And so to business.
- Let's make one point perfectly clear, folks; I never said on my blog that Carolina Hurricanes forward Justin William's high stick that caused a serious eye injury to Montreal Canadiens captain Saku Koivu in Game 3 was intentional or a dirty play.
Obviously it was unintentional, as the replays clearly show Williams was merely trying to lift Koivu's stick with his own and unfortunately it rode up higher than he intended. I'm also certain Williams feels remorse about the incident.
Regardless, it was still a high sticking infraction, deliberate or no, and happened right in front of the referee and should've been called. It wasn't and that's why pissed me off. It's one thing when an incident occurs out of sight of the officials, but when it happens right in front of them and they swallow the whistle, that bugs me, especially if a player gets injured by the uncalled infraction.
I've been bitching about this ever since Kerry Fraser's infamous non-call on Wayne Gretzky's accidentally cutting Doug Gilmour in overtime of Game Six of the 1993 Western Conference finals. Gretzky should've gotten five minutes, which might've changed the course of history, but even though it happened right in front of Fraser and the linesmen, they did their three-blind-mice routine.
I will say this about Williams, however, and that is he better start getting better control of his stick. In Game Four he inadvertently walloped Canadiens defenceman Andrei Markov in the face, and again no penalty was called.
- And no, Habs fans, the Canadiens aren't a victim of a conspiracy by the officials as I've lately seen suggested in the blogosphere.
Check around the league, and you'll find plenty of other teams grumbling about the officiating in this year's playoffs.
By and large, the refs are doing a good job enforcing the new rules, but the rules committee are gonna have to take a look at addressing "phantom calls", that being when incidental contact is made between two players resulting in a penalty that leaves both sides puzzled.
- Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco's reputation as a poor playoff goaltender has only been further enhanced by his performance against the Colorado Avalanche thus far, but quite frankly, it's unfair to pin the blame solely on Turco.
The Stars, by the admission of several unnamed roster players, coasted into the playoffs in the regular season's final weeks. That should never have been allowed to happen. That's poor coaching and poor on-ice leadership. That led to bad habits and a lack of drive, regardless of the spin that may be emanating from Dallas.
Guys like Mike Modano, Bill Guerin, Jere Lehtinen, Sergei Zubov and Jason Arnott know what it takes to win the Cup, and Brendan Morrow knows what it takes to get to the finals, and thus far they failed to step up when needed.
Looks like it may be time for Stars management to take a good, hard look at the leadership of this team, both on the ice and behind the bench.
- So where has this playoff version of the Colorado Avalanche been all season?
This bunch stumbled at times through the regular season, even appearing in danger back in March of falling out of the playoff race.
You can't credit newly-acquired goaltender Jose Theodore's performance. He's still showing signs of rust from his three-month layoff and is playing as though he hasn't fully gotten his confidence back.
Yet Theodore may have been a rallying point for the Avs. As I recently heard a TSN commentator point out, the Avalanche have been playing much better defensively around Theodore, as they realize that he's still not 100 percent yet.
Let's face it, if the Avs defensive game were anything like their regular season inconsistency, the outlook of this series might've been very different.
But thanks to the leadership of Joe Sakic, Rob Blake and other Avs veterans, and the coaching of Joel Quenneville (taking notes yet, Stars management?), the Avalanche have stiffened their defensive game, and that's perhaps the biggest reason why they swept the Stars.
- Did Philadelphia Flyers rugged defenceman Denis Gauthier deserve at least a one-game suspension for hitting Buffalo Sabres forward Tomas Vanek from behind in Game Two?
Does he deserve a suspension or at least receive a game misconduct for spearing JP Dumont.
In the case of the former, it was intentional. In the latter, unintentional, and if the officials were in better position to see that spear, they would've call it.
Just my two cents, please, feel free to write in if you disagree, just keep it clean.
- OK, folks, real simple one here: The Detroit Red Wings are not struggling against the Edmonton Oilers because of a perceived "easier" regular season schedule.
They're struggling against the Oilers because the boys from Edmonton are for the most part younger, faster and playing much more aggressively than the Wings.
True, playing against Central Division clubs, the Wings won 25 games, but they also won 26 games against the rest of the Conference, losing only 10 of those in regulation and three in OT.
