We all love a jolly play-off race and this season the National Hockey League has served up a feast. Four teams are contesting the Eastern Conference title and are separated by one point. In the West three teams are tied for seventh, one of whom will miss the post season. Last Tuesdays trade deadline was the leagues general managers last chance for a quick fix. A few of them took advantage of the opportunity, others didnt even bother to show up, and one or two left observers scratching their heads. Roughly forty-four players clumped out of various dressing rooms and moved into new digs. What interests us is the possibility these changes will prompt new winning/losing patterns. First up, lets take a look at the Montreal Canadiens. They sit tied atop the Eastern Conference Monday morning with two other teams one point behind. Theyve managed to overcome a bad year by 30-goal scorer Michael Ryder by unleashing a great power play coupled with an outstanding 20-9-4 record on the road. In the shock trade of the deadline GM Bob Gainey dumped veteran goaltender Cristobal Huet and turned the job over to rookie Carey Price. A downturn in that road record will, in my opinion, be the first indication Gaineys gamble isnt paying off. I think New Jersey Devils will keep jabbing away as they seem to do every year. Defenceman Bryce Salvador has a good work ethic and can hit. Devils will allow a few less goals against because of him. Boston and the Rangers will maintain their season long performance figures. Philadelphia wobbles about but if they can turn games into special teams battles then they have a good chance of winning. Pittsburgh may have traded themselves into a draw. Marian Hossa brings goals from Atlanta, Colby Armstrong leaves with a large bag of grit under his arm. Sidney Crosby will be back soon but regrettably goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury already is. The Penguins erratic ways should continue but top four seems assured. Of the top eight the Ottawa Senators are in the biggest bog. Former coach John Paddock said Sunday night his big mistake was in not being stronger on Ray Emery. It appears that teams dressing room is a shambles with no strong personality amongst the players capable of restoring order. The two teams which could stage revivals over the next six weeks are Tampa Bay Lightning and Washington Capitals - mostly for the same reason. Goaltending. Neither has had any this season and now each has a player with sufficient ability to make at least one big save per game. Both teams were badly discouraged, particularly the Tampa players who not only had to watch as pucks fluttered into their net as their goalies looked the wrong way, but then they had to endure coach John Tortorellas post-game rants. By itself not hearing those fulminations could be worth three, maybe four, wins. Tampa has too far to go to be a play-off threat but Washington could be one especially if Sergei Samsonov in Carolina tails off. So far he has taken up the slack of losing captain Rod BrindAmour but Samsonov has historically been unreliable. If Cristobal Huet plays huge for the Capitals then there could be one more play-off race in the East. Out West matters were different. For one, there was something of a westerly migration as first line players like Brad Richards (Tampa Bay), Brian Campbell (Buffalo), and Chris Simon (Islanders) moved west. Just joking about Simon. His move was as inexplicable as Huets to Washington.
Detroit had been on the ropes for February with an injured defence and poor clutch goalkeeping. They picked up Brad Stuart, the third overall pick in 1998, a player now no better than a third-pair defenceman. When all the pieces are back the Red Wings will win the Presidents Trophy.
Dallas made one of the splashes of the trade deadline. A good scoring team with a decent power play picked up a scoring centre. There will be more goals to come for the Stars. They may become one of the NHLs more exciting teams if theyre not careful. Im expecting them to go on a rampage here.
San Jose Sharks might perk up too. They brought in Campbell to run a power play ranked seventh in the Western Conference. His success should translate directly into wins. Their penalty killing is good. The only other big problem is the lousy effort theyre getting out of Patrick Marleau. Campbells better offensive play could help here too.
Oddly, the Northwest Division, locked in a tight fight all season, did little at the deadline. Except for the Colorado Avalanche. They picked up spark plug Adam Foote and strong defenceman Ruslan Salei. With Joe Sakic returning after months of injury it is as if the Avalanche added three stalwarts to their roster. This team also seems poised to make a run at the number three seed. If so then Nashville, the sinking Vancouver Canucks, and Phoenix Coyotes may be left to scrap for eighth place.
Ignoring standings, for me the four teams in the East which will win most in this closing stages of the season are: New Jersey, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, and Washington. The four in the West could be: Anaheim, Colorado, Dallas, and Detroit.