Alright folks, the Eastern Conference playoff preview is on hold for now, for a couple of reasons. First of all, with the recent struggles of the Boston Bruins & especially the Philadelphia Flyers, the bottom of the East is nowhere near as locked-up as the bottom of the West, so I'm going to give it a few more days just to see if things get sorted out and we have a more clear view of who is finishing in 7th & 8th in the East. The Thrashers and Rangers, teams who we thought might have been out of it, are back in the race moreso due to the aforementioned teams' struggles than anything they've done (though the Rangers tying the game vs. the Devils with just 16 seconds left and then pulling out the extra point, in Jersey on the second night of a back-to-back no less, was admittedly impressive).
The second reason we're putting it on hold is today's schedule is among the most interesting we've seen in a while, so it's as good of a time as any to bring back Today's Games to Watch. As always, here's 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.
Saturday, March 27th
Overall: Definitely one of the most intriguing schedules we've seen in a while, full of teams fighting for their playoff lives as well as teams who are already near-locks for the playoffs going head-to-head.
Marquee Match-Up: Vancouver Canucks (45-25-4, 94 points, 1st in Northwest, 3rd in West) at San Jose Sharks (45-19-10, 100 points, 1st in Pacific, 1st in West)
10:00 pm EST/7:00 pm PST
National TV: CBC (Canada)
Following their six-game winless streak that was the Sharks' longest since November of 2005, San Jose appears to finally have turned things around after winning in Minnesota then coming home and winning that always-tough first game back from a long road trip against the Stars. It's of course worth noting that neither of those teams are playoff teams, but it's also worth noting that sometimes the hardest games to win are the games you're "supposed" to win this time of year. Just ask the Canucks, who dropped a game at home to the Islanders of all teams, how hard it can be to beat a team that's playing loosey-goosey hockey. However, now the Sharks will be faced with a much different test, as they welcome in the Northwest-leading Canucks. The Sharks are used to having everything wrapped up with a pretty bow at this time of year, but they currently sit just 1 point ahead of the Blackhawks (who have a game in hand) for 1st in the conference and 2 points ahead of the Coyotes for the division lead. If they want to hold on to the top seed going into the playoffs, they need all the points they can get. Vancouver, meanwhile, is looking at this as a statement game. Ever since the Sharks and Hawks have displayed their recent struggles, more and more pundits are shifting their Stanley Cup-favorite status in the West to the Canucks. If they can come into San Jose and beat the Sharks, it will be a huge reaffirmation of those words. No matter what happens, two division leaders meeting this close to the playoffs is always a huge deal, and this should be a fantastic game.
Prediction: Canucks 5-3
Runner-Up: Philadelphia Flyers (37-31-6, 80 points, 3rd in Atlantic, 7th in East) at Pittsburgh Penguins (42-25-7, 91 points, 2nd in Atlantic, 4th in East)
1:00 pm EST/10:00 am PST
The Flyers are, to put it simply, in a tailspin of epic proportions. Brian Boucher has looked even worse than people probably expected since Michael Leighton went down with an injury, going 1-4-1 and giving up soft goals in every game he's started. Blowing a 3-1 lead going into the 3rd period against the non-playoff Wild on Thursday was the most blatant example of this, as he gave up 2 goals from just not having his pads down in the right position coming across from one post to the other. That's basic, goalie school level stuff folks. As if that wasn't bad enough, Jeff Carter, the team's leading scorer in almost every category, is gone until the 1st or 2nd round of the playoffs. Whether or not he'll even get a chance to come back this year is becoming more and more in question, as the Flyers absolutely need to get things turned around right now if they want to make the post-season. The Thrashers & Rangers, two teams playing pretty well right now, are nipping right at their heels (4 and 5 points back respectively), and the Flyers must be looking over their shoulder at the Rangers with the most nervousness. The Rangers have a road-heavy schedule, but they're also playing 6 of the next 7 games against non-playoff teams. Then, the two teams will meet in a home-and-home set to end their respective seasons, and given the way the Rangers have played the Flyers at times this year, the Flyers do NOT want it to come down to those two games to decide which of these two teams makes the playoffs. So with all that said, they have decided to throw rookie goaltender Johan Backlund to the proverbial wolves today, as he will make his first-ever NHL start in Pittsburgh of all places, a place where the Flyers have struggled to win since the lockout even without a rookie goalie in net. Even worse, they're playing a Penguins team that is just as desperate for points as they are, trying to chase down to the Devils for the Atlantic division lead. Flyers-Penguins games are always chippy, hard-hitting affairs, but this game has twice the intrigue as usual just because we'll get to see if Backlund can be entrusted to carry the ball. Given how bad Boucher has been, the Flyers better pray he can.
