Friday, March 30, 2007

The Serious Six -- March 30th

The “six” are bunching up. Three points separate six teams, and all have played 77 games, save for the New York Islanders (76). And this weekend would seem likely to send a team or two spiraling out of contention. Five teams will play back-to-back games; only Carolina escapes that fate – they have Friday/Sunday games.

Today’s theme is “potholes,” and every one of these teams has some deep ones to get across if they are to survive . . .

The Rangers sit atop the “six” with 87 points, and they’ve had superb goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist (9-1-3 in his last 13 decisions leading up to the Montreal game), but he was shelled in his last outing (four goals on 15 shots in less than 30 minutes of work) that the first sign that he's running out of gas?

Tampa Bay is next with 86 points/41 wins, and they are an experienced group with a Cup in their recent past. But, they’ve had goaltending issues all year. It really isn’t getting better. They’ve given up five or more goals in 7 of their last 18 games, including three of their last five. They have skill, but are prone to bouts of laziness. Atlanta's win probably forecloses any chance of an SE championship and top-three seed.

Montreal follows with 86 points/40 wins. The Canadiens are an excellent home club – 24-12-3 for the season -- but three of their last five are away from Bell Centre. And, they are heading for home leaning on a goalie with 12 games of NHL experience. He’s been more than capable – 8-4-0, 2.94, .904 – but the pressure might be on this club to score more. They are already the third highest scoring team among the “six” this year. Do they have another gear?

Toronto – next at 85 points – is an easy team to dislike, what with the seeming sense of entitlement their fans have (odd for a club with no Cups in 40 years). But they've managed to hang around on the margins for weeks. Unfortunately, though, their schedule is difficult -- Pittsburgh, at the Rangers, at the Islanders, home to finish the regular season against Montreal. Only the Flyers pose a weaker challenge in the last five.

The Islanders, with 84 points/36 wins, are almost a "feel-good" story with the hijinks in the front office before the start of the year. But they're such a chippy team, it's hard to root for them. They have a game in hand on every club in front of them, but on the other hand they're likely to lose tiebreakers on the basis of wins (they have the fewest among the six).

Carolina – 84 points/38 wins – just has never really clicked this year. Whether it's been a hangover from the long spring and Cup win, who knows? They finish up with all SE games (2 TBL, 2 FLA, 1 ATL) -- they are a combined 12-5-2 against those teams this year, so that's in their favor. But three teams to climb over with five games left? They probably need four wins -- minimum -- to do that. They've had at least four wins in five games three times this year.

Two games this weekend involve “four-point games” – games pitting two of the “six” against each other:

Tampa Bay at Carolina, tonight

Toronto at New York Rangers, Sunday

Carolina is in virtually a “must-win” situation. A loss would leave them sixth among these teams and two points (plus a tiebreaker on the basis of wins) behind Montreal and Tampa Bay with four games to play.

Toronto’s “must-win” status is largely a function of how they fare in the Saturday game against Pittsburgh. If the Maple Leafs can win that one, the Ranger game might not appear as daunting a task.

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