Game 78 Preview: Playoffs Ahead!

Before I get to the preview of tonight's game, I wanted to share what I think is one of the most innovative, fan enhancing experiences that I've ever heard of. In a move that was apparently reached unanimously at the recent general managers/governors meeting, an announcement was made earlier today at league headquarters, that to further advance the fan's experience in certain "non-traditional" markets, similar to college hoops, there will now be a "Playoff Play-in" bracket.

The participants in this special format will be teams in positions 12-15 in each conference, with position 15 being the "top" seed. Based on current standings, first round matchups will be (these could change by season's end):

West: Edmonton vs. St. Louis and Colorado vs. Columbus

East: Florida vs. New Jersey and Ottawa vs. New York

It would seem then, that the league was neglecting the teams that finished in places 9, 10 and 11 in each conference. Not so, as those six teams would then be seeded accordingly at the upcoming draft and receive the first six selections. The commissioner's announcement concluded by saying the team that emerged from the play-in brackets would be seeded directly into the league finals, opposing the team that emerges from the regular playoff rounds to determine the champion. For more on this revolutionary playoff bracketing as well as an in depth look at tonight's game, follow along after the jump!
The Chicago Blackhawks head into Nationwide Arena tonight (April 1st) for a 7PM game against the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Blue Jackets are on the outside of the playoff race and have the opportunity to play spoiler to the defending Stanley Cup champions. The Blackhawks are currently in a precarious eighth place with 90 points. The Western Conference playoff battle remains hot, with five teams separated by just five points. The 'Hawks are anything but a shoo in at this point, as the Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames continue to run right behind Chicago, both currently at 87 points.

The Blackhawks come to Columbus 4-4-2 in their last ten games. As most pundits expected, after losing nearly half their championship roster last summer, the 'Hawks have alternately been just above or just below the eighth place cutoff line. Of late, captain Jonathan Toews has put the team on his back, with 12 goals and 13 assists in his last 19 games and jump started what had been a stagnant Chicago offense. In that same period, Patrick Kane has 7 goals and 14 assists. Marian Hossa who notched the game winner in OT against his former mates in Detroit on Monday, has contributed 11 goals and 9 helpers in his last 17 games. In goal Corey Crawford has emerged as the 'Hawks new number one keeper, despite the free agent signing of Marty Turco. Recently on a Versus telecast, analyst Keith Jones lamented that "if Niemi was there, the Blackhawks would still be in the same position", attributing the sputtering offense and sometimes porous defense to other big off season departures. No less than Mike Milbury followed Jones' comment with a terse, " really don't like goalies, do ya?"

Netminder respect aside, I expect tonight's game to be a well played affair. Chicago needs to win to solidify its post season hopes. The Jackets need to win to gather momentum for what appears to be an active off season.

The Jackets are coming off an overtime loss last night in Washington. Tomas Kubalik, playing in his first NHL game, overcame some early jitters to solidly contribute. Kubalik, skating with Matt Calvert and Antoine Vermette, chalked up two assists in his debut. Kubalik, leading scorer on the Springfield Falcons at the time of his call up, showed his smooth skating style and playmaking ability. In addition to those attributes, he has scored 22 goals for the offensively challenged Falcons this season. The 20 year old has shown great improvement in this, his first pro season. The sixth pick of the Jackets in the 2008 draft has shown the ability to adapt and improve his game here in North America. Only Scott Howson knows how Kubalik stacks up for next season, but it wouldn't surprise me at all to see Tomas make the big club right out of training camp.

Columbus has been riding a frustratingly inconsistent streak that dates back to the February 27th defeat at the hands of the Nashville Predators. Playing confidently one night, poorly another, and all over the map in between, the result is another season of dashed hopes for the Blue Jacket faithful. Friday night's game however, is not about the speculation of who might be called up for the final few games of the season. It's about playing for pride. The NHL is a breed apart when it comes to playing for pride. In any other sport, when it comes to playing out the string, it's not uncommon to see a plethora of non-starters compete as a major league unit. The NHL differs in that there is no noticeable increase in "healthy scratches" among highly paid, highly skilled warriors. On the contrary, when a failed season is in its waning stages, the true professional in the NHL steps up and shows us of what he's made. The Jackets can come into this game and with a good team effort, prevail over Chicago.

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