Enough of the conspiracy theories. The Wings have played against tough opposition throughout the regular season. And don't forget, the Oilers played them tough throughout this season.
Suggesting the Wings had it easier this season insults the fine effort of the energetic Oilers.
- As for the eliminated NY Rangers and Tampa Bay Lightning, I'll be commenting on them in a future column on Foxsports.com.
I will say this about Jaromir Jagr, and that's the fact that he's a lot tougher and gutsier that his critics give him credit for.
Jagr has struggled with injury in recent years, usually groin-related, which has often incurred the wrath of some critics who consider him a wimp for not playing through pain.
Now I don't know how many of his critics have actually tried to do anything whilst suffering groin pain, but I can speak from first hand experience that doing any kind of physical activity - especially skating - isn't easy when you're experiencing "man pain".
Jagr suffered a seperated shoulder in Game One of his team's series against the Devils, but of course it was a mysterious "upper body injury". Anyone with eyes knew it had to be either his shoulder or elbow, and that it was obviously serious, but there were some of Jagr's critics again, suggesting he was feigning injury to avoid playing against the physical Devils.
Nobody knew for sure what Jagr's injury was, but he gamely tried to come back in both Game Three and Four. Unfortunately he was only a shadow of himself, and wound up making an early departure from Game Four when a Devils player checked him on his injured shoulder.
Look, I don't care if you like the guy or not, and I'll be the first to admit his moodiness can at times make him come across as a spoiled brat, but he deserves props for at least trying to provide an inspirational lift to his teammates.
If Jagr really were a wimp, he wouldn't have bothered playing in a series where he and his teammates were in over their heads. He tried to play, showing a toughness and character many of his critics undoubtedly lack.
It's as inevitable as the seasons and the tides. Whenever a sports team fails to live up to expectations, a coach or general manager usually gets fired.
The end of the 2005-06 NHL season was no different, as two general managers and a head coach recently got the chop.
In Los Angeles, the Kings fired GM Dave Taylor; in Pittsburgh, the Penguins handed long-time GM Craig Patrick his walking papers; and in Toronto, head coach and former GM Pat Quinn was given his pink slip.
Yes, it was the inability of their respective teams to qualify for the post-season, but it was more than that which led to their firings.
For Taylor, it was the number of seasons the club missed the post-season in recent years, combined with recent questionable trades and free agent signings.
He was preceded out the door by head coach Andy Murray, who was fired a month ago in what was clearly a last-ditch effort to rally the flagging spirits of the Kings roster and save the season.
Some suggest Taylor is only the fall guy for an uncaring ownership, that the inexplicable disruption of team chemistry this season and another rash of injuries to key players weren't his fault.
There may be a bit of truth to all of this, but at the end of the day, it's still the results on the ice that count, and with the head coach already replaced, the next logical decision was the general manager.
It's even been suggested that Taylor's hand may have been tied by ownership's unwillingness to spend with the other big-market clubs in the NHL, but as the NY Rangers demonstrated in their recent history, having the big bucks to spend doesn't guarantee playoff appearances or lengthy Cup runs.
Kings ownership may not have been bank-breakers during Taylor's tenure, but they certainly haven't been cheapskates. In the eyes of the Kings hierarchy, they weren't getting their money's worth out of Taylor's recent acquisitions.
Craig Patrick, on the other hand, was the architect of the Penguins decade of dominance in the 1990s, particularly in the first half of the decade, as he wisely built around franchise superstar Mario Lemieux, turning the Pens into two-time Cup champions in 1991 and 1992.
Alas, bankruptcy forced him to trade away most of his stars, which also perhaps saved his job over the last several years, but when handed the opportunity and money to rebuild the club last summer, Patrick fumbled.
His acquisitions last summer via trade and free agency of veteran players failed to gel, and by mid-season the Penguins were dead-last in the East, where they remained for the remainder of the season.
His draft record since the mid-1990s was abysmal, not counting Sidney Crosby, Evgeny Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury, whose rights were all practically gift-wrapped for him courtesy of the draft lottery and the Pens status as Eastern Conference bottom-feeders over the past three seasons.
That, too, may have been the result of financial belt-tightening for as one recent report observed, Patrick had perhaps the leanest management staff in the league.
Regardless, it wasn't enough to save his job this time, as ownership obviously felt the Penguins needed fresh blood in the management chair.
