NHL season setting up for a frantic finish

Corey Carmichael | Contributing Writer

A lockout-shortened season looks promised to bring a frantic playoff push in the final fifteen games of the year.  Here’s an in-depth look into the standings:

Eastern Conference:

Sidney Crosby is better than you at hockey.  Don’t worry, he’s better than everyone else too.  Crosby and Chris Kunitz have Pittsburgh in a great position to close out the season as the #1 seed.  The Penguins have been on quite the tear, winners of their last 12 games with a league leading 3.5 goals per game average. 

Montreal and Winnipeg follow as the other division leaders.  Montreal is tied at 45 points with Boston in the Northeast.  The Jets trailed the Hurricanes early in the season but have come on strong lately with a 6-3-1 record in their last 10 games to take the lead in the Southeast.

Ottawa, Toronto, and New Jersey bring up spots five through seven, with the New York Rangers holding down the eighth and final seed.  Only three points separate the Rangers from four other teams vying for contention with Carolina, Washington, NY Islanders, and Buffalo trying to make their moves late. 

Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, and Florida are already making preparations for next year, looking to improve on disappointing seasons in the draft and off-season trade acquisitions. 

Western Conference

The Chicago Blackhawks came in with a clear realization of where they wanted to be, and that was back challenging for the cup.  24 straight games with a point to start the season is quite the statement that they came to play.  With Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith all playing exceptionally well, the Blackhawks have a legitimate shot to roll through the playoffs.

Anaheim may have something to say about that before the final buzzer.  Ryan Getzlaf has his team just three points behind Chicago and playing well down the stretch.  Minnesota and Vancouver are tied for the Northwest lead, followed by Detroit, defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles, and St. Louis. 

San Jose and Nashville are locked at 34 points for the eighth spot.  Dallas, Columbus, and Phoenix remain in the conversation within four points.  Bottom dwellers Edmonton, Calgary, and Colorado may be seen making late moves before the April 3rd trade deadline to free up funds for next year.

Playoff Predictions

Usually a fan of the underdog, I would normally make some unheard of, off the wall, please indulge me why type prediction simply because that’s my internal wiring.  This year, however, there is too much power at the top for anyone to contend. 

Pittsburgh and Boston should break through to reach the eastern conference finals, with Pittsburgh breaking through in six games.  It will be a fantastic match-up of prolific offense with hard-nosed, gritty defense, but the Penguins have too much firepower in their arsenal for the Bruins to contend with.

Anaheim has the depth to challenge Chicago, just not in a best of seven series.  The Blackhawks came into this season on a mission, and they have are determined to rule the rink.  Lets face it, Chicago is moving on no matter who decides they want to take them on.  Chicago in five.

Again, the mission.  Chicago just wants it, and they want it bad.  Its evident on the ice, during interviews, even press conferences.  From the top down, this organization is having fun playing hockey, and they are taking names in the process.  The Stanley Cup Final will not be an easy task against the Pens, but if you ever believed in destiny, you believe this is Chicago’s year.  Lets face it, in a city that demands so much from its sports franchises, they have a lot to make up for with the Cubs and White Sox.  Blackhawks in six.

Trophy Outlook

Hart Trophy, Art Ross Trophy

The beginning of the season offered a five-man race for MVP.  The unknown variable was how Sidney Crosby would perform coming back from last years injury plagued season.  It didn’t take long for the center to put to rest any doubts, hence the reason for doubling up on the Hart and Art Ross combo prediction.  Crosby has been on fire and would be on pace for 200+ points had the season not been cut short by the lockout.  An astonishing 1.58 points per contest has him well positioned to sweep the two trophies unanimously. 

Norris Trophy

Many teams have guys that are irreplaceable, but none more than Boston Bruin defenseman Zdeno Chara.  His prowess and leadership make him a key piece of the puzzle if the Bruins win the Northeast division.  Alex Pietrangelo of the St. Louis Blues could offer a challenge to Chara down the stretch should St. Louis make a run in the playoffs, but Pietrangelo does not carry the weight of the team the way Chara does.  Advantage Chara.

Vezina Trophy

The beginning of the year brought familiar names into the conversation for top goalkeeper.  Man what a few games can do.  The Boston Bruins have developed into division leaders due in large part to the play of Tuukka Rask in the net.  Rask owns 15 wins in 23 games and boasts an incredible 1.90 GAA.  The fifth year goalie puts Boston in position to win every game they play.  With a .928 save average it’s easy to see why his play has been so instrumental in their success.

Calder Trophy

What a deep rookie class this short season has developed into.  None have been more impressive than Tampa Bay Lightening center Cory Conaker.  At 5’8” and 176 lbs, the undrafted rookie out of Canisius College has been impressive, sitting at 24 points through 33 games.  Its too bad Tampa Bay isn’t in playoff contention.  Conaker would be a fun watch when the pressure is on.