Darren Eliot
Thursday January 20th, 2005

Everyone talks as if anything is possible down the stretch. And, to a degree, anything is possible.

But for those teams on the outside of the playoff picture, be warned: only one team moved into playoff position last season after the break. That team was Anaheim, and the Ducks made the most of their move up, which coupled with the free-fall of the Blackhawks.

The West is just as muddled this season at the bottom of the playoff race, while in the East -- as was the case a year ago -- the intrigue lies at the top.

Last season, the Devils held off the Flyers by a point in an Atlantic Division slugfest, and the Senators eventually separated from the Devils and Flyers as the East's top seed, winning the Presidents' Trophy in the process. Those teams are all in place again this season, along with the Maple Leafs, who are trying to hold off the hard-charging Sens atop the Northeast.

The Lightning appear to be a lock to repeat as Southeast champs, with the Islanders, Bruins and Canadiens firmly in place to round out the top eight.

If that holds true -- and given the propensity for a lack of bottom-up movement late in the season -- the only postseason change in terms of participants would be Habs in, Capitals out. In fact, it appears the Bolts will be the lone Southeast team to make the playoffs, while the Northeast will boast as many as four participants.

Out West, there is more upheaval -- both down the stretch and compared to last spring. There was monumental late-season push by the Avalanche to secure the Northwest Division title, as they overtook the Canucks on the season's final weekend. Colorado holds the upper hand in the divisional race again this season, but both teams are playoff-bound. Meanwhile, the surging Stars are looking for a similar push in the Pacific, trying to overcome their sluggish start to overtake the NHL's most surprising team, the Sharks.

Mostly, though, the most interesting races are at the bottom of the projected seedings. The Kings are desperately trying to defy the long odds of making the playoffs despite leading the league in man games lost, including their top three offensive players -- Adam Deadmarsh, Jason Allison and Ziggy Palffy. The Flames are vying for their first playoff berth in seven seasons, and the Nashville Predators are in the mix for their first ever postseason appearance.

The big news there is that the Blues are in peril of missing the playoffs for the first time in 25 seasons. Historical reference is of little value this time around when you consider that two points separates the four teams currently ranked sixth through ninth. And with the added emphasis on divisional play, with one extra game, it is simply just too close to call. That means there is still hope -- in St. Louis and elsewhere. And that is what the stretch drive is all about.

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