As for Quinn, in his eight seasons behind the Leafs bench, he had seven seasons with a winning record, which included team records set for points, home and road victories, and the first-ever division titles in franchise history.
Unfortunately, he was unable to do what so many fans in "Leafs Nation" hoped for: end the Maple Leafs lengthy Cup drought. He got them to the Eastern Conference finals twice, but that was as close as they came.
Quinn's tenure with the Leafs were the topic of two articles in this space last month and aren't about to be re-hashed here again. Suffice to say, Quinn lost the much-rumoured power struggle between himself and GM John Ferguson Jr.
Firing general managers and coaches who failed to accomplish certain goals is easy. The hard part is finding replacements who can get the job done.
For the Leafs, it's landing a coach who isn't afraid of giving his youth a chance. Sounds easy to accomplish, but Quinn isn't the only experienced hockey coach out there who only increases the ice time of youth when injuries force them into it.
That head coach must be able to get the veterans and youth to mesh well together and be able to work well with "JFJ". The latter should be easier since it'll obvious be Ferguson's hand-picked guy.
Perhaps most importantly, that coach has to be able to handle the glare of the spotlight of coaching in one of the most hockey-mad cities in the NHL.
For the Penguins, it's straightforward; find a GM who can build around his franchise player in a salary cap world.
Actually, the cap likely won't be much of an issue for the Penguins this time around, even with the big increase they're unlikely to spend up to $40 million, let alone the anticipated ceiling of $46 million.
So that GM will have to be capable of providing strong results on a budget, which will require someone with a good eye for hockey talent.
The Kings replacement GM will have a bit of a tougher road. There is good talent on the club around which to build, but no star goaltender or franchise player, and that can actually make rebuilding as difficult a chore as being a last place team with a genuine superstar.
Whoever the replacements eventually turn out to be, one thing is certain: they're going to have their work cut out for them.
With the 2005-06 regular season drawing to a close and the playoffs beckoning, here's a look at the teams that have qualified for this year's post-season dance. As always, the running themes are the quality of each team's goaltending and how well they're playing heading into the playoffs.
Detroit Red Wings: Clinched yet another President's Trophy as the top regular season NHL team, the Wings are loaded with experience, with many of their rising young stars having played on Detroit's 2002 Cup championship team. Despite suggestions they benefited from an "easy schedule" this is not a team to be under-estimated and are rightly considered Cup contenders. They have added motivation in trying to win one more cup for team captain Steve Yzerman, who may retire after the playoffs. The only real question mark is between the pipes, as Chris Osgood isn't the goalie he used to be while Manny Legace has never had to carry his team through the playoffs before.
Dallas Stars: Thanks to their key veterans returning to form this season, the Stars are considered one of the favourites to win it all. This is a team with few weaknesses and plenty of experience, although they were worn down a bit by the end of the season due to a hectic late-season scheduling. Pressure will be on goalie Marty Turco to prove he's capable of carrying the Stars deep in the post-season.
Calgary Flames: The best defensive team in the NHL will be a difficult opponent for whoever they face in the playoffs. Goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has proven more than capable of carrying the Flames in post-season competition, and with rookie phenom Dion Phaneuf emerging as a leader of the defence corps, Flames fans have visions of a return trip to the Finals. Defence may win hockey games, but you've still gotta put the puck in the net, and their lack of offensive pop could come back to haunt the Flames this time around.
Nashville Predators: Emerged this season as a true force in the NHL, thanks in no small part to forward Paul Kariya rejuvenating his career as a Predator. While considered by some observers a true Cup contender for their strong team play, those hopes took a hit when starting goalie Tomas Vokoun was lost for the season and playoffs with a rare blood condition. Their hopes now rest on little-used backup Chris Mason, who might be in over his head.
San Jose Sharks: One of two Western Conference clubs that staged a late surge to make the playoffs, the Sharks go into the post-season as one of the hottest teams in the league, thanks to the potent offensive combination of Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo. Their defensive game has noticeably improved , which could make the Sharks as tough a playoff team as they were two years ago. However, if an opponent can shut down the Thornton line - no easy feat - the rest of the roster might struggle offensively.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks: The other Western Club to make a late-season surge into the post-season, but unlike the Sharks the Ducks have cooled a little in the final games of the season, struggling against fellow playoff teams. Opponents may be counting on the Ducks to be running out of steam, but with J-S Giguere back at top form in net, Scott Niedermayer's skilled leadership on the blueline and Teemu Selanne's offensive renaissance, they're not to be easily dismissed.
