A quick look at the playoff brackets might convince you that you know the answer to the title question. And while it is more than likely there will be fundamental changes to the structure of both the Capaital’s and the Sharks if they get knocked out before the conference finals, you’d be wrong to think they will back slide the furthest.

Boston with all its injuries (Savard, Stuart, Seidenberg) who had that huge drop from missing the Presidents Trophy last year by such a small margin, to clawing their way into sixth this year will be another year older, but will probably enter the season with Hall or Seguin on the roster and possible former first rounders Caron and Colbourne. If all goes well Ryder & Wideman will be wearing someone else’s uniform next year, and the three missing men will be back and contributing their impressive weight.

For the Habs who many (myself included) wrote off as a proof of Gainey’s senility with a roster crowded with Umpaloompa’s and hasbeens, just making the playoffs is something to be proud of. The fact that they started the second season by snapping an eight game post season slide against the powerhouse Capitals is enormous.

The Avalanche, Coyotes and Kings were not expected to make the playoffs and many predicted two of them as lottery bound. With the youth and lack of playoff experience here, despite the heart, hustle and skill they can all wait another season or even two to learn how to win playoff hockey.

Some people will point to the defending champion Penguins and their prom dates the last two years the Wings and say surely they have the most to lose. Nope, as great as the Wings I don’t think they have the depth. They were in 9th place not long ago and have been largely carried by several aging veterans and surprise sensation Jimmy Howard. The Penguins are in part victims of their own success, and partly their leadership failed to replace the shutdown defensive pair that helped propel them to the Cup a year ago. The Penguins still have great core, and the Wings leadership know how to build.

To my mind the Devils have to go out and make it to the Conference finals this year if the sword of Damoclese isn’t to descend on everyone outside the owners office. Like the Sharks the Devils have been almost there for so long, and have added a gun slinger to their lineup. Of all the teams in the east, I suspect only the Flyers will get a sounder scrubbing if they fail.

But the team that has the most to lose isn’t someone who’s been a perennial favorite, isn’t a team with questionable coaching, or prima donnas in the locker room its the Chicago Blackhawks. The team will be a very different beast next year. For next season they have 14 players signed and come up to $57.566 million. They quite literally have nowhere to move. They will start trading as soon as they can, both at the draft and right up to the start of the new season. Being that close to the salary cap something has got to give. If the team on the ice today wants a cup there is literally no “next year”. We could quite possibly see core guys including Kane and Toews moved to make room. Hossa and Sharp are almost certainly gone. If the Black Hawks fail, they don’t just lose a game or a series, they don’t simply let slip a place in history, they give up a team that is good enough to hoist the Cup and shatter the dream of a whole city.

The Senators have outworked, out chanced, out skated, out smarted and completely dominated the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Crosby through two periods had only attempted one shot and that was blocked. Fluery allowed five goals and five goal scores to light the lamp.  The effort for most of the Penguins was seriously lacking and the Senators looked like the playoff veterans all night. Jarkko Ruuttu managed to stay disciplined the whole night.

What this series comes down to is a contrast between the main strength of the Senators in defense, and the offense of the Penguins, the defenses are pretty similar with but it should be noted that Crosby did not score a single of his fifty-one goals against the Senators and that trend continued tonight. Goaltending is about even between the two teams with the season series having shown both teams goalies can have very bad nights.

Senators win 5-4 over last season Stanley Cup Champions, but the Penguins only showed up for about ten minutes of the game. Senator’s lead the series 1-0.

As the regular season winds down, I’m going to do a series on sev eral players, and Bruins situations that have held up, marked the danger points, or just plain made fans scratch their heads. Tonight however is a post on some teams that have done those things across the NHL.

Pillars:

Before the NHL season i made two predictions that made people laugh at me about the Western Conference. First was that the Chicago Black Hawks would win their division.  And the second that the Phoenix Coyotes would make the playoffs.  With less than a dozen games left for each team, they are tied for least goals allowed in the West with 179 goals against, and each leads their division. The Coyotes have done it with some of the most tenacious play in the NHL, the Black Hawks have done it with one of the most talent laden, hard hitting, and smooth skating teams in recent memory.

