Pittsburgh Penguins & St. Louis Blues Take Over NHL Stretch Drive

All season long the story in the NHL has ranged from the home winning streak of the Detroit Red Wings, the excellence of the New York Rangers or Vancouver’s push for Stanley Cup redemption. But with anywhere from 10-13 games left in the regular season it’s the St. Louis Blues that have opened up the Western Conference, and the Pittsburgh Penguins who are suddenly the hot item in the East. Is a sea change at hand just before the postseason begins?

It’s difficult to deny the incredible surge of the Penguins is a real sea change, and it was punctuated by Sidney Crosby’s Thursday night return in Madison Square Garden and the team winning its tenth in a row to close to within four points of the Rangers, who still hold the top spot in the East. Even if Pittsburgh’s push for the Atlantic Division title and #1 seed, comes up short, there’s no denying that Crosby, paired up points leader Evgeni Malkin make the Penguins a real shot to win it all. And with the Washington Capitals playing well at the right time and getting a little breathing room on the 8-spot, the #1 seed might not even be the ideal bracket spot anyway.

St. Louis’ Brian Elliot is playing the best of any goaltender in this league, with the best numbers in save percentage and goals against, even if he doesn’t get the same kind of ink and MVP love that Rangers counterpart Henrik Lundqvist is getting. Imagine that, a player in flyover country not getting as much hype as one in the Big Apple. But it doesn’t change the fact that St. Louis has run away from struggling Detroit in the Central Division, has breathing room on Vancouver for the top seed in the West and is in the lead for the President’s Cup, awarded to the team with the best regular season performance. TheSportsNotebook’s Museum focuses on celebrating cities who have had great championship runs from multiple teams in a given year. The Cardinals have won the World Series. Can the Blues duplicate? Then throw in that the Missouri basketball team could make the Final Four and win the national championship, and life is good for sports fans in St. Loo right now.

Boston’s struggles in the Northeast Division continue unabated. The Bruins have lost four in a row, most of them in ugly fashion. Tim Thomas is playing poorly in the goal, something that undoubtedly is breaking hearts in the White House. Thomas’ great performance in last year’s run to the Stanley Cup obscured the fact that many Bruins’ fans—myself included—had felt the time arrived to trade him and commit to Tuuka Raask as the goalie of the future. In fact when I was at Game 2 of the Montreal series of the playoffs last year, I had just such a conversation with a fan we were seated next to. We were obviously jumping the gun and no one would ever trade what Timmy T did for the city of Boston, but he’s not a young man anymore and he’s playing on a team whose efforts to upgrade their offense keep hitting bad luck with concussions—first Marc Savard, then Nathan Horton. What it boils down to is that Ottawa is within a point of first place. The second-place team will almost certainly be the #7 seed, while the division leader has to hold off hard-charging Florida for the two-spot.

St. Louis and Vancouver may be comfortably settling into the 1-2 spots, while Detroit and Nashville have been on a collision course for a 4-5 game for a couple weeks now and Chicago looks to be #6. But the Pacific Division race is a wild three-team affair with red-hot Dallas holding a two-point lead on Phoenix. The Coyotes were the flavor of the month in February. Now it’s the Stars in March. San Jose is only three points back themselves—will be the hot team for a week in April and steal the Pacific and the #3 seed?

The race for the top two spots in this division is even more important, because it looks like the third place finisher will be in a dogfight for the final playoff berth. San Jose is a point back of Colorado right now, but the Avalanche have played 73 games, the most of any contender. So it’s San Jose and Calgary, both tied for ninth who have the better shots at this spot, while Los Angeles is also on the mix. Colorado is an illusionary 8th right now.

There’s good hockey on TV this weekend, although TheSportsNotebook is going to be following the lead of most sports fans and the TV won’t come off of college basketball. The Sunday feature is Philadelphia-Pittsburgh at 12:30 PM ET on NBC and later that night on NBCSN is Washington-Chicago. It’s a big weekend for the Capitals. They can start tonight by opening up some breathing room on Winnipeg in a head-to-head road game, and then the opportunity against the Blackhawks to further solidify their hold on the 8-spot as well as keeping the heat on Florida for the Southeast Division title. And by Sunday Ottawa could be in first place in the Northeast. While the struggling Bruins play Philadelphia on Saturday in front of what will undoubtedly an ornery Boston crowd, the Senators play weak teams in Montreal on Friday and then Toronto on Saturday. In fact, I’d say it’s a virtual lock Ottawa will be in first place on Sunday and I’ll be depressed, trying to remind himself that the B’s will still have two games in hand down the stretch.