Colorado Avalanche: This is the first time in years the Avs have entered the playoffs as a lower seed, as this year's Avalanche club isn't the same lethal powerhouse it once was. That being said, they're still dangerous and those who face them in the first round must take them seriously. As with most teams, it could be goaltending that proves how far the Avs go, and they'll be placing those first round hopes in Jose Theodore, who recently returned to action from a lengthy injury and a horrible season in Montreal. If Theodore rounds back into form in the opening round, the Avs hopes improve, but if he struggles as he did earlier this season, they could be first round toast.
Edmonton Oilers: They squeaked into the playoffs in the last days of the regular season, and now they may have the unenviable task of facing either the Red Wings or Stars. Consistency has been the Oilers problem this season, in no small part because of goaltending, and they'll be hoping for last-season acquisition Dwayne Roloson to provide the stability that strong goaltending brings. Some observers suggest the Oilers could pull off an upset, but they'll have to play much better than they have in some of their recent games.
Carolina Hurricanes:The surprise team of this season continues to roll along heading into the playoffs. With an offensive attack led by Eric Staal, Martin Gerber's steady goaltending and their hard-working team play, the 'Canes will try to carry these traits that worked so well for them in the regular season into what they'll hope to be a long playoff run. Predicted by some to win the Stanley Cup, the Hurricanes will be a tough opponent for whoever they face in the opening round. The only areas of potential weakness may be the inexperience of players like Staal and Gerger in NHL post-season action.
Ottawa Senators: Buoyed by a lethal offensive attack and a solid blueline, the Sens have been one of the best clubs in the league throughout the season, but injuries have walloped them down the stretch, and they've recently lost more than they've won heading into the playoffs. Getting some of their walking wounded back in time for the playoffs will help, but they'll need to get their spark back soon, and most importantly, for goalie Dominik Hasek to return healthy. Otherwise, the high hopes of a Stanley Cup run could be derailed before it gets started.
New York Rangers: Thanks to the resurgent Jaromir Jagr, Henrik Lundqvist's goaltending and Tom Renney's coaching, the Rangers are making their first playoff appearance in almost 10 years. That being said, there's uneasiness amongst the Blueshirts faithful, as their club has won only 9 games since the Olympic break and dropped their last four straight. This is not how a hockey club should enter the playoffs, and if they don't rediscover their motivation soon, their post-season return could be a short one.
Buffalo Sabres: They've recovered well from a late-March slump and have regained their hard-working, fast-skating form. The Sabres swarm their opponents, giving them little room to set up scoring plays, and its that style which could give them considerable success in this year's playoffs. Still, some of their best players - Daniel Briere, J.P. Dumont, Ryan Miller and Ales Kotalik - are still relatively inexperienced in post-season competition, and that might prove a factor against a more seasoned opponent.
Philadelphia Flyers: Despite a series of injuries to key players throughout the season that would've crushed a lesser club, the Flyers have battled on, locking up a playoff berth in the process. That being said, the Flyers faithful are concerned about their club. Their goalies have been good but not great, their defensive game has been at times inconsistent, and offensive sparkplug Peter Forsberg continues to struggle with injuries. If they fail to step it up in the opening round, it could be a short playoff run for the Flyers.
New Jersey Devils. Given how well this team has played in the second half, it's hard to believe they were struggling for a playoff berth in the first half of the season. The Devils are peaking at the right time, having won 9 of their last ten. They're essentially a one-line team offensively, but they're still playing the kind of defensive game that won them three Stanley Cups, and with goalie Martin Brodeur notching yet another 40-win season, the Devils are looking every bit like a Cup contender again. That's bad news for the rest of the Eastern Conference.
