Darren Eliot
Monday April 5th, 2010

Heading into the final week of the season, much of the attention is on the races for the final playoff seeds and the ordering that will dictate the match-ups in the first round. But at the top of the brackets, the Stanley Cup contenders are trying to make sure they are in the best place possible both physically and mentally to make a run at the championship.

In the Eastern Conference, for instance, the defending champion Penguins went through a recent malaise that saw them lose seven of 11 games, with a particularly flat performance in a 2-0 loss at home to lowly Tampa Bay on March 31. The Pens got Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar back for their game against the Atlanta Thrashers on Saturday, and won 4-3 in overtime.

Now, the outcome was one thing, but of more import in the big picture was the fact that with Gonchar back after missing four games with strep throat, the Pens power play tallied twice -- once by Gonchar on a point blast that tied the game with a little over a minute to go. Malkin had returned after missing seven of the team's last eight contests due to a bruised foot. He was dominating at times, with a goal and an assist while creating numerous scoring chances with brilliant stickhandling.

Sidney Crosby had three assists in the game, but it's clear that the Penguins with Gonchar and Malkin are a vastly different team. Gonchar is their TOI leader and a dependable postseason peformer. Crosby, Malkin and Jordan Staal down the middle provide the Pens' with their singular strength from a depth perspective and, accordingly, a match-up advantage. Take one of them out and you can't get a gauge on where the team really is. With them all healthy and in the lineup, the Pens are much more strongly poised for a defense of the chalice.

As obvious as that concept sounds, look no further than the Red Wings. All season they've battled injuries and scuffled in the standings, spending much of the regular schedule outside the top eight. When regulars Nick Kronwall and Jonathan Eriksson returned to the blueline and Johan Franzen and Tomas Holmstrom rejoined the attack, the Wings took off and now look like they might finish as high as fifth in the standings out west.

Getting healthy throughout the lineup has put Detroit's pairings and lines in their proper slots. As such, Nick Lidstrom is again providing punch from the back end and Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are much more dangerous offensively with a more robust supporting cast. Overall, the Red Wings are the top-performing team since the Olympic break, with a 14-3-2 mark. Thus, Detroit has gone from a playoff afterthought to a serious threat to go deep yet again this spring.

In DC, the Capitals are dealing mainly with mental health issues. Alex Ovechkin seems to be pressing, He has only four goals in the 14 games since the Vancouver Olympics, and has been held scoreless in eleven. He is also a minus-4 over that span after leading the NHL in the category all season. Bruce Boudreau needs Ovechkin to refocus mentally. The sniper's fuzzy performances of late have prompted the coach to comment that maybe Ovechkin needs to work a little harder defensively and let his offense naturally flow from that effort.

Similarly, Boudreau has been putting the emphasis on having goaltender Jose Theodore reestablish his consistency. With the Capitals rolling (51 wins and only 15 regulation losses all season) and Theodore having posted a 17-0-3 record between a regulation loss on January 12 and one on March 28, the message may seem misplaced. Actually, though, it speaks to what's at stake beginning next week.

Boudreau won't tolerate complacency and loose habits because they can surely undo the Capitals' longer-term goal. The coach is addressing Theodore's recent back-to-back starts in which he was pulled in a 5-3 loss to Calgary and yielded five goals in an OTL home loss to Ottawa before righting himself with a 34-save performance in a 3-2 win at Columbus on Saturday. Championship-caliber goaltending has long been one of Washington's biggest needs, and Theodore must be locked-in at top form if the team is to begin answering questions about its ability to go deep and possibly win it all.

On and on at the top, the mental and physical tweaking continues.

The Sharks got Joe Thornton back after a three-game hiatus due to a lower body injury and he promptly pitched in with two assists in Colorado although he admitted after the game to feeling a bit winded. No doubt, the Sharks' final three games will prove vital in restoring his conditioning.

The Blackhawks, meanwhile, are pursuing San Jose for the west's top seed while looking for a goaltender to assert himself. Antti Niemi has started their last five games -- going 3-2 while allowing only two goals in the last three -- and nine of their last 10. Coach Joel Quenneville has expressed some satisfication, particularly in his team's improved defensive play of late. But he's stopped short of appointing Niemi as Chicago's playoff netminder, so there is still concern that the team's most oft-cited flaw will prove to be its undoing when the going really gets tough.

The Devils -- struggling on a recent 3-3-3 skid -- continue to seek the right line combinations to accommodate the offensive bent of Ilya Kovalchuk, most recently having Patrik Elias move to center. New Jersey is also undertaking its annual pursuit of making sure that Martin Brodeur gets enough rest to be playoff-ready. In his case, rest -- both physical and mental -- centers on non-game days off and the relative grind of travel. Resting on game days has never really been something that Brodeur prefers.

One week from now, the ability of these elite teams to fix their flaws will go a long way toward determining if form holds or we see a round of upsets in the early going.

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