First I will start off by mentioning that most of the teams who have still have a chance to appear in the postseason suffer from one of a short list of fatal flaws: a lack of scoring depth, a lack of defensive depth, a lack of consistent goaltending, or an inability to perform on special teams (either scoring on or stopping the power play).
With that base to work from, let's start with the shorter list, the Western Conference. At this point, with everyone having six or seven games remaining, the only thing left to do is figure out the seeding and matchups - and, of course, whether Calgary or Colorado will sneak in as the eighth seed.
Who plays whom and where it happens may not seem like a big deal, but there's more to it than you think. Vancouver, Minnesota, Calgary and Anaheim all have notably better records at home than they do on the road - the more home ice time they get, the better.
Detroit Red Wings
Why they will win: They have an incredibly potent top line featuring the likes of Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Niklas Lidstrom. Their #1 goalie, some guy by the name of Hasek, is arguably the best goalie in the league. They have proven they can get hot, with a 20-5-4 stretch from January 9th through March 14th that included 9 of a possible 10 points in five games against Nashville.
Why they won't win: It isn't that they don't have any ability, it's just that none of it is consistent. Detroit has gotten 108 goals, or 46.7% of their offensive production, from their top line, an obvious sign of that imbalance. The same is true in net, where Chris Osgood has had his days, but has been unable to play at a consistently high level filling in for Hasek, which is especially critical given Hasek's age (42!) and injury history.
Verdict: Detroit's best bet to run the table is if they stay where they are as a #4 seed. Doing so would give them a 67% chance of playing Minnesota or Dallas (whom they are 7-0-1 against this season) and a second round matchup against Nashville (whom they are 5-1-1 against). Granted, that means some vague form of tanking is necessary, which they are unlikely to do. So, Detroit will probably either finish second in the division and cruise to the conference finals, or win the division, go in against a heavy underdog in Calgary or Colorado, and barely make it out alive, if at all.
Why they will win: Teemu Selanne has rediscovered his scoring touch and leads a potent top line along with youngsters Travis Kunitz and Andy MacDonald, plus fellow veterans Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger. They even have a solid second line with two more 25-goal scorers. They have experience (afore-mentioned vets), above average defensive talent and depth, and a goalie who, like Selanne, has rediscovered the abilities that made him a name in the first place.
Why they won't win: Having two scoring lines is better than one, but they still get almost half their production from the top line, and only one player below those two lines has more than eight goals. They also have an o.k. but inconsistent backup goalie. Plus, that veteran presence also means older bodies that may tire a bit easier and get injured a bit easier.
Verdict: Some were worried about a mid-season swoon or complete collapse when the Ducks carried a 3-8-2 string into the All-Star break, but things are looking up, and the team has gone 17-8-4 since then, including four wins in their last five. On the other hand, they are only 4-3 in their last seven, including losses to LA and Phoenix. This team has become less consistent and more dependent on their top lines as the season has progressed, and their games against dead duck teams are keeping them alive right now. They're likely one and done no matter who they play.Vancouver Canucks
Why they will win: This is one team that started clicking at the right time. The Canucks are a ridiculous 30-6-6 since Christmas, and may finally be pulling away from Minnesota to lock up the division. The team has a respectable scoring balance, with at least 10 players tallying 10+ goals. Roberto Luongo has rewarded the Canucks for bringing him in via trade by playing out of his mind, holding opponents to two goals or less 25 times in 39 games during that 42 game stretch.
Why they won't win: As good as Luongo has been, he still can be inconsistent in spurts. In the last five games, he has two shutouts, but has also given up 3+ goals twice, including the Canucks most recent game where he gave up three goals on only 18 shots. Aside from their two best wingers, the Sedin twins (+18) and their two best D-men (+19 and +13), no one else on the team rates better than a plus-6, which indicates a team that may be struggling below their top line a bit more than the standard statistics indicate.
Verdict: A team that is 28-18 in one-goal games likes to live on the edge a bit too much for my liking. They weren't particularly great against any of their potential first round opponents (7-5-4 against MIN, SJ, and DAL), so this could either way. Their success will (surprise!) likely hinge on the man between the pipes. Second round exit.
Why they will win: They have balance on offense, as shown by the nine (nearly ten) different players with 15+ goals, they are defensively sound (12 players with at least a +10 rating), and have a goaltending duo in Tomas Vokoun and Chris Mason that can be counted on regardless of who plays between the pipes (Vokoun: 39 starts, 24 wins, 2.40 GAA, .920 SPCT, 5SO - Mason: 37 starts, 24 wins, 2,40 GAA, .925 SPCT, 5SO). They have several dynamic offensive players that must be accounted for in Kariya, Forsberg, and Radulov.
Why they won't win: Their overall record is deceptive. They are only 12-8-4 since February 1st, including a measly 6-4 against non-playoff teams Chicago, Columbus, LA, Phoenix, and Edmonton. Take that a step further, and over the whole season, Nashville is 26-5-2 against those five teams, and a more modest 22-16-5 against the rest of the league. They also struggle on the man advantage, with a power play that ranks 13th in the league.
Verdict: Sure Nashville padded their record against several really crappy teams - so did every other top-five team in the conference; there's a reason why four of those five teams were scheduling tee times with more than a month left in the season. Most of Nashville's struggles have come against Detroit, a team that they are unlikely to face unless the make it to the conference final. I'll say that if Nashville holds on to the #1 spot, they'll mow through the first couple rounds and then get manhandled by Detroit in that conference final. If they don't? They face either Minnesota or Dallas in all likelihood, two teams they haven't been fabulous against, and then all bets are off.
