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Published: Saturday, 4/20/2013

NHL playoff picture

Wings, multiple teams still battling

Much to decide in final week of regular season

NEW YORK TIMES

This strangest of recent NHL regular seasons enters its final week with playoff positioning still largely unresolved.

How these races play out over the next few days could have deeper implications beyond which team will continue playing when the Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 30.

The Detroit Red Wings are in a battle with the Dallas Stars and the Columbus Blue Jackets for the Western Conference's final playoff spot and are in danger of failing to qualify for the first time in 22 seasons.

During that time, the Red Wings have become perhaps the most popular NHL team in the United States, attracting so many viewers that they are among the most-scheduled teams on NBC's national broadcast and cable telecasts.

Their average audience on NBC Sports Network is eight percent higher than the average of all NHL games on the network.

If Columbus gets that eighth spot, it would mark their second playoff berth in the franchise's 12-season history. That would jump-start the rebuilding efforts of John Davidson, the popular former New York Rangers goalie and television analyst who was hired in October to oversee the struggling club as its president for hockey operations.

Before Davidson's hiring, the team's play had so alienated its fans that last season, a small group demonstrated in front of Nationwide Arena demanding changes to the front office.

Davidson had previously helped engineer the St. Louis Blues' turnaround as that team's president.

In February, he fired general manager Scott Howson, replacing him with Jarmo Kekalainen, who had worked with Davidson in St. Louis. Shortly afterward, the Blue Jackets swung a trade with the Rangers for Marian Gaborik, who immediately provided Columbus with some offensive star power to replace Rick Nash, whom the Blue Jackets traded to the Rangers last summer.

For the Rangers, Gaborik had nine goals and 10 assists in 39 games. With the Blue Jackets, he had three goals and four assists in his first nine games.

The Rangers, a team many considered favorites to win the Cup once they acquired Nash, are also in danger of missing the postseason, with Winnipeg challenging them for the final spot in the Eastern Conference.

Winnipeg is also pressing Washington for the top spot in the Southeast Division, which guarantees a playoff spot. Should the Jets overtake the Capitals, the Rangers would have a different rival for that final spot.

If the Rangers falter in the final week, it would lead to intense speculation about the future of the club as it currently exists.

Coach John Tortorella's job might be in jeopardy.

Additionally, missing the playoffs might cause general manager Glen Sather to exercise the team's remaining amnesty buyout and drop center Brad Richards and his $6.67 million annual salary from the roster, freeing up some salary-cap space for next season, when the cap drops by about nine percent.

Barring a collapse, the New York Islanders seem poised to make the postseason for the first time since 2007. They play the remainder of their schedule on the road, but that could work to their advantage. Their 13-5-2 record away from Nassau Coliseum entering the weekend ranked third best among all Eastern Conference visiting teams.

Making the playoffs would validate long years of losing while management collected young prospects through the draft. It would also give credence to those who believe that John Tavares, whom the Islanders selected first overall in 2009, deserves serious consideration for the Hart Trophy.

In the Northeast Division, the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins are tussling for first place, which would probably earn the winner the second seed in the Eastern Conference, behind Pittsburgh.

The team finishing second would drop to the fourth seed, below the winner of the Southeast Division, even though it will have a much better record.

That would thrust Boston or Montreal into the always-perilous No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup, probably against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who, like the Canadiens and Islanders, have had a surprising resurgence this year.

The Canadiens are the biggest name in the sport, and the Maple Leafs play in the largest hockey-centric market of all. Many in Canada are hoping for a series between the teams, which would be the first since 1979 and would galvanize the country.



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