Welcome back to Center Ice Addict after a few days off, as now it's time for the real stretch run, and the NHL hits the ground running with a ton of really interesting games this week. Yeah, there's still plenty of teams who are out of it (although some of them are playing like no one's told them that- Anaheim and your 4-game winning streak, I'm looking at you) to drag down the schedule a little bit, but this week also has a ton of really interesting match-ups between playoff teams. It started last night, as the Red Wings man-handled the Penguins in a Stanley Cup Final re-match, and the Kings and the Avalanche had a really gritty, playoff-style game to begin a crucial home-and-home that could go a long way to deciding who gets 5th place locked down.
Tonight, it continues with two top teams going head-to-head for the second time in four days. So let's get right to it. As always, these are the awards we'll be handing out:
Marquee Match-Up: The biggest game of the night, the game you absolutely need to see, featuring the biggest stars and/or the best rivalries.
The Runner-Up: Basically the same criteria that applies to the Marquee, just not quite as big of a deal as the night's biggest game.
Under the Radar: This is a game that, for whatever reason, just wouldn't normally jump out at you if you're taking a quick glance at the day's schedule, but upon taking a closer look, this should probably be a great game.
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: With the Winter Olympics fresh on everyone's mind, I'm naming this dubious "award" after the Olympics' most craptastic event that NBC tried to push off on us all in lieu of actual figure skating. Please do yourself a favor, don't watch this game.
Once those four picks are done with, I'll go through The Rest and tell you which of those games just might be worth your time as well. Even if you don't have Center Ice, I'll make sure to note which (if any) of these games are available on national TV in the US & Canada.
Tuesday, March 23rd
Overall: A bunch of potential clunkers on tonight's schedule can't drag down a few big, big match-ups.
Marquee Match-Up: Phoenix Coyotes (46-22-5, 97 points, 1st in Pacific, 2nd in West) at Chicago Blackhawks (45-19-7, 97 points, 1st in Central, 1st in West)
8:30 pm EST/5:30 pm PST
It don't get much bigger than this, folks. The two top teams in the West, tied in points (Phoenix has one more win, but Chicago has two games in hand), going head-to-head for the second time in four days. In case you've been living under a rock for the past two weeks, the Desert Dogs are the hottest team in hockey, tying a franchise record with 9 wins in a row. Now, you can't talk about the 'Yotes and all their success without including the asterisk that 12 of their wins have come via the shootout (the most of any team), including their 5-4 victory over Chicago in Phoenix on Saturday night. But let's not take too much away from what this team has accomplished. They've overcome all those off-ice distractions in the off-season to rebound in a huge way, defying the pundits and grabbing partial hold of top spot in the West with just three weeks left in the regular season. That's insane, folks. As I told my best friend (who happens to be a huge 'Yotes fan), if they had shootouts in the playoffs, I honestly think the Coyotes would be the easy Stanley Cup favorites. We're still in the regular season, so you have to give a slight edge to the Coyotes here just because of how they've played of late and their incredible ability to come back late in games and take it to that extra frame to begin with. But the Blackhawks are playing much better hockey of late, and it looks like they are finally getting things going again. Either way, this should be another close, super-exciting game, one you won't want to miss.
Prediction: Coyotes 4-3 (SO)
Runner-Up: Anaheim Ducks (34-29-8, 76 points, 4th in Pacific, 11th in West) at Calgary Flames (36-27-9, 81 points, 3rd in Northwest, 9th in West)
9:00 pm EST/6:00 pm PST
It's worth noting that even though this award is called the "runner-up", tonight wasn't even close. But of all the other games on TV tonight, this is easily the second-most important. After staggering out of the Olympic break with an 0-4-1 record, the Ducks have finally found their legs and reeled off four straight wins. Probably too little, too late as far as making the playoffs, as they still sit 9 points back of 8th place Detroit (wh0 is also playing really, really well of late), but this is a game in hand they're making up on the Wings, so if they're going to make any kind of desperate last-minute push, these are 2 points they must have. Things are not quite as dire for the Flames, who sit 4 points back of the Wings, but you also have to keep in mind that the Flames have probably the hardest schedule of any of the teams down the stretch (while the Wings have one of the easiest). They've got a staggering 6 of their remaining 10 games against teams in playoff position, so while a loss against the Ducks wouldn't quite be season-ending, it would definitely throw make it that much harder for them down the stretch.
Prediction: Flames 3-2
Under the Radar: San Jose Sharks (43-19-10, 96 points, 2nd in Pacific, 4th in West) at Minnesota Wild (35-31-6, 76 points, 4th in Northwest, 12th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
National TV: Versus (US)
While this game probably wouldn't jump out at you on first glance, this game becomes a lot more interesting when you think of the Sharks' current slump as a car crash. That is to say, you just can't look away. These Sharks have looked absolutely awful in dropping 6 in a row for the first time since November of 2005, including losing 8-2 in Dallas and 5-1 in Edmonton. People can point to the fact that their six-game losing streak included a five straight on the road, but good teams should be able to find ways to win games on the road. Even with those five straight losses, the Sharks' road record is still 21-13-2, so it's not like they haven't been able to win road games all season long up until this point. The fact of the matter is, the Sharks are in a tailspin, three weeks earlier than their usual playoff meltdown, and they have got to find a way to get out of it. Heading into Minnesota to play yet another non-playoff team, it will be interesting to see if the Sharks play with any desperation at all, as this will be their first game since Phoenix finally passed them up in the Pacific division. They're one point back of the 'Yotes with a game in hand, so there's still plenty of opportunity here for the Sharks to reclaim the division lead, but they've got to start playing like they've got something resembling confidence, and stop standing around in their defensive zone and leaving Nabakov hanging out to dry. You've got a starting goalie who's never gotten it done in the playoffs, who's coming off a VERY disappointing Olympics for Russia, and you play like the Sharks have been playing in their own end? They're letting passes go right across the crease for tip-ins, they're poking at the puck instead of taking the body, and they're just playing like a team that couldn't give less of a damn right now. If they keep playing like that, this meltdown has the potential to get worse, not better.
