Which on-the-bubble teams are most likely to clinch a playoff spot?

Tim Kolupanowich: In the second segment of Two For Roughing, we will be taking a look at the teams to watch during the final stretch of the 2011-12 regular season. Each team has 20 or fewer games remaining and it will once again be a close race for those final few playoff spots. We’ll start with the Eastern Conference where everything looks like it is in place, save for the Southeast Division. Only three points separate the Florida Panthers, Winnipeg Jets and Washington Capitals and the margin of error between home ice in the first round of the playoffs and missing out altogether is slim.

Jeff, what do you think is key for those teams as we enter the final month of the season?

Jeff Blay: What a close race indeed. We’ve all been surprised at Florida’s performance this season, but for them, sticking to the game plan that has got them this far is crucial down the stretch. The Panthers’ recent 7-0 loss to the division rival Jets was a great example of a team straying from its systems and becoming lazy at a time when they can’t afford to give up any points – let alone to a team nipping at their heels for the division lead. There’s no doubt Florida’s goaltending needs to be much better than it was in that game, but they have what it takes on the backend to regroup from the loss and certainly have some offensive punch, so it’s important for them to not get too anxious and play simple hockey throughout their remaining games. Winnipeg can’t afford to lose any points from here on in; Washington has three games at hand on the Jets and do have the potential to make a late-season push with their talent-lined roster, although if they continue their underachieving trend, it could be an early exit for the Caps. With that in mind, of the three teams, I think the most pressure is on Winnipeg to catch the Panthers for the division lead, so it will be interesting to see how the rather young team will responde to that pressure as the regular season winds down.

TK: The Jets have played more games than any team in the NHL heading into Friday night’s games, yet they hold just a one-point lead over the Capitals. However, in their past 10, the Jets are 5-3-2 while the Caps are 4-5-1, so Winnipeg is at least on an upswing. In the remaining games, the Panthers will play Capitals and Jets once each, while Washingon will faceoff against Winnipeg twice. Those two games are going to have huge implications on the playoff picture and will likely determine who makes it in and who doesn’t. As for the Jets’ youth, I believe it can help them. They are playing with a ton of energy right now and have nothing to lose. They weren’t supposed to be anywhere near where they are now, so there isn’t as much pressure on them as there is on the Capitals. Playoff disappointments are one thing, but to not make the playoffs will be a huge blow for this team and potentially bring on major changes in the offseason. Changing the coach didn’t help; they were 12-9-1 with Bruce Boudreau and have a slightly lower points percentage under Dale Hunter who has a 20-17-4 record with them the rest of the way. Something has to give and the next step is the players.

JB: Very good point, and there will no doubt be a major shakeup in Washington this summer if they don’t make the playoffs, which is looking more and more likely. Another interesting division to be mindful of down the stretch is the Pacific, which is currently led by the Phoenix Coyotes, who have been on a complete tear as of late with an 7-2-1 record in the past ten games. Both San Jose and Dallas currently have 73 points, although San Jose has played two less games. That said, the Stars have went 6-2-2 in their past 10 games while the Sharks have really been struggling with a dismal 2-7-1. The pressure’s on San Jose to regroup from their recent skid and get back on track, although the way the team has been playing lately, even if they did make it into the post-season, they could have a hard time getting past the first round. Martin Havlat has been his injured self this season after coming to San Jose from Minnesota for Dany Heatley, which has really hurt the Sharks secondary scoring. Another big surprise (and not in a good way) is the struggles of the Los Angeles Kings, who currently boast 70 points and a 29-23-12 record for fourth in the division. Even before acquiring sniper Jeff Carter just prior to the trade deadline, I thought the Kings had much more potential to fight for the division-lead than they have shown all season. They too have a not-so-desirable 4-4-2 record in their past 10.

TK: Those four teams are all within five points of one another and one of them is going to have to make the playoffs. I’ve always believed the most important thing in the postseason is going in on a hot streak, teams that peak too early never seem to go very far, so that means Phoenix and Dallas look very good right now to make the playoffs leaving the California rivals to battle it out for the final spot. It will be a shame if the Kings can’t make the playoffs the way Jonathan Quick has been playing. His 1.92 GAA and .932 save percentage is phenomenal, worthy of Vezina Trophy consideration, but they just can’t score which is surprising for a team boasting Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Carter. The same can be said for San Jose. After consecutive trips to the Western Conference final, to not make the playoffs this season will be a major step backwards. There are three games remaining between the Sharks and Kings, including the last two games in the regular season. Those will be playoff-like games and because the Sharks have so much more experience in that regard, I give them a slight edge to continue their season past the first week in April.

JB: The Dallas Stars have been a very surprising team this year. Jamie Benn has been a huge part of the team’s success and if they do make the playoffs ahead of the teams previously mentioned, I think it will be a case of overachieving. Another interesting note coming out of the West is the Colorado Avalanche. Although they’re 20-points behind the division-leading Canucks, they do boast 70 points and could potentially still gun for a playoff spot. Even if they don’t clinch one this season, with the moves made at the recent trade deadline in addition to the plethora of young talent that lines their rosters, look out for the Avs to become a playoff front runner in years to come.

That concludes our second segment of Two For Roughing, stay tuned for our next discussions next week!


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