Pavel Datsyuk deserves to win the Hart Trophy, but he'll probably have to steal it from Alex Ovechkin or Evgeni Malkin to get it. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)
The final four days of the regular season could be crucial even to teams such as San Jose and Detroit, who are secure at the top of the Western Conference.
That's because the most dangerous lower seed right now -- the team you don't want to play in the opening round -- is Anaheim.
The Ducks haven't clinched a playoff spot yet, but they should finish sixth, seventh or eighth.
Take Detroit, the No. 2 seed in the West. If Anaheim finishes seventh, where it was sitting early Wednesday with two games remaining, the Ducks will play the Red Wings in the first round.
That could turn into a brutally tough series for the Wings. The Ducks have won nine of their last 11. They feature one of the league's top lines in Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry. They have considerable playoff experience, having won the Stanley Cup just two years ago.
What's more, they are extremely physical with a defense led by Chris Pronger.
Closer to home
Even if the Wings were to advance, the wear-and-tear from that series, including the West Coast travel, could take a toll later in the playoffs.
However, if Anaheim finishes sixth or eighth, Detroit is likely to play Columbus or St. Louis.
Both feature impressive goalies -- Steve Mason for Columbus, Chris Mason for St. Louis -- but neither team has much playoff experience. What's more, the travel will be minimal.
The advantage to playing the Ducks is they would certainly get the Wings' attention, probably more so than the young Blue Jackets or Blues, who could sneak in and steal an early game.
Still, the best thing for the Wings would be for the Ducks to end up eighth. That way, Anaheim's bruisers could start to wear down No. 1-seed San Jose in the opening round.
In the West, it was easy to write off Chicago a week or so ago. Not anymore. The Blackhawks have regrouped following a dreadful 6-9-3 stretch from late February through March. Nikolai Khabibulin had allowed only four goals during a four-game winning streak entering Wednesday night's game against Columbus.
Meanwhile, Calgary is fading with a 6-10 record over its last 16. The Flames have failed to score on 37 straight power-play opportunities over eight-plus games, but they're still somehow in position to get the No. 3 seed if they can rebound in their final two.
Over in the East, New Jersey has been limping to the finish with a 2-6-1 record in its last nine. Martin Brodeur has allowed nearly 3.6 goals per game during that slump, including four on 18 shots Tuesday against Toronto.
Carolina, on the other hand, is sizzling with a nine-game winning streak, tied for second-longest this season. Cam Ward, who is 19-6-2 while starting 27 consecutive games, looks about as dominant as he did in 2006 when he led the Hurricanes to the Stanley Cup.
Nevertheless, you have to wonder whether teams such as Carolina and Vancouver might have peaked a little too early.
With the salary cap creating parity, this is going to come down to which teams and goalies get hot, which can avoid injury and, quite possibly, which can avoid the Ducks.
Dave Dye's picks:
MVP: It's going to look like a homer pick, but it's really a vote for the NHL's most complete player, Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk. Too often this comes down to picking who has the most points. Datsyuk averages more points per minute than Washington's Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin, anyway, and he's by far the best two-way player. Datsyuk, of course, isn't going to win. The award will go to go to Ovechkin, an amazing offensive talent, but Malkin also is very deserving.
Rookie of the year: So many impressive choices, including Anaheim's Bobby Ryan and Nashville's Pekka Rinne, but Columbus wouldn't be headed to the playoffs for the first time without Steve Mason's excellence in net.
Coach of the year: Although San Jose's Todd McLellan and Boston's Claude Julien have their teams at the top, nobody has done a better job than St. Louis' Andy Murray.
Top defenseman: Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom is tied for the best plus-minus of any defenseman (plus-33, with Boston's Dennis Wideman). But Lidstrom's reign -- six of the last seven Norris Trophy awards -- likely will end. You simply can't deny Washington's Mike Green, who has 30 goals, 70 points and is plus-24 in 66 games. Green was drafted 29th overall by the Capitals in 2004, a pick that was acquired from the Red Wings in the Robert Lang deal.
San Jose's Todd McLellan, a former Detroit assistant, is the fourth to win 50 games in his first year as an NHL coach. He also is on the verge of becoming the sixth to finish with the most points overall in his first year:
Most wins first year as NHL coach:
Tom Johnson, Boston 1970-71 57-14-7
Pat Burns, Montreal 1988-89 53-18-9
Mike Keenan, Philadelphia 1984-85 53-20-7
Todd McLellan, San Jose 2008-09 53-16-11 *
Dave Lewis, Detroit 2002-03 48-20-10-4
*Two games remaining
No. 1 overall in first year as NHL coach
1989-90 Mike Milbury, Boston
1987-88 Terry Crisp, Calgary
1984-85 Mike Keenan, Philadelphia
1970-71 Tom Johnson, Boston
1968-69 Claude Ruel, Montreal
Note: Coach had to be with team for entire season
The Red Wings are the No. 2 seed in the West and will play the No. 7 seed in the opening round. Here's how the race for No. 7 is shaping up (with place, team, points and games remaining):
6. Columbus, 90, at Chicago (Wed.), at St. Louis (Fri.), vs. Minnesota (Sat.)
7. Anaheim, 88, vs. Dallas (Fri.), at Phoenix (Sat.)
8. St. Louis, 88, vs. Columbus (Fri.), at Colorado (Sun.)
9. Nashville, 86, at Detroit (tonight), at Minnesota (Fri.)
10. Minnesota, 85, vs. Nashville (Fri.), at Columbus (Sat.)
Top tie-breakers in case teams finish with same number of points:
1. Most total victories
2. Most points in their head-to-head meetings
3. Best differential of goals for/goals against
Dave's top five
1. Detroit: Starting to turn it on again, giving up three goals in last two games.
2. San Jose: Failed to score in 65 minutes vs. Colorado, but still has most points.
3. Boston: Chance for Presidents' Trophy ended with loss at Ottawa.
4. Carolina: Will be tough to knock out if Cam Ward keeps playing this well.
5. Washington: New Jersey's slump has bumped Alex Ovechkin & Co. to No. 2 seed.
Dave's bottom five
26. Phoenix: Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov looked terrible in 5-1 loss to St. Louis.
27. Atlanta: Had won 11-of-14 before back-to-back losses to Washington.
28. Colorado: The 4-1 win at Vancouver was stunning.
29. N.Y. Islanders: Outshot 57-12 in 9-0 loss, worst in franchise history, at Carolina.
30. Tampa Bay: Ryan Malone (hand) and Vinny Lecavalier (wrist) will miss final two.