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Lonnie White ON THE NHL

Teams Want Their Cut of the Postseason Cake

April 02, 2002|Lonnie White

For the Kings and other teams fighting for their postseason lives, it may be hard to believe that there are people who believe that making the Stanley Cup playoffs is a piece of cake.

That might have been true years ago, when three or four sub-.500 teams made the playoffs every spring.

Now, though, with 30 teams and 16 playoff berths available, making the cut is a lot tougher. In the Western Conference, there probably will be at least two teams with winning records left behind. The Kings are hoping they won't be one of them. But after going 0-3-1 on their recent four-game trip, they no longer are a postseason lock.

Including tonight's game against Vancouver, six of the Kings' seven remaining games will be against teams with better than .500 records, and the seventh game is against the Mighty Ducks, who would love nothing more than to knock their Southern California rivals out of the playoffs.

"Every game is so crucial now," King Coach Andy Murray said last week. "Points are so hotly contested."

Another team in jeopardy is the Dallas Stars, who are crawling down the stretch after going 1-2-2 in their last five games.

"We've had a lot of cracks this season, which we haven't had in the past," center Mike Modano said about the Stars.

Dallas, which has won five consecutive Pacific Division titles, is in 10th place in the conference but the Stars are not ready to be left out of the playoffs for the first time since 1995-96.

"We're not done yet," Dallas winger Brenden Morrow said. "We still have a couple of games in hand and we can make these points up."

But like the Kings, Dallas does not have an easy schedule. Five of the Stars' last seven games are against winning teams, among them road games against the Kings and Colorado, the defending Stanley Cup champion.

Going in the right direction are the Edmonton Oilers and Vancouver Canucks, the league's hottest teams heading into the last two weeks of the regular season.

Edmonton is unbeaten in its last eight games (7-0-1-0) and getting solid play from goaltender Tommy Salo. But the key to the Oilers' turnaround has been the play of forwards Mike Comrie, Anson Carter and Ryan Smyth, who have regained their early-season offensive touch.

Edmonton, in eighth place in the West, has a favorable schedule, with four of its remaining games against non-playoff clubs.

Vancouver is right behind the Oilers in ninth place and has won eight of its last 11. The Canucks have been a streaky team all season and captain Markus Naslund feels good about their playoff chances.

"If we keep winning like this, I don't think the other teams can keep going, keep winning the same way," Naslund said after the Canucks defeated the Ducks on Saturday.

After tonight's game against the Kings, the Canucks will play two of their last five against sub-.500 teams, so Naslund could be right.

Phoenix and St. Louis, who played each other Monday night, are trying to maintain their playoff positions.

Behind goaltender Sean Burke, the Coyotes have surged since the Olympic break. But they will have to get it done the hard way with four of their final six games on the road.

The Blues also will have to earn their playoff berth, what with four of their last seven games against Detroit, Colorado or San Jose.

And in the East ...

The playoff picture in the Eastern Conference isn't as complicated but it has an interesting story line, the Montreal Canadiens being locked with Washington in a struggle for the final berth.

The Canadiens are trying to reach the playoffs for the first time in four years and have been playing with the added motivation provided by teammate Saku Koivu.

Koivu, battling back from non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that went into remission in early February, is traveling with the Canadiens on their two-game road swing.

"I am really excited, it's my first trip with the team," Koivu told Montreal reporters over the weekend. "I'll practice with my teammates and try to push it. That's the best way to do it."

Koivu, who went through eight sessions of chemotherapy, hopes to be able to return to the lineup for the Canadiens' last two games of the season.

"Generally you need two months before you can get back to a normal life," Koivu said. "But for me, I was lucky to start feeling better as soon as the treatments were over. Up until now, there hasn't been any setbacks."

And the Canadiens are hoping that Koivu's health continues to improve, whether they make the playoffs or not.

Only in the NHL

Imagine the national media attention the NBA and Clippers would have received if 20-year old Darius Miles had been cited for underage drinking and driving. Not only would the league have been ripped again for drafting players directly out of high school, but the Clippers would have been criticized for not keeping a closer watch on their players.

The NHL and the Minnesota Wild had no such problem when forward Marian Gaborik was caught in a similar situation earlier this month.

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