Prediction: Penguins 5-2
Under the Radar: Detroit Red Wings (38-23-13, 89 points, 3rd in Central, 8th in West) at Nashville Predators (43-27-5, 91 points, 2nd in Central, 5th in West)
8:00 pm EST/5:00 pm PST
The Red Wings are the hottest team in hockey right now, having won four in a row and only dropped 2 games (1 in regulation) since the Olympic break. They've put 6 points of separation between themselves and 9th place Calgary, and now they can concentrate on trying to move up the standings in the top 8 before the end of the season. It's hard to believe considering how hot the Predators have been, too, but they now sit just 2 points ahead of their division rivals in Detroit, and that's with a game in hand for the Winged Wheel. So this game is incredibly important for both teams, as Nashville will want to put up a 4 point cushion to try and give themselves some breathing room. Either way, Detroit will still have a game in hand, so this game could very well end up being the deciding factor for which of these two teams finishes ahead of the other.
Prediction: Red Wings 4-3 (SO)
I'd Rather Watch Ice Dancing: New York Islanders (30-34-10, 70 points, 5th in Atlantic, 14th in East) at Columbus Blue Jackets (30-32-12, 72 points, 5th in Central, 14th in West)
7:00 pm EST/4:00 pm PST
I always get a ton of crap from my Isles-loving friend when I pick the Isles for my Ice Dancing game, but tonight it's not even close. This is one of only two games of the night between non-playoff teams, amazing given how many of those games we've had all week. It's the 14th-place teams of each conference which of course means no rivalry to speak of, and the only thing on the line here is the loser putting themselves in better draft position. I guess what I'm trying to say here is, who really cares? With all that said, admittedly both teams have played well against better competition of late, really taking to that spoiler role. The Isles beat the Flames, who desperately need those 2 points to keep pace with Detroit; in fact, you could probably argue that loss has ended Calgary's season. Columbus, meanwhile, welcomed in a Chicago team that needed 2 points to keep pace with San Jose atop the Western conference, and absolutely pounded them 8-3. Of course, the problem is neither team can spoil the other, so this is gonna be a tough game to get up for.
Prediction: Isles 2-1
Flames @ Bruins, 1:00 pm EST: Well, like I just said, the Flames have probably already squandered their only chance to catch the Red Wings for 8th in the West. The question now is, do they come out flying in Boston trying desperately to salvage their season, as we saw the Rangers do this week after their potentially season-ending loss to Boston? Or do they come out flat knowing their season is probably over? Boston of course needs the points to stay ahead of those Rangers & Thrashers. This could be a good game between two desperate teams, or it could be one desperate team absolutely pounding the crap out of a team that's already given up. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Lightning @ Sabres, 7:00 pm EST: The Sabres are on the second-half of a back-to-back coming off a disappointing loss to division rivals Ottawa at home last night. A win here will probably put a kibosh on any hopes the Senators have of challenging Buffalo for the division title, given the games in hand the Sabres still have. Meanwhile, the only chase the Lightning are really in is Stamkos chasing the Rocket. They could be up for it to try and play spoiler, but for some reason the Lightning always seem to play really poorly against Buffalo. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time
Thrashers @ Hurricanes, 7:00 pm EST: The only other game between non-playoff teams, Atlanta is at least still right there in the race, 2 points back of 8th place Boston and 4 points back of 7th place Philadelphia. Their hosts in Carolina have been one of the best teams in the second-half of the season, and if it wasn't for their awful, awful first-half they'd be comfortably in the playoffs right now. Atlanta needs these 2 points desperately with the Rangers now nipping at their heels just 1 point behind, but everytime you think Carolina is ready to roll over and give up on their slim playoff hopes, they keep winning games. This should be a good one. