And that will be especially true if Karlsson’s seamless reintegration into the Senators lineup continues.
THE PLAYOFF RACE (1): There are two playoff spots remaining to be decided in the Western Conference and three teams in contention – the Detroit Red Wings, the Minnesota Wild and the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have 53 points in 47 games, after managing just 65 in 82 games last year, by far the poorest record in the NHL (Edmonton was next at 74 points). Unhappily for the Blue Jackets, they are no longer in control of their own playoff destiny. Minnesota has two games remaining and the same number of points as Columbus, but the Wild have the edge in the tie-breaker (regulation and overtime wins, 21 compared to 18), which means one victory of any kind puts the Minnesotans in.
Detroit is up a point on Columbus and has the tie-breaker in its favour, meaning the Blue Jackets need Detroit to lose in regulation in their final game against the Dallas Stars, which would allow Columbus to slip past them in the standings with a victory. Seems improbable, except for the fact that two years ago, a similar sort of scenario unfolded, Chicago getting the final playoff spot, because the team chasing them – Dallas – unexpectedly lost on the final Sunday to a Minnesota team that had already been eliminated from the playoffs. Given a second chance, the eighth-seeded Blackhawks pushed No. 1 Vancouver to seven games and only lost in overtime of the deciding game. What is it they say? Stranger things have happened.
THE PLAYOFF RACE (2): Jockeying for position in the middle of the Western Conference standings will go right down to the wire, with the surging St. Louis Blues in control. If the Blues win their final game, they’ll get the fourth seed and home-ice advantage. The Los Angeles Kings could finish anywhere between fourth and sixth, while the San Jose Sharks could finish anywhere between fourth and seventh, depending upon what Minnesota does. If the Kings fall to sixth, they’ll meet the Canucks again in a rematch of last year’s opening round.
THE PLAYOFF INJURY WATCH: Getting accurate injury information is problematic at the best of times, and virtually impossible as the playoffs approach. But it looks as if the Pittsburgh Penguins might have all of their injured personnel – Sidney Crosby (broken jaw), James Neal (concussion) and Paul Martin (broken hand) – back for the start of the playoffs. The challenge, for coach Dan Bylsma, is to get them all up to speed as quickly as possible, but avoid the sort of first-round stumble that has characterized each of the team’s past two seasons. The Penguins are built to go deep into the playoffs, deeper than any team in the league thanks to the additions of Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Jussi Jokinen and Douglas Murray – but depth doesn’t get you out of the first round, where upsets so frequently occur. Bylsma was trying some different things at practice Friday, Neal and Chris Kunitz back with Malkin, Iginla with Pascal Dupuis and Jokinen, which would allow them to slip Crosby into that spot eventually, if they chose to do so. It looks as if the third line will feature Brandon Sutter, with Morrow and Matt Cooke. If Crosby returns, then Jokinen drops to the fourth line, with Tyler Kennedy and a wealth of other options: Craig Adams, Tanner Glass, Dustin Jeffrey, Beau Bennett … The St. Louis Blues expect to have spark plug winger T.J. Oshie ready to go for playoffs as well. He’s been out week-to-week recovering from ankle surgery … Chicago too is likely to be up to full strength, with just the perennially injured Dave Bolland recovering from a groin strain, and goalie Ray Emery bothered by a lower-body injury.