It's tough to play in the Northwest Division. The top four teams, Minnesota, Calgary, Colorado and Vancouver are all within five points of each other, and there is still a possibility that all four could make the playoffs. But the Northwest isn't the most intimidating division in the NHL. That honor goes to the Pacific.
The Anaheim Ducks, the defending Stanley Cup champions, come into the Pepsi Center tonight in third place in the Pacific Division. That's third place having won eight games of their last ten. That's third place with 83 points, seven more than the Avalanche, who are in third place in the Northwest. Though the Ducks don't score goals like Detroit or Dallas, their offense has gotten a burst of energy from the return of Teemu Selanne, and they've only lost once with him back in the lineup. They play an extremely physical game, by far the most penalized team in the NHL, with 1315 total penalty minutes---even ahead of the Broad Street Bullies, the most suspended team in the league. The Ducks have a nasty pest in Corey Perry. They have an intimidating heavyweight enforcer in George Parros. They have solid netminding and one of the strongest defensive corps in the league.
In other words, Anaheim is still a definite contender for the Cup.
The Avalanche have beefed up as of late, but questions still surround them. Sure, they're in seventh place in the Western Conference right now, but can they keep it? Can they hold off Vancouver, Nashville and Phoenix long enough for the season to run out? Can Peter Forsberg stay healthy, and even if he does, can he contribute to the offense, which has far underperformed compared to last season? Can Jose Theodore keep playing well? Can Adam Foote stop hooking people, or at least getting called for hooking?
But for all those doubtful, it-could-go-bad-at-any-second questions, there's another one that lingers even more ominous: can the Avalanche win the Northwest Division with 15 games left to play? The remaining schedule is packed to the brim with games against Edmonton, Calgary and Minnesota. Win against those teams and the Avalanche could be hanging at least one more banner from the Pepsi Center rafters come April.
The magic number for this season has been estimated to be 94 points. The Avs are just 18 points away, meaning they need to win nine games out of 15. Or the point equivalent of nine wins, which could be seven wins and four overtime losses, for example. However, if the Avs lose to the wrong teams (especially Vancouver), their hopes of a return to the postseason could be dashed anyway.
It's all up in the air right now, just like it was last season. Last year the Avs went 15-2-2 over the last 19 games and missed the playoffs with 95 points. This year they've begun the last 19 games 4-0-0. Could they repeat the streak? If they did, would it still not matter in the end?
My head's about to explode.
The game tonight starts at 7:00 PM Mountain time, 9:00 PM Eastern. Jeff Finger could be back in the lineup, but he's the seventh defenseman, so who would sit is unknown. Jose Theodore will be back in net. And you can bet Scott Parker will be playing his customary five minutes. See you here for the thread.