The playoffs are practically knocking on our doors and stealing our razors from the bathroom. Most teams have only 2 games remaining, few have 3, or 1. Among the teams that have games left with an impact on the Sharks are the Red Wings. Well, they're the only team that has an impact on the Sharks. The Wings and the Sharks each have a home and home remaining with a division rival. Sharks/Phoenix, and Red Wings/Blackhawks. The Hawks need 2 points out of 4 to clinch, the 'Yotes need at least 1 point out of 4.
I could sit here and try to analyze which teams would be playing the hardest, most inspired hockey, but there are much more tangible factors at work. Injuries and suspensions. I'll look around the Pacific, then the West and check out who's out and who's in and what it means for the Sharkies.
Starting with the Sharks themselves.
Out on Injured Reserve right now are Esteemed Faceoff Man Scott Nichol, and Just Started to Have and Impact Offensively Kent Huskins. Nichol is expected to be back soon, likely in the first playoff game. He might be slow the first game, but his faceoffs will be critical for the penalty kill, and he could be a difference maker for the Sharks first-round success. Kent Huskins, however, is still skating alone and might not be seen for another couple of weeks. Unfortunately that means less Braun and more Wallin. In the playoffs you'd instinctively want to sit your less experienced skaters and leave the job to the veterans. And then you remember Logan Couture. Maybe the comparison isn't fair, but Braun has shown some real capabilities when he filled in for Boyle earlier in the season.
Ryane Clowe was out last night against the Ducks with a lower body injury. You gotta wonder if this is serious news because of how tough the guy is, or if it's an indication that the Sharks brass are simply resting him and not taking chances. I support the latter. Watching a few of the games leading up to this one, Clowe was playing with some real drudgery. He was slower, hit less, was getting pushed around on the boards... My guess is he was trying to fight through it, couldn't, and is now taking his break. If it isn't too serious, he'll be back for the first round. If he isn't back, the Sharks will hopefully rely on the services on Ben Eager. He plays with the same fire Clowe does, his mitts just aren't as silky. Maybe with Clowe out and Nichol in we'll see an Eager-Couture-Heatley line and a Desjardins-Nichol-Mayers line on the bottom.
The biggest news has been Joe Thornton. This one is pretty frightening since it is only recently coming to fruition and the Sharks have only 2 games left. Thornton has NOT TAKEN A DRAW in the last 3 games. His last shift was with 5:00 remaining in the 2ND PERIOD last game. He only played half a game. Obviously something has been bothering him and the word isn't out yet. A lack of Joe Thornton will make a lack of Ryane Clowe hurt more. Both players are incredibly strong on the puck and their two lines will be less of a force on the forecheck. If Jumbo is out, this will be a time that Couture can show how seemlessly he'll fall in to the number one center position. Of course, I'd rather have this experiment occur closer to the beginning of the season, not the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Kings:
Anze Kopitar suffered a leg injury recently and it appears to be a fractured lower tibia. He will most likely be out for all of the playoffs. These things usually take 4-6 months to recover from and he may not even be the same after. It's a huge hit for LA and it's terrible news for the organization.
Justin Williams has been out with a dislocated shoulder. The initial looks for recovery had him playing late first round, but he has been progressing well. It's possible the Kings get him back earlier than that. However, the Kings have been having to readjust their game recently and I don't believe they'll be able to fully recover from the lack of Kopitar's and Williams' services. Their first round matchup could quite possibly be Phoenix, which I think they'll be able to beat. It will be a team defense, trap game relying heavily on goaltending. While Bryzgalov is the SOLE reason the 'Yotes are where they are, Quick will out perform him. The Coyotes always let in too many shots and with Penner still there, with Ryan Smyth and their feisty call-up Oscar Moeller, they still look decent.
EDIT: I always get my news seconds after I post...
The Anaheim Ducks made an interesting move in last night's game. They sat Ray Emery and played Dan Ellis in the middle of the second period. According to the Ducks' game recap, he left the ice with an undisclosed minor injury. Ellis finished the game. I just read from Brodie Brazil's Twitter that Emery was NOT at practice this morning. If this injury is nagging and remains, the Ducks will be in trouble. Ellis is their back up, and neither goalie is exactly a number 1. A 1B at best. The Ducks have been without Hiller and since he left, they have been having issues. Ellis is not exactly a goaltending slouch, but if Emery's out, and Ellis is left to a call-up for a backup, the Ducks will be in a similar position as the Wings.
Around the conference, there is some interesting news in Vancouver.
Manny Malhotra is definitely out for the playoffs, and who knows how much longer. Hockey will take a huge hit if his career is over. He is probably the greatest faceoff man in the game, and his 4th line play is the standard of grinder duties. Not a better man centers a bottom line than Manny Malhotra. That being said, with his absence Vancouver will be almost vincible in their end on the faceoff. Who knows, somebody might actually win one or two!
In their last game against Edmonton, Raffi Torres was Raffi Torres. He ran his elbow in to the head of an unsuspecting Jordan Eberle, he fell to the ice. Torres will be taking part in a disciplinary hearing that will likely have him see 4 games. The loss of Torres won't be too critical, but it gives a team an opportunity to take the first two playoff games from Vancouver's home-ice. Raffi Torres creates a lot of space with his dirty, Matt Cooke style hockey he plays, and the difference will be significant. Vancouver could easily lose the first round against a team like Anaheim or Chicago.
Dan Hamhuis has been out with a concussion and there is not released schedule for his return. Alex Edler has also been out. Edler had quickly been developing in to a no 1 D-man and the lack of these two players will put more pressure on the backs of the Canucks D-core. However, the Canucks have been performing without these two players and performing well, as both have been out for quite a while.
Detroit just recently suffered an injury in their leading scorer, the Glamorous Henrik Zetterberg. He suffered a lower-body injury and will be sitting the last two games against Chicago. After that he will be day-to-day. The implications here are clear enough. Z has 80 points in 80 games. His season average guarantees the team scores at least 1 point each game. Missing that will cause some interesting line juggling, but one thing the Wings do NOT lack is depth.
Chris Osgood has also been out. This is probably because he's working on his retirement plan, not hockey. The dude still uses a combo. However, he's still good at hockey. In fact, he's great when compared to MacDonald. The Wings will rely on Howard to propel them through the playoffs, but if he re-injures himself, will MacDonald be able to shoulder the burden? Especially if they have to call up a back up? The last time that happened the Wings lost to the Blues 10-3. Speaking of the Wings losing, they have been doing that lately, most importantly against possible playoff teams. Their record against Nashville this season is a horrible 1-4-0. The one win saw Nash letting a 3 goal lead slip. This could easily be the first round for the Wings and I think that this would spell Doom for the Wings.
Chicago has good news, however. They have welcomed back Patrick Sharp in to their line up. The first line is back together. Their last two games against Detroit look like it could be a mop up with the big Z out for the Wings. The Stars' last three are against the Aves, the Aves, and the Wild. Dallas WILL win those three games. Dallas will finish with 97 points, and Chicago will need 1 win to stay in. As will Anaheim. It's anyone's 7th place to lose and hopefully the worst team grabs it. The Sharks are likely matching up against seed #7 and who knows? SJ could win both against PHX, CHI could win both against DET and PHX could drop to the 7th seed. Practically a shoe-in to the semis.