It's hard to imagine the conferences' playoff races being any more disparate in tone and tenor than what confronts us as the NHL heads into its second-to-last weekend of regular-season play.
The Western Conference has essentially come down to one spot. With the Colorado Avalanche flailing their way to the edge of the playoff bubble, it has set up a dramatic confrontation with Calgary on Friday night. The outcome will have a ripple effect throughout the conference, perhaps keeping the slim playoff hopes of the St. Louis Blues and Anaheim Ducks alive.
In the Eastern Conference, it appears no one wants to lay claim to a playoff spot.
The Habs are bumbling, the Flyers are stumbling and the Bruins can't score. Then, there are teams on the outside such as Atlanta, which keeps stubbing its toe on the playoff door even though it's been wide-open since the Olympic break.
Here's how we handicap the playoff races down the stretch:
Philadelphia Flyers: What a mess. The Flyers have won just twice in their past 10 games, and their goaltending is in a state of chaos. Brian Boucher allowed five goals on 24 shots before getting yanked in the Flyers' 6-4 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday. There's no end to the bleeding in sight. Philadelphia is tied with Montreal and Boston with 82 points for the last three spots in the East, and its home clash against the Canadiens looms as a pivotal game. The Flyers' schedule doesn't favor them; they'll play red-hot Detroit and improving Toronto before closing out the season with a home-and-home against the New York Rangers next Friday and Sunday.
Where they'll end up: This is the Eastern Conference, so the Flyers don't really need to do anything but tread water, which is something they've been doing for a while. We figure they'll scrape enough points together to stay in the top eight.
Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens looked as if they were going to breeze into the postseason about 10 days ago but have managed to fall back into that three-way pack that hovers above the Mendoza Line. Strangely, Mike Cammalleri's return to the lineup hasn't helped. Heading into Friday's clash against Philly, the Habs have just one win in their past six games and have scored just 11 times during that span. The good news for Les Glorieux, relatively speaking, is they finish against Buffalo, the New York Islanders, Carolina and Toronto.
Where they'll end up: There should be enough of a cushion during the final week of the season for the Habs to sneak into the postseason despite their recent scoring woes.
Boston Bruins: Of the three teams lumped together at the bottom of the playoff bracket, the Bruins seem the most vulnerable to falling out altogether thanks to their anemic offense and schedule. The Bruins rank dead last in the NHL in goals per game and were shut out 1-0 by Florida on Thursday in yet another opportunity squandered. The Bruins finish with three of five on the road, including a trip to Toronto and two to Washington. Ouch.
Where they'll end up: Sorry, Bruins fans. Boston has frittered away too many chances and will find itself slowly sinking beneath the playoff surface.
Atlanta Thrashers: The Thrashers were another team that controlled its playoff destiny in recent weeks but spit the bit against teams like Carolina and Toronto. Now, the Thrashers finish with two against Pittsburgh and one each against New Jersey and Washington. A 2-1 loss to Washington on Thursday showed just how difficult the road is, even though Atlanta was just two points back of eighth place on Friday.
Where they'll end up: Where the Thrashers always end up, on the outside looking in. Too bad, too, given the often spirited play the team showed after trading star Ilya Kovalchuk.
New York Rangers: The Rangers were four back of the eighth spot (and sixth and seventh, but we digress) as of Friday but had played two fewer games than ninth-place Atlanta and one fewer than the Group of Three, only one of whom the Rangers must catch. The Rangers won three of four and had points in four straight heading into this weekend. Now, they'll play three straight on the road starting Friday in Tampa (with visits to Florida and Buffalo to follow), then host Toronto before closing the regular season with the home-and-home against Philadelphia. It could take until that final afternoon to see whether the Rangers have enough gas left to push into the top eight, but we like their chances.
Where they'll end up: We figure the Rangers will find a way to come up with at least nine points in their final six games, and that will be good enough for their fifth straight postseason appearance.
Carolina Hurricanes: Funny to include the Hurricanes in a playoff-race primer, but it's a testament to their never-say-die attitude that they're on the fringe of the playoff bubble after bumbling through the first half of the season. That said, allowing the Senators to tie Thursday's game with 7.7 seconds left in regulation and then losing in a shootout was a killer. Carolina was six points back with four to play and three teams to jump as of Friday. The Canes will have to win out, which means beating New Jersey, Tampa, Montreal and Boston, to have any shot.
Where they'll end up: Great story, but it's not going to happen this season. That said, watch for Carolina to play the spoiler in those last two games of the season.
Where they'll end up: Sorry, no miracles from this group. Not this season.
Colorado Avalanche: The Avs have been in control of their destiny for months now. The problem is, their destiny is now spinning out of control, as they've managed just one win in seven games leading up to Friday's monster confrontation against Calgary in Denver. Win in regulation, and the Avs will re-establish a four-point lead over Calgary, which will have only four games left on its schedule. Lose in regulation, and they will be tied with the Flames. But although they'll have five games left, the Avs still have to face San Jose, Vancouver, Chicago and Los Angeles, with Edmonton looking like the only easy opponent.
Where they'll end up: Sorry, but Joe Sacco's plucky Avs cannot stop the bleeding and will end up below the playoff Mendoza Line.
Calgary Flames: The Flames, who had won two in a row heading into Friday's big tilt, must gain at least a point on the Avs to stay in the hunt. Winning in regulation will put the heat on the Avs, but even if the Flames win, they won't have an easy time of it down the stretch. They'll finish against Chicago, San Jose, Minnesota and Vancouver and also must be cognizant of the fact that they begin play Friday two wins behind Colorado. (Wins are the first tiebreaker.) It could very well come down to having to win in Vancouver next Saturday to see whether the rebuilt Flames sneak into the playoffs for the sixth straight season.
Where they'll end up: Not that they necessarily deserve it, but the Flames will take advantage of the Avs' collapse and just sneak in under the wire.
Anaheim Ducks: Of all the long-shot teams, the Ducks may have the best chance of making a miracle run to the playoffs, if only because they have an extra game to play (six) compared with Calgary and St. Louis (five each). Still, the odds are long that the Ducks get in. They will have to pretty much run the table in their final six games, dates with Vancouver, Dallas, St. Louis, Edmonton and a home-and-home with Los Angeles. They also must hope Calgary wins Friday to keep those faint dreams alive.
Where they'll end up: Curtis McElhinney's magic will run out at some point, and the Ducks will fall short.
St. Louis Blues: After a crippling loss to Nashville on Thursday in a game they led 2-0 at one point, the Blues will have to run the table in their final five games. Even then, they'll have to hope for help, beginning Friday, when they will be cheering for Calgary to keep Colorado within striking distance. The problem for the Blues is they will not face Calgary or Colorado down the stretch.
Where they'll end up: Too little, too late for the Blues, whose ineffective play at home through the first half of the season will end up costing them a playoff berth.
Dallas Stars: The Stars were seven points back of eighth place with five games to play as of Friday, so they would have to win out and do a lot of scoreboard watching. Given that this team hasn't won three in a row all season long, you can forget that happening. Not playing Calgary or Colorado makes the task even more monumental.
Where they'll end up: Outside looking in for the second season in a row.