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John McGourty | Staff Writer
Jan 25, 2007, 12:00 PM EST

The 55th NHL All-Star Game in Dallas was fun but now we eagerly turn our attention to the remaining 32 or so games left in the 2006-07 NHL regular season. There will be plenty of action and plenty of intrigue as the NHL's 30 teams fight for the 16 available Stanley Cup Playoff spots.

Twenty-two teams, including five division leaders, return to action Friday night. There will be ten games on Saturday and five on Sunday, including three regional games to be shown on NBC.
Every NHL general manager has his eyes on the Feb. 27 trade deadline. Teams that feel they have an excellent chance to challenge for the Stanley Cup may try to get stronger while teams whose playoff hopes are declining may trade aging players or those approaching free agency for younger players and draft picks.

According to a recently published report, the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators, Detroit Red Wings and San Jose Sharks have the most room in their salary structure to add higher-price talent for a playoff run.

Among names mentioned most in recent weeks are St. Louis Blues forwards Bill Guerin, Doug Weight and Keith Tkachuk; Phoenix Coyotes forwards Shane Doan and Ladislav Nagy; Philadelphia Flyers forward Peter Forsberg and Florida Panthers goalie Ed Belfour.

That list will change as teams rise and fall in the standings but the deadline is only a month away.

Scotty Bowman, the NHL's alltime coaching leader with nine Stanley Cups and 1,244 regular-season victories, says coaches face a tough dilemma between seeking the best possible playoff seeding while trying to keep a team healthy for the postseason.

"It's pretty hard to think past the regular season until you get near the very end," said Bowman, the only coach in North American professional sports to win championships with three different teams. "At this point, you're not looking into the playoffs. You're trying to secure what you need. So, you go wire-to-wire during the regular season. There's no way to prepare for the playoffs and you don't know who you will play until the last minute.

"You can't plan for a healthy team," Bowman continued. "You just hope fate is on your side, more than anything. If you have a team that plays hard, you know you'll have to face injuries. They key is that some teams have depth and others not as much. Defensive depth is a quandary for a lot of teams right now. There may be quite a flurry of trading before the deadline because a lot can happen in five weeks.

"Although teams carry six or seven defenseman, most rely on two to four defenseman for the most ice time and important situations on the power play and penalty kill. While you can hide a fourth-liner on the second line, you want depth at defense. Historically, some teams have snuck by with injuries to the defense and others haven't been able to hide a weakness there."

Six teams currently sit atop the NHL's divisions. In the Western Conference, the Predators lead the Central Division; the Ducks lead the Pacific Division and the Calgary Flames lead the Northwest Division. In the East, the Buffalo Sabres are setting the pace in the Northeast Division; the New Jersey Devils have a comfortable lead in the Atlantic Division and the Atlanta Thrashers continue to lead the Southeast Division.

For the first time in their eight-year history, the Predators are the NHL's best team. Their 34-12-3 record, good for 71 points and the best record in the Western Conference, is one point better than the Eastern Conference-leading Sabres.

The Devils have the most comfortable divisional lead, sitting 13 points in front of the tied Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers.

The Flames hold the most perilous divisional lead. They're tied with the Vancouver Canucks with 56 points and have a game in hand. The Flames are the current division leader most in danger of not making the playoffs. Not because of their talent but because the five Northwest teams are separated by only six points and Calgary's five-point lead over the conference's ninth-place team, the Colorado Avalanche, is the smallest of any divisional leader.

Every team in the Eastern Conference is in contention for a playoff berth, with the exception of the Flyers, perennial contenders mired in a rare off-year.

Atlanta has a six-point lead over the Stanley Cup-champion Carolina Hurricanes but may be more concerned about their dwindling eight-point lead over the 2004 Stanley Cup-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, who went into the break with a conference-best 8-2 record over their past 10 games.

Buffalo has a six-point lead over the wobbly Montreal Canadiens (4-4-2) but has eyes on the Ottawa Senators, who are 12 points back after their recent 7-2-1 run.

