21 March 2007

looking at the "bubble teams"

to be published at SportsBlurb.com and sportingnews.com

With all the talk this past week about the NCAA basketball tournament and "teams on the bubble" it seems like a good time to take a look at the NHL's top bubble teams and their chances of making the postseason. In the Western Conference it was just one month ago when the playoff hopes for the Colorado Avalanche looked hopeless, which itself is a story: since the franchise move from Quebec in 1995 the team has never missed the playoffs, and has won two Stanley Cups in that time. So on February 15th the Avalanche sat in eleventh place with a middling 27-25-4 record while the Calgary Flames – the same Flames who were a popular pick by many to come out of the west this year, including the staff at SportsBlurb.com (note my omission of the word "experts"...) - were 30-19-8 and in a three-way dogfight for first place in the Northwest division.

Fast-forward to today: after gaining eight wins and a loser-point (overtime loss) in their last nine, suddenly the Avs are only four points behind those same heavily-favoured Flames, with ten games remaining for each team including two head-to-head matchups.

What accounts for the sudden turnaround? For one thing, the Avalanche have shown an offensive depth previously lacking - if we look at statistics for just the last month, the Avalanche have four players in the top 15 of league scoring, with rookie phenom Paul Stastny third with 20 points while putting together a rookie-record 20-game point scoring streak (aside: with the throwback jerseys all the rage this year, why couldn’t the Avalanche just wear the Bleu et Blanc of the Quebec Nordiques for a few games? Just once I’d like to see “Stastny” surrounded by the fleur de lys again…). Andrew Brunette has 18 points in the past month, en route to setting career highs in goals and points. Brunette’s linemate Joe Sakic is continuing to put up numbers as if he were 27 rather than 37 – at this pace he still has an outside shot at hitting 100 points. Milan Hejduk has also regained his scoring touch with 17 points this past month.

Also not to be discounted is the long-awaited commitment to Peter Budaj in goal. In Budaj's past ten games in the
Colorado crease the Avalanche have gained at least one point. The Jose Theodore experiment is and has been an unmitigated disaster. The statistical difference between the team's two goaltenders is so great (goals against average: 2.72 vs. 3.41. Save percentage: .906 vs. .888) that getting rid of Theodore for next year would be the prudent option, if it weren't nearly impossible with the albatross of his US$6million salary (and $5.3million cap hit) hanging over their heads for 2007-08.

Calgary hasn't helped their cause and could have put this “race” away long ago. Even though they're not in what could be called a terrible slump (7-6-2 since mid-February), they've been treading water. The defending Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff has not been his usual stone wall either, giving up 3.23 goals per game in the past month.

Four points and ten games for the right to make the playoffs. Colorado now controls their own destiny with two April games against Calgary, including one game in Denver on the final night of the season, April 8th. Let’s hope that game means something.

Over in the East, although the race is making for exciting scoreboard-watching, do any teams seem ready to grab those elusive bottom slots for the playoffs? Only four points separate the sixth-place Tampa Bay Lightning from the eleventh-place Montreal Canadiens. Yet all six teams in the mix (including the New York Rangers and Carolina Hurricanes - currently with tenuous holds on the seventh and eighth spots – along with the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs) seemingly have major flaws, and it has been fashionable (not to mention easy) to point out why each team won't make the playoffs, rather than why they might. With roughly ten games for each team to play and such a fine line between the playoffs and an early vacation, every game counts from here on out. The Carolina Hurricanes are in a dogfight to even be in a position to defend their title, and surprisingly with Cam Ward down with an injury John Grahame of all people has stepped up and held the fort, with a sub-2.00 goals-against average over the past month. Frankly, Grahame is the sole reason the Canes are in the race right now. If you discount the seven-spot they put on New Jersey last weekend, the Hurricanes have only scored four goals in a game once in the past month (a 4-1 win in Atlanta on February 24th). They need to find their offence in a hurry if they want to hold off the teams breathing down their neck.

Surprisingly for a New York team, it seems that the Rangers have been quietly making a case as the most deserving of one of the open slots in the East's final eight. When Brendan Shanahan went down with a concussion against Philadelphia on February 17th the Rangers' already rather thin offence looked that much worse, and their postseason hopes dashed. Yet since that game against the Flyers, New York has gone 8-3-4 (all three losses were by one goal) including two shootout losses. And seemingly nobody has noticed the run that goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been on, and how his play has pushed the Rangers for the past month: a 1.79 goals-against and a .932 save percentage.

One acquisition that cannot be discounted was the trade for French Canada’s favourite player: Sean Avery. Although his statistics alone can’t account for the shift in the Rangers’ play, since Avery’s arrival the Rangers have taken on an edge that they previously didn’t have (although 13 points in 20 games is more than respectable for The Agitator). And as loathsome as his act can be at times, there can be no doubt that opposing teams take note of when Avery is on the ice.

On paper the situation still looks dicey - the Rangers signed 31-year old veteran defenceman Jason Strudwick on Monday out of the Swiss-A League, but with injuries piling up signing a steady NHL veteran is a good move for the Rangers. And with the imminent return of such talents as Shanahan, Martin Straka, and Marcel Hossa from injuries the Rangers’ fate is in their own hands as they make a push to not only make the playoffs, but possibly finish as high as sixth.

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