiment to the scorching-hot Washington Capitals, who have won 14 straight games thanks to Sunday's overtime thriller against the Pittsburgh Penguins (see below). The Caps, who lead the league with an average of 3.9 goals per game, have a chance to tie the NHL record for consecutive wins set by Pittsburgh in 1992-93 (17) as they travel to Montreal, Ottawa and St. Louis before the Olympic break. Given what we saw Sunday, we wouldn't bet against them.
2. The Nashville Predators are clinging to the last playoff spot in the Western Conference and will face a stern test to close out the pre-Olympic schedule with a four-game visit to the Eastern Conference, including tilts against the three New York-area teams and the Pittsburgh Penguins. If they're still in a playoff spot by the time the dust clears Sunday, it will make the two-week break a lot more palatable in the Music City. If the trip goes awry, it may force GM David Poile's hand with defenseman Dan Hamhuis, who can become an unrestricted free agent in July and may not fit into the Preds' plans economically.
3. Both the Devils and Flyers are trying to sort out some identity issues. The Devils are working on integrating star winger Ilya Kovalchuk into the lineup, while the Flyers are still trying to figure out just who they are in general. The Flyers have seen the offense go dry as they have just two wins in their past six outings. The two teams will square off in a home-and-home set starting Monday in Philadelphia and Wednesday in Newark. The Flyers are trying to solidify their grip on a playoff spot (they began the week in eighth), and the Devils are trying to hold off Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division crown in what looks to be the second seed in the East.
4. The Minnesota Wild began the week four points out of eighth place in the West in large part because they are smokin' hot at home. The Wild have won four in a row at Xcel Energy Center and have a 20-6-2 overall record there. Now, the fact that they stink on the road (9-19-2) is a moot point, at least until after the Olympic break. The Wild will close out the pre-Olympic schedule with three more home dates against Phoenix, Atlanta and Vancouver.
5. A year ago, the St. Louis Blues picked themselves up and stormed through the final half of the schedule to finish sixth in the West. Is there another second-half dark horse lurking in the shadows? Folks in Columbus hope it's their beloved Blue Jackets. After firing coach Ken Hitchcock last week, the Blue Jackets have won two straight, beating Dallas and Buffalo. This week will tell whether the Jackets, nine points out of eighth as the week began, can start to entertain playoff thoughts. They host San Jose, Vancouver and Chicago, the three top teams in the conference. It says here a minimum of four points will be necessary even to flirt with the idea of a playoff resurrection.
Take This To The Bank
These are the nervous hours for Olympic GMs such as Steve Yzerman, Brian Burke and Mats Naslund, and for the rest of the international hockey world, as they're hoping to get through the final week of the NHL's schedule before the Olympic break without losing a key piece of what might be the gold-medal puzzle.
The Czechs, for instance, are breathing easier with the return of Patrik Elias to the New Jersey Devils' lineup but are hoping center David Krejci, who missed all but three shifts in Boston's win over Montreal on Sunday, will return this week.
Naslund, the architect of Team Sweden, will be wondering in the coming days about Tomas Holmstrom, who missed part of the Wings' loss to Los Angeles on Saturday, not to mention Fredrik Modin, who has been in and out of the Columbus lineup. If one of his forwards can't go, you can bet Naslund will be monitoring Johan Franzen's recuperative powers as the power forward hopes to return to the Detroit lineup this week, well ahead of schedule after knee surgery. Detroit defenseman Niklas Kronwall is likewise hoping to return for the first time since Feb. 2.
On the Canadian front, Dan Boyle has just returned for San Jose after an upper-body injury and will be hoping to stay healthy for his first Olympic turn.
Stock Up, Stock Down
Keith Yandle, Phoenix Coyotes: The promising young Coyotes defenseman has four goals and six points in his past seven games and, perhaps more significant, is a plus-7 over that period. He is averaging about 20 minutes a night in ice time.
Alex Ovechkin/Nicklas Backstrom/Mike Knuble, Washington Capitals: The game's most dynamic forward combination has scored an eye-popping 20 goals and 45 points over the past eight games as the Caps set their sights on the NHL's all-time winning streak of 17 games. Yikes.
Michael Frolik, Florida Panthers: With Nathan Horton out of the lineup, the Panthers have needed other skill players to step forward. Unfortunately, it hasn't happened, especially when it comes to Frolik, who hasn't dented the twine in 12 straight games and has just one goal in 17 games.
Brad Boyes, St. Louis Blues: It continues to be a shocker how many of the veteran Blues players cannot get back on track, even after the departure of coach Andy Murray. But perhaps none is more surprising than the continuing struggles of Boyes, who scored 76 goals over the past two seasons but has just one in his past 23 games and is without a goal in eight straight contests.