Montreal Canadiens: Thanks to hot goaltending and a mid-season coaching change, the Habs recuperated from a near season-killing swoon to become one of the hottest teams in the league since the Olympic break to make the post-season. Had regular season success against the Senators, Rangers and Flyers, which could translate into a potential playoff run should face those teams, but if their opponents are the Hurricanes, Sabres and Devils, against whom they struggled, it could be a short playoffs for the Canadiens. They'll need to keep getting strong goaltending and improve their defensive game to go deep.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Have looked little like defending Stanley Cup champions this season, struggling until the last weekend of the season in order to qualify for the playoffs. Shaky goaltending and an average defensive game have hampered the Bolts this season, and it's too late in the season to expect a turnaround in their fortunes. Star forwards like Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis can only carry them so far, and the odds of a Cup repeat for Tampa Bay are long.
Hey, whatever became of "Operation Slapshot"?
You remember, the gambling scandal that supposedly would tear apart the integrity of the NHL?
Apart from being used by some in the press to smear Wayne Gretzky and his wife with baseless allegations, we haven't heard very much about the New Jersey State Police's investigation into alleged illegal gambling involving some unnamed NHL players.
Following February's sensationalistic headlines, all we've heard about this since then is that now-suspended Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet is the only NHL personality - player, coach or GM - facing any charges.
The NHL recently completed their own internal inquiry, which while admittedly narrow in scope, has apparently satisfied the league that its integrity has not been compromised by people betting on games.
As for Gretzky's wife, she'll be subpoenaed to testify as a witness whenever this case goes before a grand jury, which is a huge difference over facing charges as some in the media suggested might happen.
While the investigation is apparently ongoing, its sizzle has fizzled.
Let's face it, folks, if there was a gambling scandal involving dozens of players and other high profile NHL figures that was originally reported back in February, it would be a source of constant headlines in the press.
After all, there were plenty of leaks of information to the press when this story first exploded into the headlines...leaks which ultimately turned out to be erroneous.
If there were more meat to this investigation, there would've been more names leaked, and this story would still be dominating the sports pages. Something that juicy simply doesn't die off as a hot story as this one has over the past two months.
Of course, the New Jersey State Police may have cracked down on the leaks, and perhaps there'll be more subpoenas and indictments to follow, but I suspect that if they do come, there won't be many more to come, and probably won't involve as many NHL personalities as we were originally led to believe.
In the end, all this may have accomplished is finishing the NHL coaching career of Rick Tocchet, and besmirching the good name of hockey's greatest ambassador.
Of course, it wasn't the New Jersey State Police who accomplish the latter, but rather some folks in the press who have yet to offer an apology to Wayne Gretzky for suggesting he and his wife were tangled up in illegal activities.
If Gretzky's expecting apologies, he'd better prepare for a long wait. I'm not about to list the names of those in the press who embarrassed themsleves with their sensationalistic coverage, but suffice to say, it wasn't their finest moment.
Not every hockey reporter leapt onto the "Smear Gretzky" bandwagon. The Toronto Globe and Mail's Eric Duhatschek, the Toronto Sun's Mike Ulmer, the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel's Chris Joseph and Newsday's Ellis Henican were among the first to stick up for Gretzky by reporting the facts in the investigation, rather than the gossip.
I wouldn't blame Gretzky if he had little or nothing to do in the future with those reporters who smeared his name, but he's known as such a classy, accessible personality that he probably won't hold a grudge, which would make him a better man than his critics.
When it comes to the NHL's or Gretzky's integrity, this story appears to have been much ado about nothing.
UPDATE: Former Detroit Red Wing and current Calgary Flame Darren McCarty filed for bankruptcy today, citing debts worth $6.2 million, a small portion - $185K - are gambling debts owed to various casinos.
The Detroit Free Press first reported this story, and also wrote this (hat tip to "Ted"):
Gambling has become a sensitive topic for the National Hockey League. In February, New Jersey authorities announced that they were investigating allegations that an assistant of Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky ran a high-stakes betting ring.
No, gambling is a sensitive topic for the NHL if any of their players are believed to have bet on NHL games.
McCarty's gambling involves debts to casinos, and there's no evidence to suggest he bet on games. Indeed, they could be due to his well-known love of poker, which the "Freep" also reported in their piece.
His debts are mainly to "banks, credit-card companies, friends, utilities, law firms, a roofing company and the Oakland County Drain Commission."
Nowhere does it suggest that gambling is the reason for McCarty's debts, but it'll be interesting to see if anyone in the press attempts to use McCarty as an example of a supposedly gambling problem amongst NHL players.
