Wednesday March 5th, 2008

Ask around and you'll hear the conventional wisdom that it'll take 93 points to ensure a playoff berth in the Western Conference. Detroit and Dallas should have their spots wrapped up in a week or so. Anaheim -- anyone notice they're 11-1 over the last month? -- and San Jose aren't far behind. Calgary and Minnesota, tied atop the Northwest Division thanks to the Flames' 1-0 win over Columbus on Tuesday night, look like safe bets to advance.

That means six of the eight available berths appear to be accounted for. While only Los Angeles is truly out of contention, it says here that the race for the final two spots will come down to three teams. (Click here for the Eastern forecast.)

Currently: Seventh place, 76 points Last 10: 5-4-1 Remaining sked: 15 games -- eight at home, six against teams below them in the standings

The Skinny: The Avs could use a visit from the Good Health Fairy. Despite playing long stretches without leading scorers Paul Stastny, Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth, Colorado remained, improbably, in the hunt. No sooner did the big three return to the lineup than Smyth again went down with a concusion and separated shoulder, along with Marek Svatos (knee). Both likely are lost for the remainder of the season.

Those absence would certainly make for grim prospects were it not for some fine work at the deadline, and just before it, by GM Francois Giguere. The value of free agent signee Peter Forsberg remains to be seen -- he looked to be capable, though not impactful in his NHL return on Tuesday night -- but the addition of Adam Foote and Ruslan Salei makes the formerly kitten-soft blueline considerably more imposing. It's no coincidence that the Avs have won four straight since Foote rejoined the club, or that this hot stretch coincides with a resurgence in the game of netminder Jose Theodore, who has given up two goals in five of his last six games. Confidence goes a long way at this time of year, and Colorado seems to be building it.

The Verdict: The Avs need to go 8-6-1 over the final month to get to the magic number, but their schedule won't make it easy. A strong performance over their next three games -- home to the Ducks and then a home-and-home with the Stars -- would power their stretch drive.

Currently: Eighth place, 76 points Last 10: 5-3-2 Remaining sked: 15 games -- seven at home, nine against teams below them in the standings

The Skinny: Their dominating road win against the Stars on Saturday, followed by a convincing pounding of the Oilers, gave the Preds a perfect start to a four-game road trip that they approached as one that would make or break their season. The penalty kill is clicking, they're getting solid goaltending from Dan Ellis, the young defense has stepped up, and the addition of Jan Hlavac has sparked a second scoring line.

It also helps that the first line has hit its highest level of the season. Jason Arnott and Alexander Radulov are playing strong two-way hockey, but the hot hand of the recently re-signed J.P. Dumont, currently riding a nine-game scoring streak that includes his career-best 25th goal, has ensured that the offense keeps ticking and clicking. Not bad for a team that most of us thought was dead in the water after losing so many key players to trades (Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell) or free agency (Peter Forsberg) last summer.

The Verdict: All they have to do is take care of business. One of the league's most inhospitable hosts, they have to make the most of their remaining home games. Mix in a couple more road wins -- they have three that look likely (Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago) -- and they should nab the final spot.

Currently: Ninth place, 74 points Last 10: 5-2-3 Remaining sked: 16 games -- eight at home, five against teams below them in the standings

The Skinny: Despite losing just once in regulation in February, they've been hemorrhaging points that would have given them separation. Specifically: losing five games in either the shootout or overtime. More alarming has been their inability to hold late leads. They blew a pair in the third period at home last week before completely wetting the bed with a 10-shot performance against Chicago on Sunday. After Tuesday night's loss, a game in which they were far less competitive than the 2-1 score indicates, they'd dropped four in a row and are looking more and more like a team that feels the noose tightening, rather than opportunity beckoning.

While the defense finally is at full strength, it doesn't look healthy. Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Mattias Ohlund all look to be playing at less than 100 percent. Goal scoring continues to be a problem, as it has all season long, and unless they get some offense from someone who wasn't born in Onskoldsvik, it's church for the Canucks.

The Verdict: For Vancouver to stay in shouting distance, Roberto Luongo has to play at an MVP level, but that's something he hasn't done consistently since pulling out of the All-Star Game. And even if he's rolling, the Canucks forwards have to prove they can hustle, and execute, just as reliably. Something tells me that won't happen.

Phoenix Coyotes: Wayne Gretzky's protestations notwithstanding, the 'Yotes have run out of time. By all rights, they should be out of it by this time next week after facing a brutal stretch that includes games against the Stars, Habs, Sens and Ducks. If that doesn't finish them, they have a daunting end run that includes two more games with the Stars, Ducks and Sharks. If only Ilya Bryzgalov had arrived earlier than mid-Novermber.

Chicago Blackhawks: They're on a roll -- 7-3 in their last 10 -- but it's too little, too late for West's most promising squad. The defense is too young (with three rookies and three others in just their third season), and too prone to mistakes to stand up to the pressures of the final month. Still, you can't blame their fans for dreaming...and wondering if things might have been different had the remarkable Johnny Toews not been lost for 18 games.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Last week's deadline activity that sent Foote to Colorado and Sergei Fedorov to Washington was the proverbial white flag on what has to be seen as a disappointing season. And for those die-hards who note that just six points separate the Jackets from the playoffs, consider this: they'd need to go 11-2-1 in their final 14 games to leap frog their way into contention. That ain't gonna happen.

St. Louis Blues: The payday for the rebuilding efforts of John Davidson and Larry Pleau will have to wait another year. At this point, the Blues are still a one-line team, and when that line goes as cold as this one has -- Paul Kariya, Brad Boyes and Keith Tkachuk have just nine points between them over the last 10 games -- it's little wonder they've slid out of contention.

Edmonton Oilers: Hey, their run to the Cup final in 2006 was predicated on a March hare-like dash, so anything's possible, right? Sure, but any team counting on two miracles like that better have a hotline to heaven...and judging by their bum luck this season, that seems unlikely. Like Columbus, they've dug themselves a hole that demands they pretty much have to run the table to blow by the pack. Anyone who thinks this .500 team can finish on an 11-3-1 roll -- even with the benefit of their elite penalty kill and 8-1 shootout record -- is setting himself up for disappointment.

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