Sports Hockey

NHL

Eastern Conference contender could be squeezed out by Senators

By Mike Zeisberger, Toronto Sun

Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock (left) speaks to forward Pavel Datsyuk during practice in Montreal last October. (Ben Pelosse/QMI Agency/Files)

Red Wings head coach Mike Babcock (left) speaks to forward Pavel Datsyuk during practice in Montreal last October. (Ben Pelosse/QMI Agency/Files)

PITTSBURGH - 

Imagine the upcoming Stanley Cup dance without Mike Babcock, the most coveted pending free agent in hockey, and his Detroit Red Wings, a franchise in danger of seeing its 23-consecutive postseason appearance streak suddenly snapped.

Or how about a playoff year that doesn’t include Pittsburgh Penguins superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, two of the biggest names in the entire sport.

And what if the tournament was lacking big Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins, a team that has represented the Eastern Conference in two of the past four finals?

Entering the final five days of the NHL regular season, one of these scenarios will come to pass if -- and we emphasize the word “if” -- the Ottawa Senators can qualify, thereby squeezing out either the Wings, Pens or Bruins in the process.

Detroit, Pittsburgh and Boston all have 95 points, two more than Ottawa. All four teams have three games remaining, with the Pens-Sens clash Tuesday in Ottawa playing a huge role in how this intriguing story will play itself out.

If the NHL was seeking parity when the salary cap was introduced a decade ago, the success of the concept is documented with every glance at the shoehorned standings in this, the final week of the 2014-15 regular season.

The Red Wings, Penguins and Bruins represent three of the past seven Stanley Cup winners, yet all are still fighting to keep their hopes for a playoff spot alive. In the West, that’s the same story with the defending champion Los Angeles Kings, who hoisted hockey’s Holy Grail in both 2012 and 2014.

Mired in a 6-9-2 funk, the Wings can still punch their ticket to a 24th-consecutive playoff spot on Tuesday if they can beat the Carolina Hurricanes and the Pens defeat the Senators in regulation time. While the Sens could still claw their way to a 97 point season if it plays out that way, the Wings would get the tiebreaker if they sit at that number as well because of more regulation/overtime victories than Ottawa.

Detroit’s issues have resulted from a variety of ailents, including inconsistent goaltending and not nearly enough contributions from Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. A banged-up Datsyuk has been in-and-out of the lineup due to injury while captain Zetterberg has scored just twice since Jan. 27.

Not helping their cause is the fact 24-goal scorer Justin Abdelkader is out indefinitely because of a hand injury, a key blow to a team that has seen its offence evaporate in recent weeks.

Missing the playoffs certainly would be a bitter pill to swallow for the Red Wings, who are in danger of losing Babcock in the offseason to a number of franchises that will be waving big bucks at him. GM Ken Holland likely doesn’t want to absorb that potential double whammy, not to mention the team’s loyal fan base in Hockeytown.

Meanwhile, contemplating a Gino-less, Sid-The-Kid-less post-season is almost surreal. But the Pens have no one else to blame but themselves for opening the door to that catastrophic possibility, having lost three consecutive games as part of a 3-6-1 skid.

The injury bug has chomped into the Penguins blueline to the extent that Pittsburgh, partially because of salary cap issues, was forced to play a game with just five defencemen last week. At one point, former Maple Leaf Daniel Winnik was being considered a candidate to move back to defence but the Pens managed to avoid taking such drastic measures.

When asked about the rash of injuries suffered by his team, Sidney Crosby told QMI Agency: “There are no excuses.”

As such, coach Mike Johnston said every outing from here on in is crucial for his squad.

“I think everyone who’s not guaranteed a playoff position at this time is saying: “These games are really important,”” Johnston said. “And so, there are a lot of teams in that pack right now.

“It changes from day to day ... It’s so tight, the West and the East.”

The vibe among the fan base in Pittsburgh is a nervous one. And if Johnston can’t get his team into the postseason or past the first round, expect the Babcock-to-Pitt speculation to go viral.

Of the three Eastern Conference teams sitting at 95 points, the Bruins have enjoyed the most success of late, reeling off a five-game winning streak. But even that hasn’t guaranteed them anything, much to the chagrin of team CEO Charlie Jacobs who has hinted at changes both on and off the ice if the team misses the playoffs.

There will be a lot of fingernails chewed down to the nub over the next handful of days in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Boston. In the end, it will be up to the Sens to spoil the playoff party for one of those teams.

DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME ...

Here’s a look at the remaining schedules for the Red Wings, Penguins, Bruins and Senators:

* Red Wings (95 points): Vs. Hurricanes Tues., @ Canadiens Thurs., @ Hurricanes Sat.

* Penguins (95 points): @ Sens Tues., Vs. Islanders Fri., @ Sabres Sat.

* Bruins (95 points): @ Capitals Wed., @ Panthers Thurs., @ Lightning Sat.

* Senators (93 points): Vs. Penguins Tues., @ NYR Thurs,, @ Flyers Sat.

LAST MINUTE OF PLAY

Former Habs defenceman Dollard St. Laurent, 85, has passed away, the most recent in a series of ex-Montreal Canadiens players to do so in recent months.

St. Laurent won the Stanley Cup five times in his 12-year career, four with Montreal, one with Chicago.

St. Laurent is the fifth former Canadien to pass away in recent months, a list that includes defenceman Carol Vadnais in August, legendary captain Jean Beliveau in December, former coach Claude Ruel in February and, most recently, hockey great Elmer Lach this past weekend.

mike.zeisberger@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/zeisberger


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