Daniel Briere leads the Sabres with 39 assists and 57 points while Maxim Afinogenov has 51 points and 30 assists. Four Sabres have already exceeded 20 goals, led by Chris Drury and Thomas Vanek with 24. Ryan Miller has average statistics but makes all the important saves. They're still talking about his steal of a Paul Mara shot last week.

Former Sabres star Rob Ray, now a team broadcaster, said the Sabres, if they want the East's No. 1 seed, must overcome recent injuries, regain their consistency and rest Miller down the stretch.

"They can't continue to play the heck out of Ryan, they've got to give Marty Biron a few games down the stretch," Ray said."Neither is a big man and I don't know about Ryan's durability. When I played for Ottawa, there was a big push to win the Presidents' Trophy for the best regular-season record. We got into the playoffs and regretted going "guns ablazing," worrying about the Presidents' Trophy instead of the bigger prize. I don't put much importance on finishing first.

"The Sabres will be looking to add depth on defense," Ray added. "Nathan Paetsch had done a good job since Henrik Tallinder got hurt but there's not much depth behind him. They're developing a nice defenseman at (AHL) Rochester in Andrej Sekera but he's battled groin injuries this year. They wanted to bring him up a while back but had to use Mike Card because Sekera was hurt. Paetsch, Card and Sekera are about the only depth they have there.

But they're very deep and very fast upfront and they have good goaltending. Chris Drury gives you the same strong game every night. Maxim Afinogenov and defenseman Brian Campbell are 10 percent better than at the start of the season. Thomas Vanek can carry a team by himself when he's hot. Jason Pominville is the biggest secret in the NHL and Paul Gaustad can by used in any situation, first line, fourth line, PK and power play. Rookie Daniel Paille has 12 points in 12 games and Drew Stafford is going to be a good one. They have depth upfront."

Montreal, Ottawa, Carolina, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh would currently qualify for a playoff berth but the Penguins are tied at 50 points with the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs. The Boston Bruins and New York Islanders are tied with 48 points, the Washington Capitals have 47 and the Panthers' 4-3-3 run leaves them with 46 points.

While some teams have played as many as 50 games, Boston and Pittsburgh have played only 46 games.

In the West, Nashville has a five-point lead over the Red Wings. All three games between the clubs have gone to the home team. They have five games left, four in March, and three in Nashville. Advantage Preds.

Anaheim went 2-6-2 as the Sharks shaved their lead to four points with a 7-3-1 run.

Vancouver went 8-1-1 to draw into the points tie with Calgary. The Minnesota Wild are two points back after going 5-3-2 while Colorado is at 51 points, off a 6-3-1 run. The Edmonton Oilers, last season's Stanley Cup Finalists, are last with 50 points but went 5-3-2 recently.

If the Stanley Cup Playoffs started today, the Western qualifiers would be Nashville, Anaheim, Calgary, Detroit, San Jose, Dallas, Vancouver and Minnesota. The Wild hold a three-point lead over Colorado and four over Edmonton. Phoenix and St. Louis are eight points out.

The Predators are leading the NHL because of a powerful goalie tandem in Tomas Vokuon and Chris Mason, scoring throughout the lineup, a nice blend of size and speed and a young but impressive defensive corps. Paul Kariya leads with 37 assists and 53 points while 1998 first-round pick David Legward, the NHL Player of the Week before the All-Star Game, leads with 18 goals. Seven players have 30 or more points. Mason leads all NHL goalies with a .930 save percentage.

"There's never one reason why a team succeeds or fails and with Nashville there are a lot of reasons why they are leading the league," said Predators broadcaster Jim McKenzie, a Stanley Cup winner in 2003 with the New Jersey Devils. "It starts with the goaltending. The club stumbled at the start and then Tomas Vokuon was phenomenal, but he got injured. Chris Mason came in and has been incredible, leading the NHL in save percentage. It gives the team so much confidence and you can see it in the way they play. They'll give up 30 or more shots a game with their wide-open style of play because they're confident of their goaltending.

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