Friday April 2nd, 2010

The Colorado Avalanche announced on Thursday that playoff tickets will go on sale Saturday.

No, it wasn't a well-timed gag, though going by their play of late -- over the last month, the Avs have been a house of horrors befitting Halloween more than April Fool's Day -- one could be forgiven for double-checking the calendar.

Actually, if the team had been smart, it would have moved the sale up to today. Because if things don't go well when the eighth-place Avs host the ninth-place Calgary Flames, there might not be much demand for those ducats.

Though the clash is being promoted as a must-win game for both sides, that's not quite true. The Flames have four games after it, the Avalanche five, leaving some room for last-minute jockeying. But with two points and a world of momentum separating them in the race for the final playoff spot in the West, the game sets up as the most important contest either has played this season.

What's hard to believe is that it ever got to this point. When these teams met back on March 17, the Avs held a comfortable nine-point lead. The Flames earned a 3-2 win that night in Denver, a victory that could have propelled their their playoff pursuit. Instead, they stumbled along, running up a 4-3 record that included humiliating losses and pulse-pounding wins. Exactly the sort of performance you'd expect from a team that's good but not quite good enough to earn an invite to the postseason party. But even mediocrity wasn't enough to extinguish the Flames. Not with the Avalanche grinding to a halt.

Since that night, the Avs are 1-4-1, allowing Calgary to carve away at their lead until it was down to just a pair of points. And with a regulation loss in their final meeting of the regular season, it's down to zero.

Winning in 60 is key to Calgary's cause. If the two teams are deadlocked at the end of the season, the Avs are likely to have the edge in wins (41-39 at the moment). They already have the head-to-head battle locked up after winning the first four meetings. But it has to burn Colorado that it's come to this. That they've become the cliche: the team that peaked too soon.

That's part of learning how to win in this league, but right now it's an awfully tough lesson to swallow.

Where other teams are ramping up their intensity, the Avs seem to be withdrawing. And while they'd never say as much, you get the sense that their confidence is flagging in a clearly exhausted Craig Anderson. Remember when he was a leading candidate for the Vezina earlier in the season? Not anymore.

Not to take anything away from his remarkable season -- where would they be without his heroics? -- but Anderson is dragging. His glove hand has slowed, his positioning is off. His slumping play is the biggest reason that, in the 15 games since the Olympics, Colorado has allowed 3.60 goals per game. That's a significant step down from Edmonton's 30th-ranked 3.36 season average and a full goal more than the 2.59 that the Avs were surrendering prior to the break.

Of course, Anderson's not the only reason for the slide. The team's overall defensive effort has slipped as it has scrambled to do too much. The forwards, Paul Stastny's line in particular, are being exposed for their poor positioning. And then there are the turnovers, a problem illustrated time and again during Wednesday's demoralizing 5-2 loss to the Ducks.

Though they were credited with just seven on the night by the kind-hearted Anaheim statisticians, the true number might have been double. It's a sign of a team that's trying to do too much. And that lack of patience is biting them hard.

But as grim as this skid has been, there's hope. Truth is, Colorado's fate is in its own hands. Beat the Flames, and the Avs are back in charge.

They'll also get a big boost when Brandon Yip, the rookie sparkplug who missed the month of March with a shoulder separation, and Stephane Yelle return to the lineup. Yip had 11 goals in 26 games prior to his injury and Yelle brings a steadying veteran presence. Both could play a key role in the Flames game and down the stretch.

Will that be enough to snap this skid? Hard to say. But the Avs might want to make sure they have a few extra operators standing by, just in case.

It wasn't long ago that I was convinced the Sutter brothers had enough collateral to buy at least one more season to turn things around in Calgary. Now, despite this late run, it's hard not to get the sense that things have changed. Unless the pressure is relieved by advancing past the first round, you could see a new look in place before the draft. If that happens, Steve Yzerman is expected to be the team's first choice for the general manager's position.

But would he want it?

It's not even certain that Yzerman, who has served as vice-president of the Red Wings since Sept. 2006, believes he's ready for the challenge of managing an NHL team just yet. And if he is, he may not be looking for a Ty Pennington special like Calgary.

Consider what he'd have to deal with. He'd be handcuffed financially by the contracts awarded recently to Rene Bourque and Matt Stajan and a very expensive blueline. The team has no first round pick this summer -- that chip was dealt to Phoenix last year at the deadline for Olli Jokinen. The system is regarded as one of the bottom 10 in the league, thanks to years of questionable drafting. And the team's core is aging rapidly. Both Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff are in their mid-30s -- ideal if the team was in position to challenge for the Stanley Cup, but it will be long-in-the-tooth before this thing gets back on course.

Yzerman is so highly regarded as a managerial prospect that he can afford to pick his spot. Calgary might offer the type of challenge he craves. More likely, though, he holds off for something more appealing.

