NHL Weekend Preview

The Washington Capitals have done whatever they can in recent weeks to play themselves out of a chance at postseason redemption. The Caps have fallen four points behind a less-talented Panthers team in the NHL’s Southeast Division, and this is a division so poor that right now it stands to get just one team in the playoffs.  Friday’s NHL card is highlighted by a Panthers-Caps game down in the Sunshine State and if there were ever a time for Alex Ovechkin to show he’s more than just another pretty face, tonight would be good place to start. Other key games include Boston’s visit to Winnipeg. The Jets are still lurking with a playoff shot, four points out in the East and the Bruins have been playing some unstable hockey of late. Even as they hold down the #2 seed in the East, no one can forget that last year Philadelphia looked unstable late, held down the two-spot, and then was swept home by the B’s in the second round. I know as a Boston fan  I just shamelessly made that last passage about the B’s when the Jets have more at stake. Also worth checking is Nashville-Detroit. The Predators are settled into the 5-spot in the West for the time being, but Detroit has Vancouver hot in its heels for the conference’s pole position.

On Saturday the NHL Network has its usual day-night doubleheader. The prime-time fare (7  PM ET) is Washington-Tampa Bay. The Lightning are positively terrible this year, and this is the kind of game the Caps again must take care of business on. The day game at 1 PM ET is Pittsburgh-Philly. If the postseason started today this would be a first-round series and the Flyers lead by two in the fight for home ice. The West has a huge game with Calgary-Los Angeles. The Flames are two points out of the playoffs in the West, and it’s the Kings, along with the Phoenix Coyotes, who are right ahead of them. LA dropped a tough one to Phoenix last night to tighten this race up, and a Calgary win on Saturday turns it into a free-for-all . As for the Coyotes, they host Dallas, whose only four points back themselves, while Toronto—currently #8 in the East and three up on Washington—visits red-hot Vancouver.

Sunday in the NHL means NBC coverage and the day opens at 12:30 PM ET with split coverage among Pittsburgh-Buffalo, St. Louis-Chicago and San Jose-Detroit. The Penguins-Sabres game better be meant for the local markets because Buffalo is going nowhere. The Blues-Blackhawks is a nice rivalry spot (in the Midwest, rivalries are “nice”, whereas in the East it’s bloodsport). Chicago stopped the bleeding with a clutch win over the New York Rangers last night in MSG, but the Blackhawks are still in an uncomfortable spot with all the Western teams listed above right on their heels. The bleeding may be stopped in Chitown, but the patient is not yet back to full health. San Jose is like Florida—they’re the #3 seed right now, but only because of the privileges accorded a division champ. In reality, they only lead the Kings by four points and if LA takes the lead in the Pacific, the Sharks will drop to the bottom of the playoff seedings. A late NBC game is Boston-Minnesota (3:30 PM ET), where the Wild have been struggling. And a true must-win battle is Colorado-Winnipeg, with both teams trying to keep playoff hopes alive.