As we wait to see if football will ever be played again and the arrival of baseball's opening day, there are five local teams still in action and three with playoff aspirations. The New Jersey Nets never had a chance this season. They got themselves in nice cap shape with draft picks galore and assets for a trade, but a 2011 postseason was never really in the cards for this bunch. But with Deron Williams aboard, at least for now, they have a top-flight player to build around and hope for the future. The New York Islanders could have made some playoff noise if they didn't have that horrific stretch of games where they couldn't buy a win, which led to the firing of Scott Gordon. But we'll chalk that up to growing pains. And if next season they don't go through this year's goalie-per-week pace, a postseason berth for 2012 is not out of the question with the progress they've made this year.
Which leaves us with the last three standing: The New York Knicks, New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. While all remain confident that the playoffs are in their future, the trio is taking a different path to April glory. The Devils are zooming up the standings, in the midst of a historic nothing-but-winning stretch of games. The Rangers' season is the exact opposite--starting out quickly, with a successful first three months, but now sliding down into a shaky abyss where their fate may not be in their own hands. And the Knicks have been on a rocky road, performance-wise, but with mediocrity able to gain entrance into the NBA postseason, they've remained relatively stable in the standings.
What do the Blueshirts need to do to keep pace and make the playoffs? Score goals. It sounds easy, but not with their inept offense. With the recent absence of Marian Gaborik, the team had no legitimate goal scorer, and with the off-year he's having, even with him back in the lineup, Brian Boyle is their biggest offensive threat (except when Ryan Callahan explodes for four goals in one game, that is). That's a huge handicap right there. The big picture for the team, though, is they have the sixth-youngest roster in the NHL and they're at or near the top in hits and blocked shots. While they have slacked off here and there lately, they forecheck, work hard and play the game the right way. Glen Sather is finally doing things correctly by building a team from within instead of bringing in every Theo Fleury, Eric Lindros or Wade Redden who's out there. It's hard to blame Henrik Lundqvist for anything, but with the way the team is constructed, he may need to be spectacular and have a dominating stretch of games while carrying the team on his back for a while in order to return to their consistently winning ways, which he just hasn't done yet. He is their most talented player, after all. Or they're just going to have to score more goals. But playoffs or not, they're on the right path. Of course, making the playoffs is always better than not qualifying, especially since they've been in the seventh spot all year long.
The Devils, on the other hand, don't seem to have any problems. Even when they don't score many goals, they always score one more than the other guy. Ilya Kovalchuk and their other big guns are playing at the top of their game. And the unsung players are playing in a productive unsung way, chipping in one way or another. It may just be an urban myth, but it really doesn't matter who plays goal for the team. Early in the season when the team was horrendous, it didn't make a difference whether Martin Brodeur or Johan Hedberg was in the nets, and now that the team is red-hot--Brodeur or Hedberg? They win, without letting in many goals, no matter which masked man is back there. Even two years ago, Scott Clemmensen looked like an All-Star filling in for the injured Brodeur. The only thing the Devils have to worry about is the teams in front of them winning a little too much, because it doesn't appear as if they are going to lose much themselves.
As for the Knicks, they should easily qualify for the playoffs on talent alone. Coming into the season, they were a crapshoot. Nobody had any idea how all the new players would fit together, but they found a certain chemistry and were the surprise of the league. But with a quarter of the season remaining, that group was blown up, and now they have an all-new crew. These days, their two biggest issues are defense and coherence. Or is it defensive coherence? When you lose two games (actually three for the season) to the putrid Cleveland Cavaliers, you know you have work to do. Toney Douglas' incredible performance in the win over the Hornets aside, we've already seen how valuable Chauncey Billups is with his calm, stabilizing influence and big-play experience at the end of games. Would the Knicks have lost to Cleveland on Friday if Billups were in the lineup? Doubtful? But if the Knicks want to at least win a round in this year's playoffs, they'll need to get themselves together on the defensive end of the floor. Which raises the question: Is Mike D'Antoni the man for the job? But with two consecutive wins for the first time in the Carmelo Anthony era in their last pair of games, and blowouts at that, maybe things are starting to come together for the Knicks. Amar'e Stoudemire thinks so, as he said after the victory over the Jazz, "We're starting to figure it out. So far, so good."
With the homestretch now in progress, the Rangers are fighting for their lives, the Devils are making other teams fight for their lives and the Knicks are fighting themselves. Fasten your seatbelts and enjoy the ride.