This may sound like heresy with just three weeks remaining to sort out tight playoff races in both the Eastern and Western Conferences, but is anyone else a little tired of this breathless notion of every game down the stretch being a ‘must-win’ for those teams involved in the chase?
Don’t get me wrong, these are the most critical games of the year. Particularly in Toronto, the Air Canada Centre has enjoyed a buzz in recent weeks unlike anything that’s been felt inside the building in years.
But to promote every game involving playoff hopefuls as life-or-death belies one of the best things about the NHL postseason – its ever-fluctuating, ever-evolving nature. Sticking with the Leafs, they are 0-2-1 in their past three supposedly ‘must-win’ games, but remain just six points away from the No. 8 New York Rangers, only two more than they were at the start of the slide.
So instead of attaching critical importance to each game with playoff implications the rest of the way, how about we distinguish the ones that are truly crucial so as to give them that much more meaning?
That being said, tonight’s tilt against Buffalo rightly deserves some of the hype. A loss would give the Sabres an eight-point edge over the Leafs and, effectively, turn the postseason into a No. 8 seed or bust scenario for the Buds. Conversely, a win would move Toronto within four points, breathe life into a fan base prone to thinking in terms of doom and gloom and create some momentum as they embark on a stretch of five straight games against teams with better records.
With a big Saturday night battle on the horizon and a three-week dash about to kick off, let’s break down the Leafs’ outlook, as well as that of their rival playoff aspirants, the rest of the way.
Leafs: It won’t be easy. With the Rangers returning home after a visit to San Jose tonight, the Leafs become the last of the six Eastern hopefuls (Leafs, Rangers, Sabres, Hurricanes, Thrashers, Devils) with a significant Western road swing ahead of them. Of their final 14 games, eight are against playoff teams and seven are on the road. With games remaining against rivals like Ottawa, Boston, Buffalo, Montreal and Detroit, there is no shortage of clubs who will be looking to play spoiler against the blue and white. Key injuries: Fred Sjostrom.
Sabres: Buffalo’s recent run in which they’ve claimed points in eight of their past nine contests is made more impressive by the fact that the last six of those games have come away from HSBC Arena. As such, they’ve put themselves in prime position the rest of the way. Not only are they currently in seventh, but they actually have at least a game in hand on every other hopeful (excluding New Jersey). If the Sabres can continue their hot play heading into a week with three of four games against fellow Eastern hopefuls (Toronto, Carolina and Atlanta), they will be sitting pretty and could turn this into a one-spot chase. Key injuries: Drew Stafford, Patrick Kaleta, Paul Gaustad.
Rangers: New York has played a Conference-high 69 games, but the rest of the pack will quickly catch up thanks to two days off after each of their next two games. The Blueshirts’ big advantage the rest of the way is a decidedly lax travel schedule that, after tonight’s game in San Jose, sees them remain in New York State for nine of their final 12 and travel no further than Boston. That being said, four points in their past six games won’t cut it. Key injuries: Chris Drury, Alex Frolov, Derek Boogaard, Martin Biron.
Hurricanes: Carolina is fading and needs to get it together in a hurry. Winners of just three of their past nine games, they have slid out of the playoff picture and now face a huge week against two beatable opponents (Columbus and NYI) and two postseason rivals (Buffalo and Toronto). Wouldn’t now be the time for Eric Staal to step up and lead this team, both on the ice and off of it? On the plus side, they happen to be the healthiest of the Eastern playoff contenders and play nine of their final 14 at home, where they own the best record among the six.
Thrashers: Now we get to the long shots, including Atlanta, who play nine of their final 14 against current playoff teams and may not have the goaltending or leadership to prolong what was an impressive early season run. A home-and-home set with the Flyers this week (tonight and Thursday), as well as a visit to Buffalo next Saturday, will say plenty about the fight the Thrashers have left in them. Key injuries: Dustin Byfuglien, Freddy Meyer.
Devils: The other shoe has to drop at some point, doesn’t it? Yes, these are the same Devils who were 10-29-2 as of January 8. Since that time, they have gone a sparking 21-3-2 to put themselves in the mix with (Jack Adams front-runner?) Jacques Lemaire behind the bench. With 66 points, they remain eight off the pace of Buffalo and New York, but with a game in hand on all but the Sabres. They have nine of 15 left against playoff teams, but have plenty of momentum, a relatively healthy roster and that Brodeur guy, in case you had forgotten.
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Written by Ben Fisher