With the end of the season only a couple of weeks away, playoff bound teams, or those still contending for a playoff berth,s are jockeying for position in the standings. With home ice advantage in the post-season at stake, it's usually important for teams to be heading into the playoffs operating at peak performance.
Conventional thinking has it that teams that struggle down the stretch fail to make much progress in the post-season. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Witness last year's successful playoff run by the New Jersey Devils, which was a team in turmoil in the final month of the regular season.
It's true that the playoffs are a second season, and anything can happen. But most fans and observers tend to like a team's chances if they're playing well in their final stretch of regular season games, leading up to the playoffs.
With that in mind, here's a look at what teams are hot, and which are not, as the 2000-01 season winds down. Please note the location of the teams were taken from the March 27th standings.
1. COLORADO AVALANCHE: The Avs are being touted as the team to beat in this year's playoffs, and for good reason. Their offensive depth is impressive, goaltender Patrick Roy is having one of his best seasons in years, and adding former Norris winner Rob Blake to a blueline corps of Ray Bourque, Adam Foote and Martin Skoula gives Colorado an impressive defensive foursome.
However, the Avs were also considered "the team to beat" during the last two seasons, but they came up short against the Dallas Stars in the Conference finals. The reason isn't hard to figure out, because despite boasting an impressive all-star lineup, the Avalanche have lacked the overall team defence required in the playoffs to go all the way.
Adding Blake to the roster helps, however, he's currently out with a knee injury, although the Avs expect him back for the playoffs. But again, there are concerns about their grittiness. This could be this current lineup's last best chance of going all the way, as Roy, Blake and team captain Joe Sakic are unrestricted free agents this summer, and all three may not be back.
2. DETROIT RED WINGS: Many observers believed the aging Red Wings risked falling out of standing as one of the top four teams in the West before this season started. However, "Team Fossil", as their detractors love to call them, apparently aren't ready to go gently into that good night.
The Detroit roster has been plagued by injury to key players, such as Chris Chelios, Steve Yzerman and Sergei Federov, and their top goaltender, Chris Osgood, has struggled throughtout the season. Yet the Wings have managed to stay on top, thanks to Scotty Bowman's strong coaching, as well as players such as forwards Brendan Shanahan and Martin Lapointe, defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom, and backup goalie Manny Legace stepping up their game.
Even their walking wounded, like Yzerman and Federov, have made major contributions throughout the season. If the Wings roster can stay reasonably healthy in the post-season, they could stand a good chance of returning to the Cup finals for the first time since their 1998 Cup win. However, the big question mark remains in goal. Legace has no post-season experience, and "Ozzie" continues to be inconsistent. Health and goaltending could determine the Wings fate this spring.
3. DALLAS STARS: While the Stars remain one of the best teams in the West, as well as in the NHL, they've been a club struggling through a transitional period. Key players such as goaltender Ed Belfour and forward Brett Hull have been publicly clashing with head coach Ken Hitchcock, while the lineup has been struggling to cope with the absence of veteran leadership, due to the retirement last summer of Guy Carbonneau. Injuries have also plagued the Stars this season.
At one point during the season, it was questioned as to whether or not Dallas would finish amongst the top four teams in the West. However, heading down the stretch, the Stars have become one of the better teams in the league, and are almost certain to clinch their division and home ice advantage for the playoffs.
The Stars are peaking at the right time, which could be bad news for their Conference opposition. If they can maintain this run, a third straight trip to the Stanley Cup finals is not out of the cards. However, they'll need to stay healthy, both in body and in mind, over the course of the next 2 1/2 months.
ST. LOUIS BLUES: The 2000 President's Trophy winner were in a neck-and-neck battle with the Avalanche for first overall in the conference and the league at the end of December. However, a rash of serious injuries to key players, such as Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, and Pavol Demitra,as well as inconsistent goaltending, have dashed their hopes for a second straight President's Trophy.
Not that this mattered to the Blues or their fans. Last spring, they were upset in the first round of the playoffs by the San Jose Sharks. To them, it's the Stanley Cup that matters. The Blues are still a very strong team, with notables such as Pierre Turgeon, Scott Young and rookie defenceman Alexei Khavanov stepping up this season. The acquisition by the trade deadline of forwards Keith Tkachuk and Cory Stillman should go a long way during helping them advance in the playoffs.
