NHL Weekend Preview

NHL teams only have 12-15 games left in the regular season and the playoffs will set to begin within a week of the ending of the NCAA Tournament, so TheSportsNotebook isn’t letting the action on the ice pass us by while March Madness is going on. If you turned your head for just a few days here’s what you missed…

*The St. Louis Blues have 93 points and that’s better than the New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, Vancouver Canucks or anyone else in hockey. That’s right, the Blues lead the entire NHL and are aiming to give the city its second championship in less than a year.

*The Washington Capitals are much-maligned and they deserve all of it, but they’ve also played their way into the 8-spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

*Steven Stamkos at Tampa Bay is building his MVP case, as the Lightning, after being in the tank all year, are within three points of Washington for the playoffs. Stamkos is a runaway NHL leader in goals scored and a narrow leader in points.

*I think I personally jinxed the Phoenix Coyotes. On February 29 I was at their game against Vancouver where they won 2-1 in a shootout and conclude a month where they were the NHL’s hottest team. They haven’t won since, and are barely holding on to a playoff berth, with a two-point lead in a stacked race for the West’s final two spots.

*Dallas has replaced Phoenix as both the flavor of the month and the Pacific Division leader, moving past both the Coyotes and the San Jose Sharks and holding down the 3-seed in the West (note that the Stars aren’t actually the third-best team, but division winners are guaranteed the top three slots).

*On a topic directly related to St. Louis’ rise, Detroit’s record home winning streak is only good for the fourth seed in the West right now. The Red Wings aren’t playing well, but they are dealing with an injury to Pavel Datsyuk at forward and goaltender Jimmy Howard. If these players make it back in time to impact the regular season, the Wings should move back ahead of the Blues and be seeded 1-2 along with Vancouver. Either way, Detroit’s expected to be healthy for the playoffs and I still anticipate a strong showing. But this is a big division race, because #5 Nashville has a solid goaltender in Pekka Rinne and has been a consistent hockey team all year. The Predators are not someone a Stanley Cup hopeful wants to mess with this early in the playoffs.

*On a topic directly related to Washington’s move, the Southeast Division stands to get its second-place team in the playoffs and the race for first place and the #3 seed is still red-hot. Florida’s in first, but Washington and Winnipeg are only two points back and Tampa just three points back. Considering that second place probably means the 8-seed and a first-round date with the New York Rangers and their MVP-caliber goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, this race is more than just who gets in, it’s about who finishes first.

The weekend schedule is strongest tonight with three games of significance. Florida visits Pittsburgh. The Penguins join New Jersey and Philadelphia in fluctuating between the 4-5-6 spots in the East, so there are home-ice implications for the hosts. Detroit hosts the LA Kings, who are another team with a shot at the Pacific Division and/or the last couple playoff spots in the West. And the Rangers go to the Windy City to take on Chicago, who’s steady at #6 in the West, but is one short slump away from being in a dogfight for survival.

On Saturday, Washington heads up to Boston. The Bruins are trying to hold off Ottawa for the Northeast Division title and #2 seed. The way it’s shaking out it could be Bruins-Senators in the first round, with the division race settling home ice advantage. This is also a big deal because I’m a B’s fan and a good friend of mine is a Caps fan. Also on Saturday is Detroit-Nashville and San Jose-Phoenix.

Sunday must be Boston day on the networks, because it’s Bruins-Penguins at 12:30 PM ET on NBC, and then it’s Celtics-Lakers at 3:30 PM ET on ABC. And after that it’s Selection Sunday time. Two other good hockey games on Sunday are Philly-New Jersey and Los Angeles-Chicago.