Pylons:

While several teams made some hefty roster changes in the off season, the Toronto Maple Leafs were one of the most active players picking up free agents like Mike Komisarek from division rivals the Montreal Canadiens, trading for Phil Kessel, from division rivals the Boston Bruins and giving up one second and two first round draft picks in addition to dumping $5.4 million a year on him, and signing Colton Orr to a four year deal.  During the course of the season they picjen d up Dion Phanuef to juice their defense, and traded for Jean-Sebastian Giguere to finally give themselves a starting quality goaltender. For these efforts they would somehow need to get 19 of the possible 20 points reamaining to tie last years 12th place Easttern Conference finish right now with no first round pick in the lottery for consolation, the Leafs are 15th in the East.

The most notable pylon of the season is not a team, not a player, not even a management team. It’s the discipline office, specifically Colin Campbell.  The Savard hit was the perfect opportunity for the NHL to made a radical attack on hits to the head. Savard is a perennial point per game player, an All Star, has played in markets from Atlanta and Alberta to Boston and New York and is certainly a player who is known to make a difference when on the ice. Instead, the NHL’s supposed disciplinarian sat in the corner complaining about the wallpaper being crooked while the house burnts down.  There is no excuse for the lack of official response for what is clearly an intent to injure.  The list of players who have been hurt badly by players who have no respect for the man in the other uniform is long and tragic, in that it reminds me of the discipline czars tenure.

Enigmas:

Will the real Carolina Hurricanes please stand up? With the help of injuries and illness they kept the conference basement warm for Toronto for a large portion of the season, and then went five and two in February, and six and five in March. This has pulled them nearly outt of the lottery and into semi-respectability.

What is with the St Louis Blues? They had more injuries than you can shake a medical degree at last season, and from the halfway point forward went form 15 to 6 in the Western Conference. This year with ten games left, they have allowed as many goals as they did all last year. Their offense is off last years pace as well, despite a line up that boasts guyys like Oshie who usuannly manages to appear to be in two places at once on the ice, and Backes who can hit, skate and score.

So if I were Matt Cooke, I’d have my head on a swivel and my name on a will tonight. Because the list of guys who will express their displeasure with him would be worrisome to anyone who spent a few minutes on Youtube or over at HockeyFights.com.

Zdeno Chara is a 6’9 250+ skating menace to the uncivil when he wishes to be. Given the wrath he displayed on several occasions last year and throughout his career, Matt Cooke might be looking up at the scariest man in the NHL with his gloves off tonight. It could also herald the return of the physical element that has been notably downsized in Chara’s game this year.

Milan Lucic, just take a look at some of his fight and think about what it looks like when he’s upset. Now imagine it being you he’s upset with. Or just ask Mike Komisarek, and his doctors. Lucic is also the man who provided us with the through-the-glass check that will adorn highlight reels for a long, long time.

Mark Stuart. He’s already had six fights this season, despite having missed time with injuries. This is two more than any other NHL season. His name is linked with Scott Stevens every time he detonates on someone in open ice. With his gloves on or off, this man is dangerous.

Shawn Thornton. He’s fought every ghoul and goon in the NHL from Laroque and Brashear on down the list, he’s compiled a hell of a record while doing so too.

Marc Savard is both well liked by his team, and a huge piece of the puzzle. Someone will be taking a piece of Cooke tonight, its only a matter of who and how hard.

The Bruins entered the game looking to integrate Dennis Seidenberg into their defense in his second game since the trade. He performed with a quiet efficiency that is very different from the quiet efficiency that Morris displayed. They are different players and do things with distinct flair.

Michael Ryder’s hit on Blake Comeau was unfortunate, not a good play but also not malicious. I expect there will be a suspension over it as it clearly was a hit from behind into the boards, but when you look at the hit and compare it to the Jones hit on Bergeron and other similar hits, there was no extension of the arms, the hit began well away from the  boards with contact coming at about the goal line. Both Comeau and Ryder were braced for contact.

Pretty solid game for the Bruins through the first twenty five to thirty five minutes. Savard’s goal, and his footwork to get it make me think he should do a season of Dancing with the Stars. We’ve seen some other athletes do it, but no NHL players. Lucic had a goal that was the work of all five skaters, Thonrton and Begin looked the best they have since the Olympic break. Krejci’s goal made him look much more like last years David Krejci.

Bruins Player of the Game:

Tim Thomas: He simply ate pucks for lunch including a twenty one save second period on his way to a thirty seven save day.

Best Forward:

Patrice Bergeron, ran Tavares over several times, took over a third of the Bruins faceoffs and won 69%.

Best Defenseman:

Mark Stuart, not usually an offensive force he ended the game the only player who was a +2 on the day, had several solid defense, and a couple shots on goal, and logged quite a bit of short handed time.

