- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

RISING TIDES IN THE EAST

The common perception in the NHL for the past couple of seasons is that while there may be more star power in the Eastern Conference, the better teams were out West. While San Jose and Detroit appear to be the class of the league this season, there is a stunning lack of depth behind them — just as the number of legitimate contenders in the East is growing.

As of now, it appears the three division winners in the West will face far inferior opponents in the first round. Seed Nos. 6, 7 and 8 will be young teams just happy to be there (Columbus, Nashville and St. Louis) or flawed teams (Anaheim and Minnesota). Edmonton is one team in the mix that might put a scare into somebody, though Steve Mason and Rick Nash might take issue with that statement.

In the Eastern Conference, there is more depth emerging to compete with Boston, New Jersey and Washington. Each of those teams could face a first-round opponent that has long been a source of pain for the franchise (Montreal, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh, respectively). Beyond that, the Penguins and Rangers have remade themselves with new coaches, new personnel and a new attack-first philosophy.



Left for dead two months ago, those teams could make a run through the conference without shocking anyone. Then there’s Carolina, with its improved forward depth, solid puck-moving defense and a suddenly hot Cam Ward in net — if that sounds like the recipe for success from three years ago in Raleigh, that’s because it was.

The top two teams still might reside in the Western Conference, but improved depth has pushed the East in front — and should make for a wild scramble just to get to the Stanley Cup Finals.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

St. Louis Blues

This was expected to be a rebuilding year in the Gateway City — and that was before the team’s franchise player, defenseman Erik Johnson, wrecked his knee in a preseason golf cart accident. But here are the Blues, winners of five straight games to close March and in eighth place in the Western Conference. Those wins include games against Calgary, Vancouver and Columbus (twice).

Since Jan. 3, St. Louis has the best winning percentage in the league. Goalie Chris Mason has resurrected his career after being pushed out in Nashville. Without Johnson, the other kids (Patrik Berglund, David Perron and T.J. Oshie) have been great — particularly during the winning streak. With 26 goals and 157 penalty minutes, David Backes is Scott Hartnell without the hair.

So without their top two defensemen (Johnson and Eric Brewer) and their highest-paid forward (Paul Kariya), the Blues are making a mad dash for the playoffs. If they can avoid being swept by Detroit and Chicago this week, the Blues could be back in the postseason — at least a year before anyone expected.

TROPHY TRACKER

HART (MVP)

1. Alex Ovechkin, Capitals

Making a run at 60 goals would seal the deal.

2. Zach Parise, Devils

He needs a big finish and his team to end up first in the East.

3. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins

He needs a double-digit points lead and the No. 4 spot in the East.

JACK ADAMS (COACH)

1. Claude Julien, Bruins

Recent struggles aside, this team has far exceeded expectations.

2. Brent Sutter, Devils

His team isn’t doing him any favors after losing five straight.

3. Barry Trotz, Predators

He has lottery-level talent but has his troops in playoff position.

CALDER (ROOKIE)

1. Steve Mason, Blue Jackets

Ten shutouts as a rookie is impressive regardless of the defensive system.

2. Pekka Rinne, Predators

In any other year he would have a great case, but Mason has more buzz.

3. Bobby Ryan, Ducks

His season will be filed in the “hurt by salary cap loophole” folder.

COMING ATTRACTIONS (NCAA Edition)

NOW SHOWING

Matt Gilroy, TBD

Gilroy is about to become a sought-after free agent, but the senior defenseman will first try to lead Boston University to its first NCAA title since Chris Drury was on campus. Expect to see several NHL general managers at Verizon Center next weekend because Gilroy (with some competition from Denver’s Tyler Bozak) won’t have to go through the draft and might be able to help immediately.

COMING SOON

Jamie McBain, D, Hurricanes

McBain was the leader of a prospect-laden Wisconsin defense corps, finishing second among all NCAA defensemen with 37 points and earning WCHA player of the year honors. Since his Badgers were short on talent up front, his college season is over, and he will join Carolina’s AHL affiliate in Albany. Don’t count out a playoff cameo if the Hurricanes start losing defensemen to injury.

SHOW’S OVER

Joe Finley, D, Capitals

Finley went back to North Dakota for one more run at an NCAA title, but this season proved to be even more disappointing than the previous three. The Sioux had made three straight Frozen Fours but were knocked out in an overtime loss to New Hampshire in the first round. Finley likely will sign with the Caps soon and join AHL Hershey or ECHL South Carolina for a postseason run.

POWER RANKINGS

1. Detroit Red Wings (1)

Think San Jose wants to come back East for Game 7 at Joe Louis Arena?

2. San Jose Sharks (3)

Another reason to want that No. 1 seed — they’re 31-3-4 at the Shark Tank.

3. Boston Bruins (4)

Given history, the Bruins probably would like to see Florida pass Montreal.

4. New Jersey Devils (2)

They’re not likely to be looking forward to another series with the Rangers.

5. Washington Capitals (5)

Is this the year the Pittsburgh playoff demons are expunged?

6. Philadelphia Flyers (6)

A first-round war with the Penguins might exact too much to beat the Bruins.

7. Carolina Hurricanes (10)

They probably wouldn’t mind a shot at the Caps to avenge last season’s collapse.

8. Vancouver Canucks (8)

That No. 3 seed — and avoiding Chicago — could be huge for the red-hot Canucks.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins (7)

Remember when this team was just trying to claw its way in?

10. Chicago Blackhawks (NR)

Khabibulin or Huet — better than a Bears quarterback controversy.

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