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Devils @ Canadiens, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV: CBC & RDS in Canada, NHL Network US) Martin Brodeur always plays very well in his home province against his childhood favorite team, and tonight should be no exception with the added incentive of staying ahead of Pittsburgh in the Atlantic race. The Habs, meanwhile, are probably the East's hottest team since the Olympic break, reeling off a 6-game winning streak that was interrupted only with a loss to Ottawa and an OT loss to the Sabres, then responding by bouncing right back with a clutch home win against the Panthers on Thursday night. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Panthers @ Senators, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV: CBC) Speaking of the Panthers, they will once again be without David Booth after he took yet another hit to the had against the Habs on Thursday. Unlike the blindside hit Mike Richards gave him earlier in the season, however, this one was totally Booth's fault, as he skated into the Montreal zone with his head down (something you're taught not to do as a 6-year-old) and paid the price for it. The Sens finally seem to have come out of their post-Olympic funk, and the only thing that could stop them from pounding on the Booth-less Panthers is this being the second night of a back-to-back. Either way, this game probably won't be very exciting. Verdict: Not Worth Your Time
Rangers @ Maple Leafs, 7:00 pm EST: (National TV: CBC) Alright, New York, here's what everyone has been waiting for. Every since the Rangers lost that disappointing game to Boston on Sunday, everyone pointed to their six-game road trip where 5 of the 6 teams are far out of the playoffs as their chance to make up ground. The Rangers already made up some ground by pounding the hapless Isles into submission with a 5-0 home win then following that up with their gutsy victory in Newark the very next night. Now that they've finally put themselves back into the race, they absolutely need to start these games against non-playoff teams on the right foot. If they lose to the Maple Leafs (who are in the middle of their yearly "well, we're out of it, so I guess we might as well finally play some hockey" March surge), it will get this make-hay run off on absolutely the wrong foot. A win, on the other hand, would be the Rangers' first 3-game win streak in almost three months and really get that snowball of momentum rolling downhill (and right towards the playoffs). The Maple Leafs aren't gonna roll over for them and have beaten better teams in Toronto of late, and as a result this should be a pretty good game. Verdict: Probably Worth Your Time
Avalanche @ Coyotes, 9:00 pm EST: Colorado's position in 7th is very tenuous, as they have been extremely inconsistent since the Olympic break. Now they have to go into Phoenix and beat one of the NHL's best home teams, with Detroit breathing right down on their neck (tied in points but the Avs have a game in hand). The 'Yotes are looking to bounce back from actually, gasp, LOSING a shootout to the Predators, and want to keep pace with the Sharks for an incredibly improbable Pacific division title. With all that said, both these teams aren't all that exciting on most nights, so this game might not be all that exciting, either. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Stars @ Kings, 10:30 pm EST: Speaking of teams that the Red Wings are breathing down on, the Kings are only 1 point up on the Winged Wheel and absolutely do not want to fall back into that 7-8 hole. This is another team that's been very up-and-down since the Olympic break, as they've shown flashes of brilliance but also shown some signs of mental and physical fatigue, especially from starting goaltender Jonathan Quick. Coming back after going 0-1-1 in a brief 2-game trip, the Kings could use a pick-me-up, and beating the non-playoff Stars would be just what the doctor ordered. Dallas, on the other hand, was playing pretty well of late before dropping a 3-0 decision in San Jose, so they'll be trying to bounce back as well. Verdict: Might Be Worth Your Time
Alright folks, that'll do it for another edition of Today's Games to Watch in the NHL. We've got two early games that are incredibly important for all four teams, so enjoy some afternoon action then get ready for the main event late tonight between the Sharks and the Canucks.