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Now that Canada wrapped up its gold-medal trip to Sochi in the 2014 Winter Olympics, we return to our nightly routine of watching several NHL games. Actually, come to think of it, the regular season’s stretch run will be anything but routine because we’re in for several thrilling races.
Let’s take a look at some teams that need a spark in the final 20-25 games before the playoffs begin.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Based on overall play throughout the season, the Blue Jackets should be the rightful owners of a final playoff spot in the East. They are currently tied for ninth with Ottawa and Washington, both of whom have weaker offensive and defensive units based on the numbers. Detroit holds the eighth spot with 64 points, one ahead of Columbus. Thanks to center Ryan Johansen, who is arguably the most improved player in the entire league, the Blue Jackets own the seventh-best offense among all NHL squads. A recent 11-3-0 stretch before the Olympics also shows this bunch is armed with enough punch to give any top-seeded team a run for its money.
New Jersey Devils: Let’s face it, the Devils are not a great hockey team. But a sudden surge could persuade upper management to shy away from picking up the phone and listening to offers for future Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur before the trade deadline on March 5. Whether you’re a New Jersey fan or not, it’d be a shame to see No. 30 in another uniform before he calls it quits.
He could be asked to waive his no-trade clause, or even request a trade.
“It won’t be (different) if I don’t say so. That’s the bottom line,” Brodeur told the Star Ledger on Wednesday as the Devils’ non-Olympians practiced at AmeriHealth Pavilion. “If I don’t say so, it’s going to be the same as the last 20 years.”
And who knows, maybe a spike in the team’s production could result in sneaking into an eighth slot on the season’s final day. A spirited playoff run would be a nice way to likely send Marty off into the sunset, right?
Toronto Maple Leafs: The Maple Leafs are tied with Montreal for the East’s fourth spot with 70 points. Oddly enough, they are the only top-six team in the conference that has been outscored by opponents throughout the season; Toronto has netted 178 goals, but has given up 182. Clearly, it means the squad has squeezed out close games and, more importantly, there’s a lot of room for improvement. The Leafs were 11-2-1 prior to the break, so it’ll be crucial to pick up right where they left off, if they plan on potentially enjoying home ice in the first round.
Colorado Avalanche: It’d be easy for fiery, first-year coach Patrick Roy and his club to look ahead. After all, the Avalanche are 15 spots ahead of the eighth-place team and are currently one point behind the fourth slot. But this group is taking a smarter approach.
“We don’t try to look further, and we don’t like to look behind,” Roy told the Denver Post on Sunday after practice. “Not too high, not too low. Even keel. We just want to stay humble and play the same way.”
This could be fruitful for Colorado, which trails San Jose by one and Chicago and St. Louis by four in the standings. A hot start out of the gate will be crucial, considering 15 of the last 24 games will be against teams currently occupying playoff spots.
Phoenix Coyotes: The Western Conference offers a strange dynamic this season; it seems the top seven are comfortably in their playoff spots and should feel good about their chances. The eighth and final slot, however, is completely up for grabs. Vancouver’s seven-game losing skid entering the Olympic break crushed a lot of hopes, while Dallas negated some of its wild inconsistency this campaign by edging Phoenix, 2-1, right before the Sochi games. But the Coyotes seem intent on finishing on the strong note, hoping a playoff run will give fans even more excitement next year, when they undergo an identity overhaul and become the Arizona Coyotes.
“We’re going to need every single one of us, and there’s no excuses, really,” Zbynek Michalek, who played for the Czech team, told the Phoenix Arizona News. “Either you had a break or you played during the break. It doesn’t matter. We have to show up the first game and play our best.”
Nashville Predators: The Predators could have the season’s best acquisition without even making a trade at the deadline.
Pekka Rinne, a two-time Vezina Trophy finalist who has been out since late October, could take the ice very soon after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left hip as result of a bacterial infection.
Nashville has held it together without its stalwart between the pipes, and the team is just four points out of the eighth and final spot in the West. With Dallas, Phoenix, Vancouver, and Winnipeg failing to run away with the race, don’t be surprised to see the Predators storm in the playoffs thanks to their forgotten hero.
“The next step is playing games, and hopefully that is really soon here,” Rinne told the Associated Press.
Rinne, who was 43-18 with a 2.39 goals-against average two years ago, started practicing again on Feb. 19 and could see time with the team’s American Hockey League affiliate in Milwaukee soon.
Quietly, Nashville might be the league’s most intriguing team in the regular season’s final weeks.
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