And the man living in the struggle for today was:

Johnny Boychuck: he fought the puck all day with a ton of issues handling the puck in close to his body, and he had the key turnover that led directly to the second Islanders goal.

I think without the Ryder major, the Bruins might have been able to stuff this one in the bag early, but five straight minutes of penalty killing had the Bruins cycling through all their most impactful players. Next game is another day game against the Penguins.

This injury to Rask may prove the best thing to happen to the Bruins in a while.

Tim Thomas is now in a battle to regain the confidence of the team in front of him. His numbers have certainly fallen off from last year, but the defense in front of him hasn’t been quite as good. He’s also on pace for more shutouts than he had last season.

What convinces me we’ll see the best of Thomas is:
1) His and his teams backs are against the wall, as they were two years ago down the stretch with Savard out, Bergeron out, and Chara hobbled.

2) Right now Thomas is rested and has been away from the NHL and all expectations for almost three weeks. He’s also fully healthy.

3) Thomas is now focused on the NHL with the Olympics out of the way, and the tons of marketing that was done in the off and preseasons.

4) He’s the last guard at the gate and is not the type to abandon his post. Behind him are Matt Dalton who’s sporting AHL numbers that would get him lynched if he put them up in Boston, and Dany Sabourin whp was Marc Andre Fluery’s backup even when that worthy gent was bad.

If Thomas pulls his game back to Vezina quality going into the playoffs the Bruins have to be pleased as a whole need to be really pleased. If he plays well this spring and summer and manages to steal even a single round against either New Jersey or Washington with the lackluster offensive performance of the skaters in front of him he gets a bit more say in where he spends next year, be it hear in Boston or one of the numerous destinations a goalie of his peak quality would draw offers from.

The Bruins moves probably have most scratching their heads. The defense hasn’t really been a problem this year or last. That said, the Bruins haven’t drafted much in the way of defensemen in the last two or three drafts. And today and yesterday addressed some of that lack of depth by picking up three prospects who they obviously like. Having been at rookie camp this past summer, and having watched the talk at camp this fall, I noticed a lot of talk about anything but young defensemen.  The only guys who get any talk were Yuri Alexanderov, Matt Hunwick and perhaps one or two more.  Those who watched the Bruins signings over the summer and early fall noticed several career AHL defensemen signed to fill out the roster in Providence.

As it stands now, the highest draft pick of the defensemen in Providence is Tommy Cross. He’s had two knee surgeries in the last two years.  After that is Alexanderov who is playing in Russia, and like other Europeans, getting them over even if they profess to wanting to play in the NHL.  So Chiarelli saying during his post deadline press conference that he likes Bartkowski a lot is indicative of his overall mindset. Chiarelli also stated that of all the guys available, that none would provide more than an incremental improvement over the guys on the ice now. Chiarelli went on to say that it was expected that Seidenberg or The Good Dennis, will be playing with Chara, a yet further indication of how far Widemans stock has fallen.

Former Bruins moved around:

Andrew Alberts will be skating with Real American Hero Ryan Kesler in Vancouver at the price of a third round pick.

Aaron Ward is now a member of the Ducks for what may be a steal.

Stephane Yelle is back in Colorado, the franchise he spent the first seven years of his career with.

Milan Jurchina is once again a Washington Capital, I wonder if he can get his old home back?

More on the rest of the league and the day as a whole next.

I’m a firm believer that some players are only as good as their ability to tolerate the market they are in, and the support they are getting from the bodies around them.

That said, an interesting trade that might spark the reemergence of two talented 30 goal scorers would be between Boston and St Louis.

I personally don’t think that Michael Ryder is able to stand the scrutiny in a top tier hockey market like Montreal or Boston. I think in a place where the fourth line guys are as well known to the fans as the second line guys in major markets. Brad Boyes has played in Boston, has his two former linemates still on the team in Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm, and has just short of died this season for all the relevance he’s had on the ice.  Their cap hits are about the same, although there are two more years on Boyes deal and just one on Ryders.

Derek Morris has been traded to Phoenix. Bruins dump the remainder of his $3.3 million cap hit, and pick up a 4th round pick for 20

Bruins have been linked to Ray Whitney, Joe Corvo, and others this morning. The Tim Thomas rumors have surfaced again.

Derek Morris was second for scoring in defensemen in scoring on the Bruins despite spending 1:46 less per game than Dennis Wideman.

This one has me scratching my head since the Bruins have been searching for a puck moving defenseman since Chiarelli rolled into town, and then they go and trade one.  Possibly this is for a move on defense, or to create room for a scoring winger.