Darren Eliot
Monday February 22nd, 2010

NHL teams will soon be turning their attention to next week's resumption of play that begins on Monday night in Denver where the Avalanche host the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings, currently tied with the Dallas Stars at 28-21-12, find themselves in the unfamiliar circumstance of chasing down a playoff spot. Both the Stars and Wings trail the Calgary Flames by a single point, having played one less game. In seventh are the Nashville Predators with 71 points.

Also in the mix out west are the Anaheim Ducks with 67points. Two points behind are St. Louis, with Minnesota another point back. The problem for the Blues and Wild is not only the point differential between them and the top eight, it's the number of teams between them and the cut-off line. But as the Blues proved last season, an unprecedented run to a berth isn't out of the possibility.

Still, in the Red Wings, Stars and Ducks, you're looking at teams in transition despite their long playoff histories. Certainly the Wings are legitimate playoff contenders. They're counting on their roster returning to health after the Olympics and, with that, a more robust offense. If Johan Franzen, Tomas Holmstrom and Niklas Kronwall can all stay healthy, then the prospect of Detroit in the playoffs is much more probable. If the sparkling play of Brian Rafalski for Team USA should carry over, then the Wings' once-vaunted power play will likely be another factor in Detroit's improved play down the stretch..

The Stars' situation is interesting in that they acquired goaltender Kari Lehtonen from Atlanta before the Olympics and the move seemed to spur incumbent Marty Turco. He backstopped successive wins before the break, stopping 73 of 74 shots, including a 45-save shutout at Phoenix.

Maybe the deal had nothing to do with Turco's triumphs. The veteran netminder had surrendered only four goals in his previous three starts before the Lehtonen trade, including another shutout against the Coyotes. Turco was 3-1-1 -- the lone loss a 1-0 defeat in Columbus -- leading into the break and he gave a glimpse of the type of performances he needs to put up for the Stars to advance to the postseason derby -- assuming, of course, that they opt to keep him. Turco's name was frequently mentioned as trade bait before he got hot.

Meanwhile, the Ducks sorted out their goaltending before the Olympics, with Jonas Hiller getting a new four-year contract and J-S Giguere going to the Toronto Maple Leafs in a trade. Hiller responded with four standout performances, going 3-1, and has remained sharp for Switzerland at the Games. He'll need to continue providing world-class goaltending for the Ducks. Another factor for in Anaheim's favor is the play of Teemu Selanne. He has become the all-time scoring leader in Olympic history and, if healthy and happy, the Finnish sniper can only boost the Ducks' playoff push.

In the East, the Montreal Canadiens are clinging to the eighth seed with 64 points, but they've played the most games (63) of any team. The Tampa Bay Lightning and New York Rangers sit a point back, with the Thrashers just one behind them. Atlanta has three games in hand on the Habs, two on the Rangers and one on the Bolts. Also, 14 of the Thrashers' remaining games are on home ice, as they've played the fewest home games of any team in the NHL thus far.

Still, the Thrashers will have to make their playoff push without longtime star scorer Ilya Kovalchuk. Niclas Bergfors and Johnny Oduya, acquired from New Jersey in the Kovalchuk trade, performed well while the new-look Thrashers went 2-1-2 (four of the games were on the road) without their departed captain. It will all come down to creating a new team identity on the fly -- one that must generate better results at home where the Thrashers are only 13-10-4.

The plight of the Lightning is just the opposite. They've been a good home team, but abysmal on the road, winning just 9 of 31 tilts away from Hockey Bay. That includes the last two before the break, where the Lightning lost three in a row while surrendering five goals in each. The combination of inconsistent defense and trouble on the road will be lethal to the Bolts as they try to vault into the top eight. A big part of that is their goaltending situation. Mike Smith has struggled to stay healthy and, as a result, hasn't established any sort of rhythm this season. Antero Niittymaki carried Tampa for a month prior to the break, so maybe it is now his team.

For the Rangers, there are no such issues in goal, where Henrik Lundqvist is as good as it gets. Problem is, where the Rangers once regularly acknowledged the Madison Square Garden faithful with a team salute after home victories, that nice touch has been far too sporadic this season. Despite Ludqvist's excellence, the Rangers are only 14-15-4 at home. Maybe having only eight home games remaining is a good thing, but I doubt it. More than anything, the Rangers need a boost from Olympians Ryan Callahan and especially Chris Drury. Both have assumed important roles for Team USA. Drury scored an important third period goal in a 5-3 win over Team Canada. It might just be the spark he needs for a strong finish to the NHL's regular season. That would really help the Rangers' cause.

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