Updated Jan. 24
Among the most consistent of storylines in this NHL season has been the remarkable tightness of the playoff race in the Western Conference. In fact, the week begins with just 10 points separating the fourth seed from the 14th, and just four points standing between Nos. 8 and 13.
It has meant that a winning or losing streak of just three or four games is enough to jump or drop teams a half dozen spots in the standings, and has been enough to make most people forget there are some pretty good races going on the East. Thus far most of those are at the top of the divisions, but lately the battle for the conference's final postseason slot has heated up because the Atlanta Thrashers seem intent on finding a way to give it up.
Now some might be tempted to blame an extended slump by one of the league's bigger early season surprises on recent revelations that the team has been like an unwanted step-child to an ownership group that has been desperate but unable to sell it the last several years. Problem is the disclosures that emerged in a lawsuit launched by the ownership group came long after the Thrashers started a skid that has seen them win only four times in their last 16 starts, with only one of those victories coming in regulation.
Meanwhile, the Carolina Hurricanes and Buffalo Sabres are looking a lot larger in Atlanta's rearview mirror, not only because both teams have been playing their best hockey of the season lately, but because they each hold three games and six potential points in hand over the Thrashers. It sets up what should be a pretty good race to the finish line after the All-Star break.
The rankings through Sunday night's games: