Thanks to a cap-induced leveling of the playing field, the must-win games for the league's bubble teams start popping up early in March instead of April. Six teams are in contention for four spots in the Eastern Conference (even though the Flyers are just two points ahead of the Habs, I consider them a lock). So who will bemoan a season of missed opportunities while cleaning out their lockers a month from today? All will be revealed below.
Click here for the Western Conference bubble picture.
Currently: Fifth place, 80 pointsLast 10: 6-3-1Remaining: 14 games -- 9 at home, 11 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: Give Bob Gainey credit for this much: he recognizes a losing hand when he deals one. Dragged down by Carey Price's lethargic glove hand, the endless distractions caused by the Kostitsyn brothers, the seeming indifference of Alexei Kovalev, and gallingly inconsistent team play, his Canadiens were close to folding when he cashiered old buddy Guy Carbonneau and replaced him behind the bench earlier this week. The question now: can he do any better with the same bunch of wild cards?
Gainey promptly promoted highly-regarded Hamilton coach Don Lever to provide a fresh and distinctive voice in the room. (Don would do well to see if Rosetta Stone has lessons in Quebecois. Being uni-lingual may be all that keeps him from assuming the head coaching position next fall). He also rearranged all three blueline pairings and is putting the focus back on team defense -- hey, just staunching the flow of turnovers would be a game-changer for this lot. If Gainey's smart, he'll go to the whip on Jaroslav Halak. Price may be the Golden Child, but Halak is better qualified to help them win now. Give poor old Carbo some credit for recognizing that much.
The Verdict: Gainey made his own life considerably easier when he brought in Mathieu Schneider just prior to the deadline. With the power play clicking again, the Habs should have just enough in the tank to seal a postseason bid.
Currently: Sixth place, 79 pointsLast 10: 8-1-1Remaining: 13 games -- 9 at home, 8 vs teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: New faces behind the bench and on it have transmogrified the Pens from disappointing to dangerous. Interim coach Dan Bylsma (brought in to replace Michel Therrien on Feb. 15) tossed the conservative approach and instead is playing to the team's strengths, emphasizing a physical, up-tempo style. Ray Shero imported gritty forwards Chris Kunitz, Bill Guerin and Craig Adams -- and banished Miroslav Satan to the minors -- to emphasize the change in approach and provide some balance for the forward lines.
So far, the results have been spectacular (9-1-2 under Bylsma). Kunitz and Guerin have Sidney Crosby back on his game, Evgeni Malkin has 16 points, and Marc-Andre Fleury has recaptured his spring '08 form. This team not only is displaying the grit that carried it through key confrontations last season, but the swagger, too. Watching them come back from three down to Columbus on Thursday night, you saw a team that looks like it just got its driver's license. The Penguins are cocky and ready to roll.
The Verdict: This is a different team than the one that struggled for much of the season. They'll make the playoffs as the team no one wants to face in the first round.
Currently: Seventh place, 78 pointsLast 10: 5-3-2Remaining: 14 games -- 7 at home, 4 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: After a sizzling start, the offensively challenged Rangers appeared grimly determined to dig their way out of the playoffs. But with a revamped crew -- including coach John Tortorella, deadline acquisitions Nik Antropov and Derek Morris, and scrap heap rescue Sean Avery -- the Bluehsirts are looking to drop their shovels and climb out of the hole. Problem is, they might have missed their chance. With a travel-heavy final month that includes visits to Carolina, Montreal, Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta and two games in Philadelphia, the Rangers have to be considerably better than the sub-.500 road team they've been to this point.
Torts is a demanding coach, so his presence ensures a level of personal accountability that's been missing for long stretches. Avery should provide a spark and Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the game's true difference-makers. But for the Rangers to make the grade, they need more out of a blueline corps that's hung him out to dry on too many nights, and a commitment from their contact-shy forwards to head to the trenches with lunch buckets in hand and grim determination in their hearts.
The Verdict: By sheer force of Tortorella's will, they'll hang on to the eighth spot.
Currently: Eighth place, 78 pointsLast 10: 6-3-1Remaining: 12 games -- 8 at home, 7 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: The savvy re-acquisition of Erik Cole at the deadline lit a spark under Eric Staal and helped power Carolina to a three-game win streak that saw them outscore their opposition 20-6. Rod Brind'Amour, who spent most of the season looking for directions, suddenly has four goals in four games and looks like the force he was the last time the Canes made the playoffs.
Unfortunately, old habits die hard, and they reverted to their kinder, gentler, losing ways against the Hawks and Stars -- two teams struggling through some tough times of their own. The problem: a near total absence of physical play and a forward corps that seems all too happy to dance around the perimeter waiting for scoring chances to magically appear instead of creating them by going hard to the net.
Cam Ward's doing his best to keep them alive down the stretch, continuing what's shaping up to be a career-best season. But without consistent offensive help, and with a schedule that looks like it's going to work against them (with two against the Caps and three against the Devils), he's going to hard-pressed to carry the load.
The Verdict: They're too soft and the schedule's too hard. The streak of postseason disappointment continues.
Currently: Ninth place, 77 pointsLast 10: 5-4-1Remaining: 14 games -- 9 at home, 7 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: If the Panthers extend their streak of futility that began in 2001, they might look back at the blown opportunities of this past week as the fatal blow. Losing on the road to Pittsburgh and Buffalo -- two teams that trailed them at the time -- not only cost them critical points, but highlighted the flaw that Jacques Martin failed to address at the deadline. Florida just doesn't score often enough -- only the Rangers have fewer goals in the Eastern Conference race -- and that problem has been exacerbated by the long-term loss of key forward Nathan Horton and the shorter sidelining of Bryan McCabe.
The Panthers have two factors working in their favor as they scrap to keep their hopes alive. Tomas Vokoun (who was magnificent in the two recent losses) and a history of strong finishes. They closed out last season 10-4-1 and went 10-5-3 to finish off the 2006-07 campaign. Neither push got them into the postseason, so maybe the third time's the charm. They also have a friendlier schedule down the stretch than most of their competitors will face. Florida begins a five-game homestand on Saturday. Build some momentum there and they should have enough gas to cruise to the finish line.
The Verdict:Pete DeBoer will force his name into the Jack Adams debate as his Panthers claw their way back into the playoffs.
Currently: Tenth place, 75 pointsLast 10: 4-5-1Remaining: 14 games -- 7 at home, 5 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: Buffalo's power play ranks fifth overall. So does their penalty kill. They're ninth in goals-against, and 14th in goals-for. They've compiled these stats despite extended absences from key performers like Ryan Miller, Thomas Vanek and Tim Connolly.
On the surface, the numbers suggest that these Sabres should be in position to snatch a playoff spot, maybe even home ice in the first round...so why are they on the outside looking in? Truth is, they're just not that good. Parts of their game work some nights, but they rarely put all the pieces together. Calling them inconsistent is being too kind. As a group, they're neither particularly talented, nor do they seem motivated to play with passion and intensity. Like the Hurricanes, they're just too soft on too many nights.
The Verdict: Not gonna happen . . . but Buffalo fans will at least have Terrell Owens to talk about this spring.