However, the Blues playoffs hopes rest on two key factors: getting Pronger and MacInnis back healthy for the playoffs, and an improvement in the quality of their goaltending. The netminding duo of Roman Turek and Brent Johnson have seen their overall stats drop from the first half of the season, due in no small part to the absence of the blueline pillars of Pronger and MacInnis. These two must take their play to the next level, otherwise, St. Louis could make another early post-season exit.
5. EDMONTON OILERS: The Oilers were struggling badly at one point during mid-season, until team captain and franchise guy Doug Weight rallied the troops with an inspirational dressing room talk. The Oilers set a team record for the longest unbeaten streak, and haven't looked back.
Of all the teams heading into the playoffs in the West this spring, the Oilers are emerging as a dark horse spoiler. Goaltender Tommy Salo has been outstanding over the past month, giving the Oilers playoff-calibre netminding. Edmonton is a fast-skating, hard-working young team that plays a very strong two way game, and have proven more than a match for some of the higher placed teams noted above.
That being said, this is a team that lives or dies by the goaltending of Salo, and the play of Weight. If either of these two struggle, or are lost to injury, the Oilers will be in serious trouble. However, if the Oilers carry over their strong play over the past month into the playoffs, they'll be more than a handful for their playoff opponents.
6. VANCOUVER CANUCKS: After nearly five years, hockey fans on Canada's West Coast look to finally see playoff hockey again. However, their club isn't a post-season lock yet, and what type of playoff hockey they'll see remains to be seen.
The Canucks have made an impressive turnaround this season, for many reasons. The strong play of team captain Markus Naslund. The notable improvement of defenceman Ed Jovanovski and forward Brendan Morrison. The notable performances of youngsters Harold Druken, Matt Cooke and the Sedin twins. Factor in the coaching of Marc Crawford, as well as the touch of GM Brian Burke in assembling this promising young team, and Vancouver's future looks bright.
However, there are two major areas of concern. First, Vancouver's netminding has been average, and acquiring promising young goalie Dan Cloutier hasn't done much to improve it. Most damaging to the Canucks, however, is the loss of Naslund to a season-ending leg injury. Without their top offensive performer and leader, and lacking a strong presence in goal, the Canucks playoffs hopes could be in jeopardy.
7. SAN JOSE SHARKS: The Sharks are well on their way to having their first season above .500 in team history. That's the good news. The bad news is, they're in danger of falling out of the playoffs, due to an awful stretch run performance.
At the All-Star break, it appeared the Sharks had finally broken through as a force to be reckoned with in the NHL. Top offensive stars Vincent Damphousse and Owen Nolan were burning up the scoresheets, and rookie goalie Evgeny Nabokov was one of the best netminders in the game. The Sharks played an aggressive, in-your-face style that most opponents dreaded facing.
However, a season-ending injury to Damphousse, a lengthy suspension for Nolan, and a drop off in Nabokov's play have seen the Sharks struggle mightily down the stretch. Even the March acquistion of sniper Teemu Selanne from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks has done little to reverse the Sharks fortunes. For the fourth straight season, the playoff hopes of the Sharks and their fans will be in question up until the end of the season.
8. PHOENIX COYOTES: It's been a memorable season for the Coyotes and their fans, but certainly not one they'll look back on with much fondness. Indeed, the Desert Dogs are battling for their playoff lives, with the LA Kings breathing down their necks.
For most of the season, the team had to deal with the off-ice distraction of their prolonged sale to Stephen Ellman and Wayne Gretzky. They also had to deal with questions regarding the future status of team captain Keith Tkachuk, impending free agent Jeremy Roenick, and holdout netminder Nikolai Khabibulin.
The trading of Khabibulin and Tkachuk within weeks of the team's sale coincided with the team's now-traditional second-half plunge in the standings. Despite the strong play of probable Vezina winner Sean Burke, the Coyotes could be on the outside looking in when the playoffs start. Should they make it in, only their die-hard fans give them much hope of breaking their 15 year curse of first round eliminations.
LOS ANGELES KINGS: The Kings are another team that has faced turmoil throughout much of the season, most of it centered around the status of impending free agent and team captain, Rob Blake, as well as their questionable goaltending.
Blake's messy contract negotiations, combined with months of trade speculations, helped to undo a strong start for Los Angeles. Coupled with the uneven play of goaltenders Jamie Storr and Stephane Fiset, by February the Kings had fallen as much as seven points out of playoff contention. The trading of Blake to Colorado, and the almost-desperate pickup of struggling goalie Felix Potvin from Vancouver, appeared to seal the Kings fate.