It’s a busy Saturday night in the NHL with 16 teams taking to the ice. And, with essentially every game holding playoff ramifications, I figured I would provide a short but sweet reason to follow the important contests.
Pittsburgh Penguins (32-20-5) at Philadelphia Flyers (32-18-7)
The beauty of an NHL playoff race will be on full display in this contest between Atlantic Division rivals. Philadelphia (71 points), New Jersey (70 points) and Pittsburgh (69 points) are separated by a mere two points for the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference, which, of course, is the final spot that offers home ice in the first round of postseason play. With a victory Saturday, the Penguins would move into a tie for that spot with just 24 games remaining in the regular season, so the implications of this matchup are great. In two previous matchups, the Flyers have won by a combined score of seven to four. However, the two clubs haven’t met since late December, so circumstances have certainly changed.
Prediction: I like Philadelphia at the Wells Fargo Center. They have captured 33 points in 28 games at the arena, while Pittsburgh has been somewhat inconsistent on the road. Flyers by a goal, 4-3.
Chicago Blackhawks (30-21-7) at Columbus Blue Jackets (17-34-6)
Chicago arrives at Nationwide Arena one game removed from a free fall from the top of the Western Conference that has severely affected its playoff seeding. The Blackhawks have one win in their last 10 games — which shockingly came against the New York Rangers — and are now 15 points behind the top-seeded Detroit Red Wings. So, can they get back on track against the leagues worst team is the big question.
Prediction: Now, I will admit that in four previous contests with the Blue Jackets, Chicago has dominated. They are 4-0-0 with a combined score of 20 to eight. However, Columbus is fresh off a huge upset of St. Louis, so why not take them for another shocker against a struggling opponent? ‘Jackets by a goal, 3-2.
Minnesota Wild (25-23-9) at St. Louis Blues (35-15-7)
Well, it goes without saying, but Minnesota is in desperate need of a spark to save its season. Just over two months ago the Wild were 13 games above .500 and atop the conference… now, it is the opposite. They have recorded five wins in the last 27 games and are currently facing a six-game losing skid. Conversely, St. Louis has been one of the NHL’s toughest teams since starting the year 7-7-1. In fact, the Blues have failed to record at least one point on only eight occasions over the last 42 games.
Prediction: Let’s be honest, the Blues will have no problem here. They hold one of the top home advantages with a 25-3-4 record at the Scottrade Center, and they are coming off a disappointing defeat. Minnesota is in BIG trouble. Blues cruise to a 3-1 victory.
Calgary Flames (27-22-9) at Los Angeles Kings (27-20-11)
Calgary is on the verge of making a playoff appearance for the first time in three seasons. Yes, the Flames. The same team that was nonexistent at 18-19-5 just one month ago. But, standing in their way is a trip to the STAPLES Center to face one of the leagues leading defensive clubs. Jonathan Quick and the Los Angeles Kings are holding the final playoff position by just two points and could find themselves in a three-way tie at the end of Saturday night. In two matchups earlier this season, the teams split victories with each of winning teams succeeded in the opposing arena.
Prediction: Contrary to many of the West’s top teams, Los Angeles has not been unbeatable at home. Overall, they are 15-12-4 in the arena and are coming off a disappointing 1-0 defeat to Phoenix. On the other hand, the Flames have picked up at least one point in seven straight road games. So, I’ll take another risk and go with the road warriers: Calgary by a goal, 2-1.
Dallas Stars (29-25-3) at Phoenix Coyotes (28-21-9)
Similar to the contest above, Dallas is in position to make a run at the Western Conference’s final playoff spots despite playing poor hockey of late. The Stars have won only three of eight and have slipped to four points behind the Coyotes for that 7th/8th (Phoenix and Los Angeles each with 65 points) seed. Fortunately for Stars fans, this can be remedied in a big way Saturday at the Jobing.com Arena. But, to get past the Coyotes, Dallas will need to solve the puzzle of netminder Mike Smith. He is 6-0-0 in February with a goals against average of nearly 1.00.
Prediction: This one truly is short, but sweet. Although Smith is enjoying his longest winning streak of his career, all good things must come to an end. That will be the case Saturday, as the Stars win it, 3-2.
Toronto Maple Leafs (29-23-6) at Vancouver Canucks (36-15-6)
The Maple Leafs are barely clinging to the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference, with Washington and Winnipeg within two points of stealing the slot. So, in hopes of building a cushion, Toronto will travel to Rogers Arena to face the surging Canucks. Vancouver hasn’t been defeated in regulation in 11 consecutive contests, which has helped in creating a 15-point lead in the Northwest Division. The Canucks, as always, are led by the dynamic Sedin brothers who have combined for 113 points this season.
Prediction: I realize that I’ve gone with the road team in two straight predictions, but don’t expect the same in this one. Vancouver is 17-6-4 at home and you can expect a hostile environment in this battle of Canadian squads. Canucks by a douce, 4-2.