I think Kings coach Terry Murray is being completely genuine when he says there's no goaltending controversy in Los Angeles. Despite his recent struggles (.852 save percentage in his last four starts), Jonathan Quick is the number one guy in LA. Everyone knows it, including Jonathan Bernier, the superlative young stopper who excelled after being recalled on an emergency basis last week (3-0, 1.30 GAA).

That said, don't count on Quick being the guy who runs the table in the postseason.

Sure, he'll get the first shot. He's earned it. But it's undeniable that Bernier has given the team a boost when it was struggling to find its defensive soul over the last couple weeks. He made 34 stops in a crucial 2-0 win over conference rival Nashville on Tuesday, making him the youngest goalie in franchise history to earn a shutout. He might have done nearly as well Thursday against Vancouver if his teammates hadn't hung him out to dry after building an early 5-0 lead on the way to an 8-3 win.

In short, he gave the Kings a chance to find their footing after a disquieting four-game losing streak sent them tumbling closer to ninth than they should have been. But that'll be it...for now, anyway. Quick, who has won a franchise-record 39 games this season, will get the start Saturday when the Kings host Anaheim. The Kings shipped Bernier back to Manchester as regular backup Erik Ersberg has been cleared to play. It seems likely, though, that he'll get another chance before the season's out to prove himself in Los Angeles. And if Quick falters once the playoffs start, Bernier could get his chance

Stars shakeup

It's looking even more likely now that Mike Modano's Hall of Fame career is coming to a close. The injured Dallas center, who should be back in action this weekend after missing nine games following an appendectomy, announced that his parents would fly to Minnesota to attend the Stars' season finale on April. 10. Now, it could just be that his folks have been looking for an excuse to check out the Mall of America, but it sure feels like he's covering his bases, doesn't it?

Speaking of the Stars, we may also be watching Mike Ribeiro's last games wearing that dull wordmark jersey. In many ways, he won't be missed. Even if Modano leaves, the team has plenty of center depth with Brad Richards, Jamie Benn and the recently-signed Steve Ott and Tom Wandell, so losing Mickey Ribs and his nearly a point-per-game contribution wouldn't be a killer. More to the point, the team needs a different quality for the second line. Dallas could afford to sacrifice some offensive flash for a little more size and physicality in the role. They could also use Ribeiro as a chip to acquire some much needed blueline help. Either way, the Stars will be better off for whatever they get in return.

Ribeiro was already rumored to be on his way out before a disciplinary breach on the road last week (he missed a team meeting) earned him a spot in the press box as a healthy scratch for Dallas' 4-1 win over the Kings. If he had any supporters in the organization before that incident, they're considerably more scarce now.

Spring's best matchup

My hometown loyalties aside, I think I'd rather watch the Ontario Hockey League's second-round battle between the Windsor Sptifires and Plymouth Whalers than just about any matchup I can picture in the NHL this spring. Of course, so would every scout whose team has a prayer of drafting in the top five.

The series, which got underway Thursday night with a 5-1 win for the Spitfires, features the top three prospects for this June's draft: Windsor left winger Taylor Hall and defenseman Cam Fowler, and Plymouth center Tyler Seguin.

At this point, Hall, the top-ranked player according to the NHL's Central Scouting Bureau, has little to prove. The MVP of the 2009 Memorial Cup, a member of Canada's World Junior squad, the OHL's leading scorer....he's shown his ability to ramp up his game when it matters most. And if the team with the first overall selection is looking for a dynamic scorer off the wing -- think Alexander Mogilny -- then Hall is an easy choice.

But there's plenty to like about Seguin, a crafty playmaker who shared that OHL scoring crown with Hall. A supporting player during last year's six-game series, he'll be front and center this time around. And with so little separating the two, an outstanding performance here could provide an edge.

Give that early edge to Hall, who scored a pair of goals in Thursday's win. That gives him multi-point performances in each of Windsor's five playoff games and four consecutive multi-goal efforts. Seguin was pointless and a minus-three. Not the best night on his resume, but as one scout said this morning, "He's got plenty of bounce-back in him."

The series resumes Saturday in Plymouth and could extend to April 12 if it goes seven games. That'd make for a nice ramp up to the NHL's draft lottery, which will be held in New York on April 13.

A modest proposal

I mentioned this last season, but it's worth bringing up again: I'd really like to see the Central Hockey League's anti-scrum rule enacted in the NHL. The legislation, which is in effect for the playoffs only, puts an immediate end to all of the post-whistle, goalmouth silliness by dictating that the referee must penalize one involved player for every incident. The actual call can vary by situation -- roughing, interference, unsportsmanlike conduct -- but there will always be a man advantage arising from any gathering of the clans. And since the players know there'll be a call, but don't know which team it'll go against, they're inclined to beat a safe retreat to the face-off circle or the bench at a stoppage. A CHL official said the rule saves time and keeps the energy focused where it belongs: between the whistles. I like it.

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