Debate: Making a case for the playoffs

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun burn through today's hot topics in the world of the NHL. Without dropping the gloves.

BURNSIDE: Well, my friend, it's just about time to wrap up our sojourn at the NHL GMs’ meetings. You’re headed to New York to catch Sidney Crosby’s return versus the New York Rangers on Thursday night, while I’m headed a little farther south to catch the Florida Panthers and the Boston Bruins. On Tuesday I talked to GM Peter Chiarelli about his team’s play, and he wasn’t very happy, needless to say, with his team’s up-and-down stretch. And that was before Tampa spanked his team 6-1 on Tuesday night. Not a good outing for newly acquired netminder Marty Turco, who was supposed to provide relief for Tim Thomas with backup Tuukka Rask out with an injury. Turco was lit up for four goals on 12 shots. Ouch. But the interesting part for me was Steven Stamkos netting two goals to reach the 50-goal plateau. I also had a chat with Tampa GM Steve Yzerman, who thinks Stamkos, second in league scoring behind Evgeni Malkin but running away with the Rocket Richard Trophy race for the top goal scorer, should be in the conversation when it comes to the Hart Trophy. No question he’s in the discussion, but if the Lightning don’t make the playoffs, I don’t see any way he wins. But where do you have him if the Lightning do fall short?

LEBRUN: I just don’t think I can give my first-place vote to a player on a nonplayoff team. I believe that Stamkos has had the most impressive offensive season of any player in the NHL. But the Hart Trophy is for the MVP -- and MVP in my books is associated with winning. I’ll go with Malkin for my first-place vote, then slot Stamkos second and Henrik Lundqvist third. There’s still a few weeks before we vote officially with the NHL, but that’s my mindset now. But I will say this: Understanding that Sidney Crosby is still the best player in the world, whom would you rank No. 2 behind him? Forever it’s been Alex Ovechkin, but I always had Pavel Datsyuk, and at times you could put Jonathan Toews in that discussion. But for my money, it’s Stamkos now. Crosby-Stamkos-Malkin. Those are my three guys standing alone atop the NHL pecking order.

BURNSIDE: Yzerman and I were talking about Stamkos’ incredible work ethic and his ultrahigh competitive drive. He's a soft-spoken, polite young man who has matured incredibly quickly. He kind of reminds me of a young Steve Yzerman, actually. But I think the Lightning are cooked despite their big win over the Bruins. They are seven points out with 12 games remaining. It's not going to happen for them this year. But what about the Washington Capitals? They erased a 4-1 deficit against the New York Islanders and won 5-4 in a shootout to open up a four-point lead on Buffalo for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. They also continue to put the pressure on the Florida Panthers, who beat the hapless Toronto Maple Leafs 5-2 on Tuesday. The Caps have now won four in a row and are a point behind the Panthers for the Southeast Division lead. Ovechkin, who's under so much scrutiny for his declining point production this season and the team’s poor play, scored twice, including the tying marker in the third period, then scored in the shootout. We’ve wondered aloud about his leadership abilities, and maybe now we’re seeing some of that when the team needs him most. Do you like them to sneak in as the eighth seed or do you think they ultimately overtake the Panthers for another Southeast Division title?

LEBRUN: I think the Caps ultimately will prevail in the Southeast. Tuesday night they kicked off the road trip that will define their season, a five-gamer that next rolls into Winnipeg followed by tilts in Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. Then they’ll finish off the season with five of eight at home, including what could be a gigantic matchup April 5 at home to Florida in the second-last game of the season. Speaking of wild races, how about the Western Conference? Phoenix, San Jose, Calgary, Los Angeles and Colorado are all separated by one point, with two playoff spots up for grabs. The Flames, given their injuries, amazingly have won four straight including Tuesday night’s OT thriller at home over the Sharks. San Jose, however, did well to grab three points out of four in back-to-back nights in Alberta. The Kings delivered huge at home over Detroit on Tuesday night as well. It’s going to be an insane race to the finish. The Sharks and Kings end the regular season with a home-and-home series. Call it the playoffs before the playoffs.

BURNSIDE: The Wings’ road woes continued, as they were beaten by the Kings. It wasn't a good day for GM Ken Holland, who wasn’t pleased with the league’s decision to allow Alexander Radulov to return to the Nashville Predators without having to clear waivers. The Wings and Predators seem destined to meet in the first round, and the fight for home ice in that round looms large given how poorly the Wings play away from Joe Louis Arena. They need to get healthy, and that series would be dynamite, but it's hard not to like the Predators, especially if they continue to struggle. They play in Anaheim on Wednesday night, and their lead over the Preds is a single point, with Nashville having a game in hand.

LEBRUN: Amazing, really, to see the Wings seven points back of St. Louis in the Central. That race is over. And now Detroit faces a likely first-round matchup with Nashville. Talk about a conference finals-level series right off the hop. One of those two teams will be incredibly disappointed to go home that early after the first round. But the high-end matchup is a result of the excellence of the Central Division this season. The Blues got hot, the Wings got injured, and the Preds hope to get Radulov. Quite the script.

The GMs meeting is wrapping up. We got to run, Scotty.