Let’s take a look at today’s seven games, with start times at Eastern Standard Time (ET) as usual.
Phoenix @ Pittsburgh
While the day-to-day upheaval in the Western Conference provides great evidence too, the top of the East provides a great sense of the “What have you done for me lately?” nature of this hockey season. The Flyers ended the Penguins’ 12-game winning streak and after two Pittsburgh losses, Philadelphia now has a five point divisional lead.
Meanwhile, the Coyotes are hanging tough in the playoff race in the West, as they’re tied with the Kings for ninth place at the moment.
Florida @ Philadelphia
Speaking of the Flyers, they host the perennially just-short-of-decent Panthers tonight. While Tomas Vokoun & Co. have been stingy enough to tie their club for the least goals allowed with Pittsburgh (albeit in three less games), their goal differential is only +2. In other words, the Flyers will kick themselves if they lose this one.
Atlanta @ Toronto
The Leafs are still a questionable team, but they’re almost playoff-caliber at home with an 8-6-3 record. The Thrashers are scrappy on the road, though, with an 8-5-3 record. In other words, this one could go either way.
Could this game be more exciting than a shouting match between the two boisterous general managers (Brian Burke vs. Rick Dudley), though?
Carolina @ Tampa Bay
There’s a significant difference between the top eight teams in the East (Lightning included) and the teams on the outside looking in, but the Hurricanes are one of three teams that might have a chance to make up the difference. Tampa Bay has played six more games on the road than at home so far this season, though, so my guess is that Carolina will have to pass someone else.
(Naturally, you never know.)
Anaheim @ Boston
Hey, look at that: the eight best team in the West vs. the eight best team in the East. Well, for once, the East team should be better, theoretically at least. The Bruins and Ducks both have 38 points, but Boston took five less games to get there. Of course, Claude Julien’s bunch doesn’t have to deal with the brutally competitive Pacific Division, so this game could go either way.
Calgary @ Minnesota
I’m not going to lie, this is a paring of two of the NHL’s least optimistic franchises. The Wild’s glass might be closer to half full, as they can boast young talent like the underrated Miikko Koivu and slightly younger goalie Niklas Backstrom. The Flames seem like an older, clumsier version of Minnesota (only with more angst).
Then again, the Wild (-15 goal differential) have been losing much uglier than the Flames (-6 goal differential) this season, so perhaps they’re both equally down in the dumps.
Vancouver @ St. Louis
The Canucks are hot right now (8-1-1) and can re-claim the Northwest Division lead from the Avalanche with a win. The Blues find themselves in the just-out-of-the-playoffs muck, but are a tough out at home (10-3-2 in St. Louis; 5-8-3 on the road). In other words, these are two teams in their element right now, so this should be another good one.