With nine clubs struggling for the final four playoff spots in the Western Conference, it's tough to say whether the most gripping action during the final month will be on the ice or the out-of-town scoreboard.
The blink-and-they'll-change standings will make for a compelling conclusion, but not everyone is up to the kind of stomach-churning anxiety that will mark the stretch run. So with a nod to the TiVo generation, I'm here to fast forward to April 13 and reveal how it will all play out. Don't want to know what comes next? Consider this your spoiler alert.
Vancouver is in. This week's stumbles aside (and no, the SI mag cover curse does not apply to the dotcom Power Rankings), Alain Vigneault's Canucks are going to be a dangerous bunch come April. Fast, deep and backed by the splendid Roberto Luongo, they're headed for a must-see first round collision with the Blackhawks.
It's also safe to line up for playoff tickets in Columbus. Steve Mason's goaltending and Ken Hitchcock's defensive scheming will guide the Blue Jackets to their first brush with postseason hockey.
Here's how the rest of the West will shake out. Click here for the Eastern forecast.
Currently: Seventh place, 74 pointsLast 10: 4-5-1Remaining: 13 games -- 5 at home, 7 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: When the ballots for the Jack Adams Award are tallied, it's a good bet that Dave Tippett's name won't rank among the three finalists. Understandable -- voters tend to flock to coaches whose teams have made dramatic jumps, rather than double-digit drops -- but also wildly unfair. Tippett's had his share of detractors in the past (yours truly included), but the job he's done this season with the injury-riddled Stars is the true measure of elite bench management.
Long-term absences of three top-six forwards (Brenden Morrow, Brad Richards and Jere Lehtinen) and number one blueliner Sergei Zubov have forced Tippett to work with an expansion-caliber roster much of the season. While lack of talent has cost the Stars far too many points (especially at home), they've not suffered from a lack of effort. But as their recent six-game home losing streak demonstrated, they need more from the skill players who are still in uniform if they hope to make the cut. Mike Ribeiro's pulling his weight, but Marty Turco remains as reliable as Jim Cramer's stock advice, and Mike Modano spends more time coasting than the Texas Giant. With a tough, road-heavy sked ahead -- they play the Canucks, Flames and Sharks this week -- this trio needs to step up and buy their mates some time until reinforcements arrive from the IR.
The Verdict: At this point, I'd believe that Tippett actually could get blood from a stone. They'll hold on to the eighth spot.
Currently: Eighth place, 73 pointsLast 10: 3-2-5Remaining: 14 games -- 8 at home, 8 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: They have a fatal flaw: they don't seem to realize that there are 60 minutes in a hockey game. Or, more to the point, that they need solid effort for each and every one of those 60 minutes. Inconsistency is the bane of most teams that fall short, but the Oilers are raising it to an art form, frittering away any hopes for the postseason with their inability to compete at a high level through three periods. Their 1-1-4 record in March is their season in microcosm. In each of those overtime losses, they lacked the killer instinct to capitalize on a go-ahead goal. It doesn't help that their special teams are miserable, the power play can't help build a lead and the penalty kill can't protect one. When a team keeps playing on such a thin margin, it eventually catches up.
The Verdict: It's possible that Dwayne Roloson could channel the 2006 version of himself and carry the Oilers into the playoffs on his own . . . but it's unlikely. Edmonton's due for an early summer.
Currently: Ninth place, 73 pointsLast 10: 7-2-1Remaining: 13 games -- 5 at home, 5 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: There's no hotter team in the West, an amazing state of affairs for a club whose anemic offense and propensity for making that one lethal mistake inspired many observers to fit them for a toe tag around the All-Star break. But here they are in the thick of the race, their resurgent offense sparked by the return of dynamic winger Steve Sullivan, the defense fortified by Calder dark horse Pekka Rinne.
Rinne's on a remarkable roll -- he blanked the Coyotes on Saturday for his seventh shutout of the season -- but the offense will have to move forward without Jason Arnott, who is day-to-day with a concussion. That's a tough loss, but the bigger problem is the schedule. With eight of their final 13 on the road -- where they're currently seven under .500 -- they'll have to find a way to win the kinds of games they were losing earlier in the season. It won't be easy. They're stuck facing some elite competition, including two each against the Sharks and Red Wings, and one against the Hawks. But as the Preds head into this week's pivotal three-game excursion to California, starting Monday in L.A., they can hope for a reprise of their last trip in November, when they went 3-0.
