Sabres goalie Ryan Miller makes a save against the Capitals during a game… (Chuck Myers / McClatchy-Tribune )
Times columnist Helene Elliott rates the pluses and minuses in the NHL from the previous week:
+ The Buffalo Sabres were last in the East as late as Feb. 18, but they're battling Washington for the final conference playoff spot as the season nears its end. Losses to Pittsburgh on Friday and at Toronto on Saturday hurt them, but including those games they're 14-4-3 since Feb. 19.
+ A year ago, the New Jersey Devils had a horrible start and fell well behind the pack but made a furious run that nearly erased their deficit. No chasing this time: They've clinched a playoff spot for the 20th time in the last 22 seasons. Goaltender Martin Brodeur blanked Carolina on Saturday for his 119th shutout, extending his NHL record.
+ Blackhawks team captain Jonathan Toews, who is recovering from a concussion and hasn't played since Feb. 19, is skating and might return before the playoffs begin. Chicago reached the postseason for the fourth straight season, their longest streak in 15 years. They've had a lot of ups and downs, and their goaltending doesn't inspire a ton of confidence, but a fresh Toews would be a big plus.
- If the Florida Panthers reach the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, the longest non-playoff streak will belong to the Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven't qualified since 2003-04. Firing Ron Wilson and hiring Randy Carlyle to coach them didn't get them closer: they're 5-8-2 under Carlyle and had an 0-8-3 home streak before they beat Buffalo on Saturday.
- The Montreal Canadiens took too long to dismiss General Manager Pierre Gauthier, whose poor decisions and disdain for the media won him no friends. Owner Geoff Molson said he held off on the move until the team was out of playoff contention, but it was clear early this season that the Canadiens were headed nowhere. Molson brought in former GM Serge Savard to help find Gauthier's successor and Savard might take on the job himself.
- The NHL's new advertisements are themed "Because it's the Cup," and show young fans gathering to watch hockey in social situations. The message: It's cool to watch hockey with your pals. But why wouldn't the NHL also use its players — its best asset — in these ads? If you educate casual fans about how personable hockey players are, they might become fans for life.