San Jose Sharks
Why they will win: A truly balanced team, with 5 20-goal scorers and a total of 12 players with at least 10, They have veteran leadership (Marleau, Rivet, Guerin) and a genuine playmaker in Thornton. Vesa Toskala and Evgeni Nabokov have been their usual two-headed-monster selves in allowing the Sharks to not care who is in net from night to night. They are one of several "been here before" teams.
Why they won't win: In spite of adding Rivet and Guerin, Thornton is the player they really need to step up and lead, and he still shows no signs of doing it. Toskala has been good (two goals allowed or less in 15 of 19 games since Christmas) but not always (5+ goals three times - to Anaheim, St. Louis, and Phoenix), much like Nabokov.
Verdict: The Sharks had a huge mid-season swoon, going 19-17-2 in December, January, and February, but have recovered nicely with a 12-2-2 mark since March 1st. Things don't look good, since in spite of their surge, San Jose is only a combined 4-8-2 against their three most likely opponents (Anaheim, Vancouver, and Nashville). Welcome to first round shark steak.
Why they will win: Good offensive depth (10 players with 10+ G) and great goaltending from Marty Turco give the Stars a good shot at the Cup, and they even get an occasional great performance when their young backup goalie needs to step between the pipes.
Why they won't win: In spite of all that scoring depth, they don't really have a go-to guy; Jokinen is their only player who has passed the 20 goal plateau, and their leading point guy, Mike Ribiero, hasn't even hit 60 yet. That could mean a team truly good at sharing, or a team truly bad at creating scoring opportunities.
Verdict: A 22-6-5 stretch since mid January has returned the team from overall conference mediocrity to just mediocre compared to the other playoff teams. I think this is a team that struggles to create offensively, and Marty Turco has shown in the past, especially in the playoffs, that he can't handle being leaned on every single game without some offense to count on. One and done, Dallas fans.
Why they will win: The hottest team in the conference not named the Canucks, the team from the Great White North hit a speed to finish off March, going 0-2-1 in games against Colorado and Calgary (slightly forgivable, since up to that point the team was 26-7-5 in '07 and had won nine straight, plus Calgary and Colorado are far more desperate right now). Marian Gaborik's return was the catalyst for the surge, posting 52 points in only 45 games. He also has elevated the games of those around him, most notably Pavol Demitra, Brian Rolston, and Pierre Marc-Bouchard, giving Minnesota several threats to be reckoned with.
Why they won't win: Another team without a ton of scoring depth, and their goaltending is good, but even on their best nights, neither Backstrom nor Fernandez can keep up with Giguere, Toskala, or Luongo without a little help from their friends. Gaborik is the only player on the team who really scares anybody.
Verdict: Perhaps the Wild's sudden stumble and offensive slump (three goals in those three games) signal Minnesota running out of gas from trying to keep pace with Vancouver? Sure, Gaborik is fresh, but the rest of the team may not be. For their sake, let's hope that they can find one last charge. Their matchups are insteresting, since the team has played Dallas, Anaheim, and San Jose a total of twice (both against DAL) since Gaborik returned. I'll be frisky and pick em to move on IF they play Anaheim.
Why they will win: Sheer dumb luck? Calgary had an awful second week of March, going 1-4-1 with their lone win against St. Louis, but have since won six in a row (five by one goal) and can finally clinch the eighth and final playoff spot with a win tonight. Jarome Iginla, Kristian Huselius (an apparently brilliant FA addition) and Daymon Langkow give the Flames three 30-goal scorers and legitimate at-all-times offensive threats. Miika Kiprusoff has had some bad nights, but still notched 40 wins and is one of the best in the conference.
Why they won't win: Considering their recent erratic play (and two games left against Colorado), don't assume they even get in. It's great they have three 30-goal guys, but that's cancelled out by the fact that they all play on the first line. Calgary has two more 20-goal guys on the second line and nobody else with more than 9 goals. That lack of offensive versatility, plus a defense that is a paper wall other than Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regher, leads to a number of all-or-nothing nights.
Verdict: All that said, this is a dangerous team. If they can sneak in, and somehow pull a first round matchup with Nashville, they'll win a series. Otherwise? Douse these Flames 'til next season, chief.
Why they will win: A true offensive balance - 90 goals from their top line, 75 from the second line, and 45 from the third line. They truly can get one behind your goalie with anyone. Veteran leadership from Joe Sakic, an incredible rookie season from Paul Stastny, and a respectable sophomore effort from Wojtek Wolski have this team on a roll at the right time.
Why they won't win: They can win out and still not make the playoffs. I am absolutely not ruling out the possibility, since this team is 12-1-2 in their last 15 games, and they have two games left against the team they need to catch (Calgary). Unfortunately, this streak has had them winning a number of low-scoring and/or one goal games, and the fact that Petr Budaj has only started 50 times is a testament to his inability to be an everyday goalie (yet?).
Verdict: In spite of possible exhaustion, this team is the hottest in the league right now, and I assure you no one, especially Nashville or Detroit, wants to face them. IF they can keep their streak alive, and IF Budaj doesn't wear down, forcing them to rely on Joke-se Theodore, they make make it out of the first round, but that's about it. This team has expended too much energy playing catch-up to go far in the post season.
Later...the Eastern Conference...