Prediction: Wild 4-1
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: Columbus Blue Jackets (29-31-12, 70 points, 5th in Central, 14th in West) at New Jersey Devils (42-25-4, 88 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
Ah yes, it's that dreaded worst-of-all-worlds: a team that's out of it vs. a team that's a playoff lock, and in separate conferences so there's absolutely no rivalry here to speak of. Add that up to the fact that both teams aren't exactly going to win any "most exciting" awards in the NHL and you've got the potential for one hell of a dull game. One alarming trait the Devils have shown over the past few weeks is playing down to their opponents, as they'll come out and play great in getting two more wins over their Atlantic rival Penguins, then lay stinkers against teams like the Islanders & Maple Leafs. That's not what you want your team to be doing when they're still in a dogfight to win their division.
Prediction: Devils 2-1
Panthers @ Maple Leafs, 7:00 pm EST: Telling you whether or not you should watch this game really depends on what you're looking for. Of course, this game could not possibly matter any less, being that it's two teams that are out of it. But it's also two teams who are playing like they're out of it, playing with reckless abandon, and they'll have no trouble trading offensive chances like nobody's business. So if you can get past the fact that it means absolutely nothing, this will probably be a pretty exciting game. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Bruins @ Thrashers, 7:00 pm EST: I almost put this up as one of my picks, but I feel like the East is just so less interesting than the West right now, and that's coming from someone who lives in the Eastern timezone. The battle for the last playoff spot in the West features teams who are very capable of upsets in the first round. Meanwhile, here you've got the 30th-out-of-30 in goals for/per game Bruins battling the Kovalchuk-less and also defense-less Thrashers for "who gets to be swept by the Capitals in the first round". There's only so much excitement that can really generate. Still, it'll probably be a real good, hard-fought game between two teams separated by 1 point in the standings. I just don't think it really matters which of these two teams get in, that's all. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Flyers @ Senators, 7:30 pm EST: (National TV: RDS, Canada- French only) The Sens finally got things back on-track with a big road win against the streaking Canadiens last night, and now tonight they'll invite the walking wounded Flyers into their house to try and build some momentum up. Really their turnaround started with Spezza's hat trick in a losing effort to Dallas, and that's how it tends to go in hockey: you'll start playing yourself out of it before you see the end result, so you're still losing a game but you're back on the right track. Meanwhile, the Flyers dropped two straight to the Thrashers as new de facto #1 Brian Boucher did absolutely nothing to inspire any confidence from anyone. Seriously, if his own mother was asked how she felt about her son in goal heading into the playoffs, there's no way she'd be able to say anything positive with a straight face. Then, just because apparently the hockey gods decided they weren't done picking on Philly yet, Jeff Carter, man who leads this team in just about every offensive category (goals, points, game-winners.....the list goes on-and-on), fractured a bone in his foot and is gone for 3-4 weeks. So the Flyers will either come out tonight looking to make up for it, or they'll come out tonight feeling sorry for themselves and get pounded. You should know what verdict that gets you. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Hurricanes @ Lightning, 7:30 pm EST: Going 2-3-0 in their last 5 games has really hurt the Hurricanes' chances of completing what has been a miracle revival of their playoff hopes, as they now sit 8 points back of the Bruins and the B's still have a game in hand. Tonight's game against a Tampa team that's been playing like they're out of it for a while now will go a long way to determining whether or not the Canes still have hope. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Stars @ Predators, 8:00 pm EST: The Stars are playing some pretty decent hockey of late, which is pretty normal for teams once they're finally out of it. The Predators, meanwhile, have won 6 in a row and have gone a long way towards solidifying their return to the playoffs. It's been overshadowed a bit by the Avs and 'Yotes in the West, but the Preds are a great story, too: almost no one picked them to be back in the playoffs after narrowly missing last year, yet here they are, shoe-string budget and all. Anyway, one has to imagine they keep it rolling against Dallas. The Stars remain an awful, awful road team, meaning this one probably won't be watchable. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time
Canucks @ Oilers, 9:00 pm EST: With the decline of the Sharks coming a few weeks earlier than scheduled, many pundits are bumping Vancouver up from "dark horse" to "legitimate Cup favorite", right there with teams like Washington & Chicago. It's hard to believe, but the Canucks are still sitting there with the 2nd-best offense in the league. The Sedins have been even more Sedin-like than usual, Ryan Kesler is having another great year doing the kinds of things that Ryan Kesler does (and he was rewarded last week with a 6-year-extension), Alexander Burrows has turned into a goal-scoring machine at times, and Mikael Samuelsson has been an even better pick-up from the Wings than people thought he would be. The Oilers, meanwhile, picked up a few surprising home wins over the weekend against the Red Wings & Sharks, so they'll be looking to keep it rolling and keep catching some very good teams off-guard. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Alright folks, that'll do it for today. I'll be back soon looking at teams' playoff chances as we are getting closer and closer to the best time of the year: playoff hockey is almost here!