I found a recent post on the blog of Sportsnet.ca's Darren Dreger regarding the contract status of Tampa Bay's Brad Richards rather interesting (hat tip to "Dave" for the heads-up).
Dreger reported there may be some quiet talk "in boardrooms around the NHL" over the possibility of tabling an offer sheet to Richards this summer, with two non-Canadian teams apparently hinting they may do so.
A restricted free agent at season's end, Richards is likely to seek a contract comparable to that of teammates Vincent Lecavalier ($6 million) and Martin St. Louis ($6.5 million), and as Dreger observes, if any club makes an offer sheet to Richards and the Lightning match it, that'll become his contract, but if not, Richards goes to the team that made the offer, who'll then have to cough up four first round picks.
Dreger suggests the Toronto Maple Leafs as an example, since they desperately need an impact player and would have the available cap space.
He also points out offers sheets have been attempted before, to Joe Sakic and Sergei Fedorov, and suggests the Leafs or any other team have nothing to lose since the cap makes it difficult to trade for players like Richards.
Anything's possible under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, and the increase in the cap (to possibly $46 million) for next season gives interested teams the available cash to make such a move.
But regarding Richards, I don't think we'll see that happen.
The Bolts currently pay him $3.4 million, so if they come up another $3 million, Richards will undoubtedly re-sign. Given his value to the Bolts and the fact they'll probably free up at least that much by trimming some deadwood from their roster, coupled with the anticipated rise in the cap, it would be an exercise in futility for any club making a pitch for Richards.
Unless, of course, they get stupid and offer him the maximum salary, which should be in the neighbourhood of $8.9 million per. Not only would that piss off Bolts management, but also the NHL head office. Of course it wouldn't stop such a move from occuring, but it would certainly put to rest the lie about the salary cap preventing teams from spending recklessly.
But I don't anticipate a team going that high for Richards, perhaps offering instead over $7 million, which again would be affordable for the Lightning to match.
Under this new CBA, the possibility of offer sheets, or of teams successfully landing players from other teams via this method, appears as remote as it did under the old CBA.
First, there's the cap, which although it's rising substantially for this season still limits moves of this nature. There would be few teams able or willing to do this.
Second, the lowering of the eligibility age for unrestricted free agency. Under the previous CBA it made sense to table an offer sheet to a restricted free agent in his mid-twenties because otherwise the new time a team would have a crack at him would be when he turned 31.
The problem, of course, was that those previous offer sheets were all matched, and most teams realized it was a waste of time.
Under the new CBA, the eligibility age will drop over the next two years. This season, it's 29. In two years time, it'll be 27. Not only that, but players with seven accrued seasons (including the lockout season) become eligible, conceivably meaning 25-year-old stars could also be eligible for UFA status.
With the prospect of landing a star player approaching or still in his prime, why would any team part with big bucks plus four first rounders? Only the most desperate, perhaps.
Even so, if the player's current club has sufficient cap space (and the Lightning will with Richards), the offer will in all probability be matched. So the only benefit for the team making the offer for Richards is in forcing the Bolts to perhaps part with more cash than they'd originally planned to retain him, thus putting the squeeze on their remaining available cap space.
Third, most teams simply aren't willing to part with four first round draft picks, even for a player like Richards. Most teams won't consider such a move worthy of mortgaging their future.
As for trades for players of Richards' magnitude, they didn't happen that often under the old CBA, let alone the new one. Even so, they could still happen (hello, there, Joe Thornton), but the circumstances have to be right. In the case of the Bruins management, they'd been unhappy with Thornton for a couple of years, and even though they'd re-signed him to a hefty new contract, they'd reached the point of desperation where they were open to offers.
That, however, isn't the case with Richards, and I think the odds are long that they'd trade him due to payroll constraints.
It's possible that a team with cap space, a spotty draft record and lacking a star player could test the waters with an offer sheet to Richards (or any other top RFA player), but I have a feeling that, as under the previous CBA, such moves will be few and far between.
As the 2006 playoffs draw ever nearer, the playoff races are becoming more interesting, particularly in the Western Conference.
The Eastern race had also been interesting, but recent strings of victories by the New Jersey Devils, Montreal Canadiens and the defending Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, combined with recent losses by the clubs chasing them (Atlanta, Toronto and Florida) have all but assured them (barring a late collapse) playoff berths in the East.
