THIS AND THAT: Minnesota is in something of an unexpected fade these days. Playing without the injured Dany Heatley and Matt Cullen (and still trying to integrate Jason Pominville into their lineup), Minnesota’s loss to the Blues Thursday was their sixth in eight games. More worrisome: They have been shutout in three of the four, the offence drying up and their current scoreless streak is sitting at 121:25. Minnesota looked as if it could push Vancouver for the Northwest Division crown; now the object is to stay ahead of the teams nipping at their heels for a playoff spot in the West, most notably Phoenix, which is making a little surge here at the end … And speaking of teams that suddenly look as if they know what they’re doing, how about the Washington Capitals, under coach Adam Oates, who were dismal to start the season and at one point, looked as if they could be sellers at the trade deadline. But Washington had one saving grace – they were playing in the Southeast, the worst division in hockey, and under rules that will be modified in realignment, guaranteed a place in the playoffs and the third overall seed if they could just be the best of a bad lot. Washington has feasted on its Southeast Divisional opponents – 13-3 overall – but there is more to the Capitals’ surge than just a result of beneficial scheduling. Alex Ovechkin is up to 16 goals in his past 14 games, Nicklas Backstrom again looks like a good fit on his line; and perhaps most unexpectedly, defenceman Mike Green’s game is showing a little bit of offensive verve again, after falling completely off the face of the earth in the past two injury-filled years. Only the Montreal Canadiens P.K. Subban has more goals (11) among defencemen than Green, which he’s managed in just 28 games and is more than what he had last year (three) or the year before (eight). Marcus Johansson is also helping the cause, mostly as the third man on the Ovechkin line. After a slow start and then missing about a month with a concussion, Johansson has eight points in his last seven games. At some point, the Capitals will get a chance to work Martin Erat into the lineup. He hurt his leg in his second game after coming over from the Nashville Predators at the trade deadline and so doesn’t have a point yet in a Capitals’ uniform. The Caps paid a big price to get him – first-rounder Filip Forsberg – so the hope is that Erat gets back and adds some balance to the second line. As long as goaltender Braden Holtby demonstrates his second-half form, the Capitals could pose a playoff threat to anyone. They and St. Louis are the two hottest teams in the NHL currently, both on six-game win streaks.
AND FINALLY: Winnipeg stayed in the race by reeling off a three-game win streak, but are now off until next Tuesday and have only six games remaining. The best news is that the Jets hold the edge in the tie-breaker – regulation and overtime wins – over all three teams they’re pursuing, the Ottawa Senators, the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers. The Jets play four of their final six at home and maybe the most important game is against the Islanders next Saturday afternoon, at home, after which they play back-to-back games in Buffalo and Washington on the road, then finish at home on the final Thursday of the regular season against the Montreal Canadiens.