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by Evan Grossman
Thursday, February 1, 2007

It’s that time of the year. We have reached the most important portion of the season, the penultimate period between the All-Star Game and the trading deadline. This is when playoff berths are earned, this is when teams make their final decision on whether they’ll buy or sell at the deadline, and this is when seasons are either made or broken.

The proverbial fork in the road, teams on the bubble can put together a run here and still make the playoffs, and of course, other teams can go in the tank and fall out of the race entirely.

Peter Laviolette used to crack me up when he would answer my hard-hitting questions with the response, “I don’t have a crystal ball.” Well, luckily for you people out there, Gross Misconduct does have a crystal ball and we’re not afraid to use it. This week we take a look at the gridlock-choked NHL standings and predict which teams sitting on the bubble will and will not make the playoffs.

In the Eastern Conference, as of Wednesday morning’s standings, there were six teams within six points of Laviolette’s No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes. The No. 5 Canadiens were just three points ahead of the defending champions, making the bottom half of the East bracket virtually wide open to any and all teams.

Coming out of the break, there were 11 Eastern teams within 13 points of the No. 4 spot in the conference and essentially every team but the last-place Flyers were within striking distance of the eighth and final playoff spot.

Out West, the bubble bath is just as crowded with five teams within 10 points of each other, the No. 6 Stars leading a pack of teams that include Vancouver, Minnesota, Colorado and Edmonton. There were seven Western teams within 12 points of No. 6 Dallas coming out of the break, making at least three playoff spots pretty much wide open.

The following are our sleeper picks to make the playoffs this spring, in no special order.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have got to be one of the most fun teams in the entire league to watch. The youth movement has created a great deal of buzz in the Steel City and with Sidney Crosby scoring points at a ridiculous pace, anything is possible for the Pens. They got themselves in the thick of the playoff race right before the All-Star break, the goaltending is improving with each game and if they can add a top defenseman or another veteran forward at the deadline, they might not just make the playoffs, but they could also make some serious noise in the tournament as well. And let’s be honest, how much do you want to see Crosby in the playoffs for the first time?

The New York Rangers, like many teams in the league, have been maddeningly inconsistent most of the season. They were the NHL’s biggest surprise last season and they return a lot of the same faces. But they have been top heavy all year, get scoring from only so many of their veteran forwards, and the defense remains full of holes. But you can never count out Jaromir Jagr, Henrik Lundqvist has shown steadier flashes of the elite goaltender he was a year ago, and 38-year-old Brendan Shanahan is one of the best locker room guys and power forwards in the game. If there was any team in the league that was just one or two players away from going from the bubble to being a serious Cup contender, the Blueshirts are it.

Another team sitting in the bubble bath right now that appears safe to make the playoffs is Tampa Bay. But in order for the Rangers to sneak in, one of the top eight are going to have to fall out and the Lightning have been hanging on all season. Tampa’s got one of the deepest attacks in the league, but just like everyone else, they could use some help on the back end. Maybe they’ll continue to hang on. Maybe they’ll surge ahead in the standings. Maybe another team like Montreal falls out of the race, or even Carolina runs out of gas.

If that’s the case, then the team we’re looking out for is the sneaky Washington Capitals. There’s no telling where the Caps will finish, but they’ve clawed their way into the peripheral playoff picture and with Alexander Ovechkin in uniform, Olaf Kolzig in nets and their young players getting better each day, they could make the remainder of the season very unpleasant for a lot of the teams around them in the standings. Playing most of the rest of their schedule in the conference and the competitive Southeast Division, a Capitals move could spell doom for a team like Carolina or even Tampa Bay.

Out West, it’s tough to bet against the Edmonton Oilers returning to the playoffs after last season’s late-year surge got them all the way to Game 7 of the Final. The Oilers were six points out this week and had to jump past Colorado and Minnesota to get in, but we like Edmonton, with Ryan Smyth leading the charge, to come out on top in that race.

The Dallas Stars seem like they’re in decent position heading into the home stretch, but just like in the Eastern Conference, there are teams currently in the top eight that will fall out by the end of the season. Could the Stars be one of those teams?

Looking at the standings, Vancouver seems to be in a pretty good spot and there are few teams in the conference with goaltending as good as Roberto Luongo’s been giving the Canucks. So we like them to hold on. Colorado, however, another team on the bubble, might not be as strong as the teams they’re fighting to get in. The Avalanche were four points out this week, which could be too tall a task, unless of course a team like Minnesota sputters to the finish line.

* Scientists were drafting a report on global warming this week and some of the evidence was staggering. According to reports, the Earth's surface temperature could rise by 8.1 degrees if carbon dioxide levels double over pre-industrial levels. That can only mean one thing. The ground will be hotter, hence NHL ice surfaces are going to be softer, and the game is going to be slower! Good thing those new uniform systems will be in use beginning next season.

* A modified Boeing 747-400F known as the Airborne Laser, will test fire its low-power laser in flight for the first time this week as part of a long-term test phase at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, according to a USAF report. The laser, part of the Missile Defense Agency’s Ballistic Missile Defense System, is designed to identify, track and shoot down enemy missiles shortly after they launch. The NHL’s Competition Committee will likely not approve the device as part of the new generation of goaltending equipment.

* According to reports, the FBI appears to have adopted an invasive Internet surveillance technique that collects far more data on Americans than previously used in the controversial Carnivore system. Instead of recording only what a particular suspect is doing, agents conducting investigations can assemble the activities of thousands of Internet users at a time into databases that can then be searched for names, e-mail addresses or keywords. Say what you want about the Feds, but these guys must be the kings of their fantasy hockey leagues.

* Ageless wonder Chris Chelios wears shoulder pads that are from 1979, from his freshman year at Wisconsin. His Detroit teammates, and his skates, are thankful he at least changes his socks more often that that.

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