It's in the wild, wild, Western Conference where the race is still wide open. Well, perhaps not as wide open as a couple of weeks ago, where at one point only five points separated third from tenth overall, but for those battling for the lower four berths, it'll be a fight to the finish.
Thanks to the inimitable James Mirtle, who's been keeping a running tally for several weeks now on the races in both conferences, we can see just how tight things are getting in the West.
The Predators need but one point to clinch a playoff berth and a much higher placing in the post-season standings than they had in 2003-04, when they made their playoff debut. The bad news of late, however, is the Preds have been mired in a lengthy slump, dropping four of their last five games.
Their opponents for the final games include two tilts with the woeful Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues, plus dates with the Minnesota Wild and Phoenix Coyotes prior to closing against the Detroit Red Wings.
That stretch should help prevent their slipping down the standings into a lower berth, but remember that they've dropped two of those last five losses to non-playoff clubs, and the those aforementioned clubs have nothing to lose and players battling for jobs next season out to impress their bosses. A continued slide against those clubs won't bode well for their hopes of a lengthy playoff run.
Things were touch and go for the Calgary Flames finishing atop their division, but they've recently opened a three point cushion over the Colorado Avalanche thanks to three big wins against the LA Kings, provincial rival Edmonton and the Avs, and a point picked up in an OT loss to Detroit.
Their popgun offence remains a problem for a lengthy playoff run, but with Miikka Kiprusoff having a Vezina-worthy season, and with games against Phoenix, Minnesota and the struggling Vancouver Canucks, it may be enough to solidify their hold on the division title. Needing only one more victory to clinch a berth, the Flames are in no danger of missing the post-season.
Neither, it seems, are the Anaheim Mighty Ducks or the Avs, both clubs needing only five more points to clinch a berth in this year's big dance.
The Preds and Flames do, however, have to worry about the Ducks' potentially knocking them down to a lower four berth. The Quackers have been red-hot since the Olympic break, and have presently won 8 of their last ten games, shooting up from a contender for the last berth in the West to challenging for a top four berth.
The Ducks do, however, face a very challenging eight-game schedule, where they'll battle twice with the stingy Flames and the fading Kings, as well as matchups against the desperate Canucks, the high-flying Dallas Stars, the surging San Jose Sharks and the always tough Oilers.
A daunting schedule, but if they should knock off the Flames both times and pick up points in those other games, they could be in line for a potential fourth-overall finish.
The Avs will face a tough opponent in San Jose on Wednesday, get a potentially easy three-game stretch against the Blues, Wild and Coyotes before facing the three Western Canadian teams to end the season. The potential is there for the Avs to get a late surge coupled with a Flames slump to win the Northwest, but this could come right down to the wire for both teams.
Now comes the fun part, with four teams battling desperately for the final two postseason playoff berths.
The Oilers and Canucks presently sit 7th and 8th overall, with the Oilers needing seven more points to clinch a berth and the struggling Canucks 8.
Unfortunately for both teams, the Sharks have games in hand, two on the Oilers and three on the Canucks. For the latter, this could have ominous consequences.
The Sharks had stumbled recently against lesser opposition, dropping games to Columbus and Phoenix, including an OT loss to the Coyotes that, while it garnered them a point, could come back to haunt them in the final standings.
It's not about to get any easier for the Sharks, who after battling back from placing among the conference bottom-feeders in December to a shot at a playoff spot. They'll face a more rested Dallas Stars team than the one they beat last Monday, and have tilts against the Avs and Mighty Ducks. There are also two tilts against the Kings, who are desperately clinging to their playoff hopes after falling out of contention in recent weeks.
But most notable is their home-and-home series against the Canucks, which could well determine which of these two teams makes the playoffs.
For the Sharks to make it, they'll have to win five of their last 8 games, or failing that, hope that the Oilers and Canucks go into free-fall in their final games.
For the Canucks, the potential for that to happen is very real after losing in OT to the Wild and dropping two must-win games against the Ducks and Kings. Their final five games pits them twice against the hungry Sharks, a return dance with the Ducks, plus matchups against the Flames and Avalanche.
The Oilers will have it a bit easier than the Canucks, with games against Chicago and St. Louis, but will also face the Red Wings, Mighty Ducks and Avalanche, plus the Wild, who is never an easy two points for the Oilers or any other club that faces them.
