NHL: Fight to the Finish



With only two weeks left in the 2011- 2012 season, the NHL is at its finest. As league leaders vie for the ever-desired home-ice advantage in April and May, bubble teams battle it out for playoff spots, and top performers Evgeni Malkin and Steven Stamkos go head-to-head for the MVP award.

This time last year, the New York Rangers were sitting in the ninth spot in the East, trying desperately to claw their way into the eighth and final playoff spot. My, what a difference a year makes. A few free-agent acquisitions, some timely prospect development and 48 wins later, New York is sitting pretty as the kings of the East – for now. One of the hottest teams in the league, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are nipping at the Blueshirts’ heels, just three points behind the top spot in the conference with six games to go. If the Pens can beat out their Atlantic Di-vision rivals by April 11, the Rangers would drop to the fourth seed, as all three division-winners are granted the top three seeds in the playoffs. Needless to say, tensions are not nearly as high in Manhattan as they were a year ago, but the Rangers’ battle for play-off position is once again one of the more compelling storylines in the East.

In the West, things look all but wrapped up for the league-leading St. Louis Blues. With 105 points through 77 games, the Blues are in position to win their second ever President’s Trophy, awarded to the team with the best record. After missing the playoffs by ten points last year, General Manager Doug Armstrong signed key free agents Brian El-liot, Jason Arnott and Jamie Langenbrun-ner, and hired Ken Hitchcock as head coach in November. Miraculously, Hitchcock has turned the team around, racking up 90 points in his 61 games since coming to St. Louis.

While teams at the top of the heap play for home ice in the playoffs, teams at the bot-tom are fighting just to get in. Out West, the race for the eighth spot is tighter than ever before, with seventh place Dallas and 11th place Calgary separated by just two points. In situations like these, no one can know what to expect in the way of seeding. It seems like every season the eighth spot in one of the conferences comes down to a key injury for one of the contenders, a sudden hot streak by a goalie or just dumb luck. In the East-ern Conference too, the race for the playoffs is extremely heated. While New York has propelled itself from eighth/ninth place last year to first place this year, the Washing-ton Capitals have done the exact opposite. After winning the East for the second con-secutive time last season, the Caps now sit in ninth place, franticly trying to keep pace with eighth place Buffalo, who has won five straight. Going into Tuesday night, the Sa-bres and Capitals were tied with 84 points each, and were slated for a showdown in Washington. The game, however, was hardly the clash it had promised to be, as Buffalo trounced goaltender Braydon Holtby and the Caps 5-1. Both teams now have five games remaining, with Buffalo facing three of the conference’s top four teams in that span and Washington facing three of the top five.

In any good Hollywood blockbuster, you can never see the end of the film coming. If there’s one thing that past hockey seasons have taught us, it’s that in the NHL, the ends to seasons are much like those mov-ies, with twists and turns leading to an ul-timate conclusion. With four or five games left for each club, there’s no way of know-ing what that conclusion is quite yet. Will Washington catch Buffalo in the race for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot? Will Dallas and Phoenix hold on to their positions in the West? In the NHL era we’re currently in, answering those questions is impossible, and that is exactly the beauty of April hockey.

Contact Ben Glassman at [email protected].