NHL Weekend Preview

Four of the NHL’s six division titles are still very much in play as we head into the homestretch of a regular season that ends on April 8. Only the New York Rangers in the Atlantic and the Vancouver Canucks in the Northwest are really home free for a first-place finish and guaranteed top-three seeding, and of these two, only the Rangers are in complete command for the race for the #1 seed in their conference. Everything else is neck-and-neck.

Tonight’s card is highlighted by Chicago’s visit to Ottawa. The Senators can close back to within one point of Boston in the Northeast, after the Bruins narrowly escaped New Jersey in overtime last night. The Blackhawks’ ship has steadied after some recent struggles, but they are by no means home free in the West. They’ll have to play tonight with forward Jonathan Toews, one of the league’s best offensive threats. At the borderline of the West playoff race are games with Dallas-Edmonton and Calgary-Anaheim. The Stars would make the playoffs over Los Angeles on a tiebreaker as of today, while Calgary is just a point back.

Saturday has a busy schedule, but not many really good games. One notable exception is Nashville-Florida. While the Predators are in good shape for the playoffs and not likely to climb to an elite seed, the Panthers are in a three-team dogfight for the Southeast Division with Winnipeg and Washington.

The NBC cameras will come out on Sunday in Madison Square Garden when the Bruins come MSG to play the Rangers at 12:30 PM ET. The game virtually coincides with the Knicks-Celtics game in the Garden on ABC, ensuring busy remotes in the Big Apple and the Hub. Ottawa will be in Florida, and Philadelphia visits Washington, giving the Eastern Conference three big games. In the West, the key game is Detroit-Chicago, although the Red Wings are still without Pavel Datsyuk at forward, and for at least this game will miss veteran defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom. The Wings have cooled a bit after their record home winning streak and are now in a tie with St. Louis for the Central Division title. Both the Red Wings and Blues are hot on Vancouver’s heels for the top spot in the West overall.

If the current NHL standings hold until the playoffs—admittedly an unlikely prospect, but we’re close enough to the finish line to start looking forward to some possible first-round playoff matchups—then Phoenix-Chicago in the West has the potential to be an excellent first-round series. It’s a complete contrast in styles, with the Blackhawks having a huge edge in frontline talent with Marian Hossa, Patrick Kane and Toews, while Phoenix has the goalie in Mike Smith. You usually bet the goaltender in the NHL playoffs, but Chicago’s advantage among the regular five is significant enough to make a  potential Blackhawks-Coyotes battle one to watch.