The Verdict: With so little margin for error, this race is Rinne's to win or lose. Count on the Preds to squeak in.
Currently: 10th place, 72 pointsLast 10: 7-3Remaining: 13 games -- 4 at home, 3 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: Not to flicker the lights on Dallas' pity party, but the Stars have got nothing on the Blues when it comes to roster devastation. No team in the West has lost more man games to injury, so it speaks to the impressive depth of talent in the system, and the fine coaching of Andy Murray, that this young group remained competitive while Paul Kariya and Andy McDonald, Eric Brewer and Erik Johnson spent much of the season wearing civvies and eating cold popcorn in the press box.
Actually, it's a bit of a soft sell to call the Blues competitive. St. Louis has been one of the hottest teams of the second half -- 15-5-5 in its last 25 games. Just two, Detroit and New Jersey, have been better since the calendar flipped. Give much of the credit to Chris Mason, who has excelled between their pipes in a way the Blues haven't seen since the heyday of Curtis Joseph.
It'd be a great story if the Blues managed to grab a spot, but the schedule is conspiring against them. Not only is it heavy with high-end opponents, but nine of their final 14 are on the road. While they've been solid away from Scottrade Center (a conference-best 8-4-2 since the beginning of January), they'll need to play at an even higher level down the stretch to claim one of the final two spots. It'll be close.
The Verdict: The way things are going, it's inevitable that some team is going to have its heart broken as it misses a playoff spot by a single point or worse: through a tie-breaker. That team will be the Blues.
Currently: 11th place, 72 pointsLast 10: 2-5-3Remaining: 13 games -- 6 at home, 1 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: One thing you'll never hear the Wild complain about: loser points. Despite winning just two of their past 10 games, they've managed to keep their postseason dream alive by having the tenacity to hold off defeat until extra time in four of those losses.
You have to wonder where they'd be if Marian Gaborik hadn't spent virtually the entire season on IR, or if GM Doug Risebrough had displayed even the slightest desire to reward his hard-working club -- and their beleaguered fans -- with some kind of offensive help at the trade deadline. Imagine what could have been if he'd had the courage to pay the price for, say, Olli Jokinen, who might not have scored eight goals in six games for Minnesota, but the big center could have turned a couple of those OTLs into Ws. And then . . .
But the Wild way is what it is, and they're paying the price for it now. There's a chance Gaborik could swoop in at the last minute to provide some kind of boost, but it'll be too little, too late. A team that hasn't strung three wins together since the middle of November probably doesn't deserve to be in the postseason anyway.
The Verdict: Standing pat at the deadline sealed their fate. The Wild are going home early. For the sake of their fans, here's hoping Risebrough's tenure ends at the same time.
Currently: 12th place, 70 pointsLast 10: 4-5-1Remaining: 13 games -- 6 at home, 5 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: Although the white flag hasn't yet been raised, Bob Murray's free-agent fire sale at the deadline demonstrated it's all about next year for the Ducks. It was the only sensible move, even with the playoffs within reach. Despite having much of the 2007 Cup lineup intact, these Ducks have been a study in frustration. There have been stretches that hinted at a far more glorious potential, but Anaheim was done in by an egregious lack of discipline. They claimed officials treated them unfairly (going so far as to demand an audience with head official Stephen Walkom to clear the air), but the fact is that there are too many players on this team willing to look for shortcuts. They got what they deserved.
Still, you look at their sked the rest of this month and you see the Preds, Avs, Coyotes and Oilers twice each and you think, hmmmm . . .
The Verdict: Their season ends April 11. At least they'll slot decently into the draft order.
Currently: 13th place, 68 pointsLast 10: 4-5-1Remaining: 14 games -- 4 at home, 2 vs. teams below them in the standings
The Skinny: Let's recognize this for what it is: a courtesy mention. Trailing the Oilers by just five points suggests the Kings are yet in the race. Realistically, they're toast by virtue of having to leapfrog five teams to grab the final spot. To make the cut, they'll need to finish something like 10-2-2, and with nine of their final 14 on the road -- including dates with the Bruins, Penguins, Hawks, Flames and Canucks -- that's about as unlikely as Ron Duguay coming back for one last twirl.
The Verdict: Wanna make back some of those stock market losses? Lay it all on the Kings falling short.