Carolina is coming off of a three-game road trip and I'd generally say that the first two-thirds of their schedule is pretty friendly. It's probably too late, mind you, but they can keep the dream/lie alive (and maybe give up in front of Anton Khudobin at least a little bit less) for the next little while, as they face winnable games this week against the Islanders and Panthers.
After that, it's either teams in the playoffs or ones grasping for remaining playoff dreams, with games against Ottawa, Dallas, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Washington and Detroit fitting that description.
Beginning Tuesday, they basically rotate home and away games with five at home and four on the road during a nine-game stretch from March 25 - April 10.
Finally, they close out their season with two road games against Detroit and Philadelphia. It's reasonable to expect those games will mean a lot less to the Canes than their opponents, but almost every season there's a solid team that is more than comfortable playing the spoiler role. Carolina could be one candidate in 2013-14.
(I actually vaguely recall the ‘Canes playing that spoiler role recently, which is sort of a blessing and a curse if my memory is correct.)
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The Columbus Blue Jackets face a rather interesting stretch run going forward after a most disturbing three losses in their last four games. This week presents two significant tests in home games against Detroit (Tuesday) and Pittsburgh (Friday), with a Saturday road game against Carolina that could either be fruitful or dangerous considering that it's the second half of a back-to-back set.
The first week(ish) of April presents a solid opportunity with four of five games at home, and completes a March 25 - April 8 run of six home vs. only two road games. They face an array of teams in that run that includes the desperate (Phoenix, Philadelphia, Detroit), those jockeying for seeding (Colorado, Chicago, Pittsburgh) and teams one would argue a playoff team should beat (the Islanders and Hurricanes).
Columbus' final three games are on the road, but they could be well-timed games. Dallas (April 9) might be out of the mix by then depending upon how things shake out for the Stars* while the Florida Panthers (April 12) could be forgiven if their minds are on golf and/or sandy beaches. Even Tampa Bay (April 11) may already know where its ranked (or the Lightning might make the against-the-grain-but-probably-smart call to give Steve Stamkos a breather).
All things considered, the Blue Jackets have a fairly friendly schedule. If recent events are any indication - and things can change quickly - they could benefit.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The New Jersey Devils fittingly went 50-50 this weekend. If they had to choose one of the two games to win, it’s probably true that beating the Toronto Maple Leafs would have been their choice.
With that out of the way, the Devils continue forward with a winnable stretch. Closing their five-game homestand against the Phoenix Coyotes (Thursday) won't be a gimme, but a win there is at least conceivable. After that, it's should-be-wins against the Islanders, Panthers and Sabres before what New Jersey would hope to be a big home game against the Washington Capitals on April 4.
Really, it's mostly more of the same following that, with on-paper-manageable games against Carolina, Calgary, Ottawa and the Islanders. Even a season-closing home game against Boston might be easier than it looks because the Bruins will probably have motivation to rest people, particularly aging star Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask.
If the Devils aren't already out of the mix, they could pull themselves up, especially with three of their last four in Newark.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
It says a lot about how much of a bummer this season has been for the Islanders that it’s kind of a downer to even talk about them playing out the string.
The Islanders do get the chance to play spoiler a bit going forward, with road games against Carolina and Tampa Bay plus a home contest against the Devils this week. They don’t seem dangerous on a larger level, yet shutting out the desperate Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday says a lot.
April begins and "ends" (as in, their last game of April, at least ...) with Irrelevant Bowls against Florida (April Fool's Day) and Buffalo (April 13, season-ender). Their remaining schedule is pretty road-heavy, so there are just a lot of reasons to stay away from this team right now.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Generally speaking, the Rangers received a pretty good draw with their remaining games. They face the desperate Phoenix Coyotes at home on Monday followed by a big Wednesday game against the Flyers at Madison Square Garden.
The last big road run of the season begins on Friday, but the good news for the Blueshirts is that it's a fairly manageable haul. Calgary and Edmonton are should-be wins before admittedly tougher games against desperate Vancouver (April 1) and a Colorado team fighting for positioning (April 3).
After those tests, they should either clinch a spot or get a round of home-ice advantage with three home games against flawed teams followed by a season-closer against the Canadiens in Montreal.
Of course, the Rangers have been a tough team to gauge at times, so you never know.
The Philadelphia Flyers wrap up a profitable four-game homestand with a test against the Los Angeles Kings. It's a big week in general, with what could be crucial games against the Rangers at MSG on Wednesday, Friday's home contest against the Maple Leafs and a Sunday home games versus Boston. Philly's momentum will be challenged this week.
April brings a road-heavy schedule, with five of eight closing games away from home. Their final five contests (maybe six, if Boston clinches seeding surprisingly early) could be stealthily easier than expected:
At Boston, home vs. Buffalo, three-game road trip (Florida, Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh) followed by a season-closer at home against the Hurricanes. It’s plausible at least some of those franchises might add to rest up or are just in cellar dwelling mode already.
Overall, a moderately manageable haul.
Can the Pittsburgh Penguins really bridge a six-point gap between themselves and the East’s top seed in the Boston Bruins? I’m not so sure, and a banged up Pens team might realize this and take it easy … although this very North-South team might have trouble easing off the gas.
Tuesday continues a four-game homestand for the Penguins as they host the Coyotes and then face the Kings in tough matches. It could indeed be a bruising run in general as they face the Blue Jackets in Columbus on Friday after that Kings game on Thursday and then a home contests against Chicago on Sunday. The travel obviously isn't so bad there, but those are tough games. Pittsburgh is finishing off a long run of home games; even just stemming back to March 22 to April 1, six of seven games come in Pittsburgh.
The Penguins finish their season with three road games (Winnipeg, Minnesota and Colorado) and then three home contests (Detroit, Philadelphia and Ottawa).
Again, I’d say there’s a medium risk for this team to rest guys who are depending upon for maybe too much like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin or guys who have struggled with injuries like … almost everyone of note.
Washington's schedule winds down with three of four games at home (though challenging ones as even the Predators have been a tough out here and there) this week, then four straight road contests followed by a season-closing duo of home games. That four-game trip includes five of six away from DC, too.
The Capitals will need help from other teams as they don't have many chances for big swings; the only bubble team they'll face will be New Jersey (unless Carolina rises and Tampa Bay slips).
That’s not to say the degree of difficulty is fairly high for the Caps, so I wouldn’t say it’s all THAT easy; much like other teams, they may hope for take-a-load-off nights from contenders who aren’t threatened by them.
* - Not saying that's how it will work out, just that it's possible.
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