As for the Kings, their margin of error is almost razor thin, having to win five of the next six to make the playoffs, with two tilts against the Ducks and Sharks and the gritty Flames as their second-to-last game of the season. The series against Anaheim could well decide their fate.
The Predators, Flames, Ducks and Avalanche should have their spots clinched by next week. As for the Oilers, Canucks, Sharks and Kings, it's desperation time, with little room for error as the playoffs loom.
If you want to watch playoff hockey now, the Western Conference is the place to see it!
Just when we think the civil war between NHLPA Executive Director Ted Saskin and those who question how he got the job is dying out, it pops back into the news.
First there was former PA executive committee member Trent Klatt's ill-fated attempts to remove Saskin by first questioning the vote procedures that saw him replace former director Bob Goodenow, and then the attempt to remove him by lodging complaints with the US National Labor Relations Board, which were summarily rejected.
Now comes news of a petition currently being circulated by dissident PA members seeking to launch an investigation into the affairs of the assocation. More specifically, into how Saskin got the job as executive director.
The driving force behind the petition, or at least it's self-designated spokesman, is Detroit Red Wings defenceman Chris Chelios, who's accused Saskin of cutting side deals with the league without the ratification of the players.
As per the news reports, the PA claims those deals were agreed to prior to the completion of the current CBA.
Chelios claims there are as many as fourteen teams who don't support Saskin and want him to re-sign. That, however, runs counter to the overwhelming vote support Saskin received last fall, which came in response to challenges on the earlier vote to hire him as executive diretor by the player reps.
There's been speculation throughout the season that Saskin's job could be in trouble, that when the players hold their general meeting in early July he could face an uprising of support against him.
But it's been difficult to get a read on the seriousness of these reports.
By most accounts, Saskin apparently enjoys overwhelming support of the majority of the players and agents. The dissident players and agents were at one time estimated between 50-80 players, almost all of them loyalist of former director Goodenow.
Chelios claims nearly half the league doesn't support Saskin, but there certainly hasn't been very much outspokeness on the part of the players to indicate this.
During the two previous challenges to Saskin's hiring, it was played up by some media sources as though he could be toppled at any time, that he was barely hanging onto his job.
Yet when the player vote was held, it was an unmistakable majority, and the NLRB found no basis to either investigate Saskin's hiring or challenge the legality of it.
Some of Saskin's critics compare his methods to disgraced former PA director Alan Eagleson, but that's like comparing apples and oranges
Eagleson was engaged in illegal activities for years that ultimately saw him not only forced to step aside as PA Director but also sentenced to prison for defrauding the very players he was supposed to represent.
There's no indication, from anybody, anywhere, that Saskin is either engaging in such practices nor that he's enroute to doing so.
I have no direct insight into the inner workings of the NHLPA, but from the information I have received from a couple of reliable sources, Saskin probably doesn't have much to fear from this challenge.
Whatever these side deals are that Chelios and the other dissidents are referring to, he'll have to prove it before the rest of the PA membership. Without proof, this'll be blown off as just more sour grapes from a small group of hotheads.
Perhaps the only real challenge to Saskin's continued tenure as the PA Executive Director is the escrow issue, in that he floated the notion in February about limiting the increase in the salary cap in order to ensure the lower paid players (which make up the bulk of the membership and thus his probable support base) don't end up paying more in escrow.
A vote on the matter was apparently twice postponed and now won't occur until the players general meeting in early July.
But even if the majority votes not to limit the increase and the players subsequently complain about escrow, it's probably not going to result in any immediate dismissal of Saskin.
Indeed, the escrow amounts withheld from the players would have to be considerable, perhaps well over 10 percent, over a lengthy before it could become a serious problem for Saskin.
That, however, is purely speculation on my part. The only way we'll get clarity on that issue will be when it plays out over the next couple of seasons.
As for the current efforts to remove Saskin, that should be determined by July.
One gets a real sense that this may be the last gasp of the dissidents to bring down Saskin. He's already survived two challenges almost effortlessly, and if a strong majority still supports him, there may not be enough names on that petition for him to worry about losing his job.
If this petition fails, it could be the last serious challenge Saskin will have to face from them.