Kings still have shot at playoffs, but it's getting dicey for champs

Crystal ball says Kings could end up opening playoffs against “beatable” Vancouver Canucks

The playoff picture became clearer in the East on Monday when the Tampa Bay Lightning clinched a postseason berth, but it grew more muddled in the West when the Kings lost to the Chicago Blackhawks and Calgary and Vancouver won their respective games.

Things are getting dire for the defending Stanley Cup champion Kings, though their remaining six games include two against the also-ran Edmonton Oilers and one against soon-to-be eliminated San Jose. Their best hope was to finish third in the Pacific and face the Canucks, who flinch at the Kings' physical game, but the Kings now trail third-place Calgary by three points and by three in the regulation/overtime wins tiebreaker. The Kings have overcome daunting odds before, but this might be their toughest task.

Tampa Bay's 5-3 victory at Montreal completed a 5-0-0 season sweep of the Canadiens and made the Lightning the third East team to qualify for the postseason fun. Without injured goaltender Ben Bishop last spring, the Lightning was swept out of the playoffs by the Canadiens. If the Lightning stays intact, this team could be dangerous.

The Ducks lead the race for the top record and the Presidents' Trophy, but that's not a priority for Coach Bruce Boudreau. He guided the Washington Capitals to the best record in 2009-10 only to be eliminated by Montreal in the first round of the playoffs.

"I'd like to be as high as we can," he said, "but the idea of having a trophy for winning the regular season, I've been there as part of a team that did that and we lost out in the first round so it really didn't mean much at the end of the year."

In the East, division leaders Montreal and the New York Rangers have faltered but should hold on. The Boston Bruins are three points ahead of Ottawa for the second wild-card spot, but the Senators have a game in hand. Florida, four points behind the Bruins, faces a make-or-break moment Tuesday at Boston.

A good read

Val James, the first U.S.-born African American to play in the NHL, collaborated with John Gallagher on the book "Black Ice: the Val James Story," a fascinating account of his unlikely success and the appalling racism he encountered.

James grew up in rural Long Island and took up hockey at 13, when his father became the operations manager at the Long Island Arena. He was 6 feet 2 and fearless, and stood out among the few Americans in the sport, making it to the NHL with Buffalo in 1981-82.

Gallagher was a fan of American players and later, as a New York City policeman, coached African American kids in the Ice Hockey in Harlem program, which made him curious about the lives of the NHL's few black players. He tried to find James, with the idea of writing a magazine article.

James, so visible as an enforcer during his career, had disappeared.

"By choice he had gone off the grid for 35 years," said Gallagher, now a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia.

A comment on a blog led Gallagher to James, a maintenance worker at the Great Wolf Lodge water park in Niagara Falls, Canada. James agreed to talk but sometimes had to stop while reliving bad memories.

"He loved this sport and he endured so much to play it and then he consciously avoided it for years because of the pain," Gallagher said. "Not the physical pain, but the emotional and psychological pain that was a part of his hockey experience."

Gallagher interviewed many prominent hockey figures, including Scotty Bowman, and was struck by their respect and concern for James, now 58. James comes across as eloquent and thoughtful on his role and his responses to racism.

Unlike Jackie Robinson, who resisted lashing out against racist taunts in baseball, James took an aggressive approach.

"In my case, however, too much of that kind of self-control would not have been seen as a sign of strength. A nonthreatening image would hardly be an asset to a hockey enforcer — I could only be effective if I was feared," James wrote in the book, published by ECW Press.

"For me, turning the other cheek would mean a one-way ticket back to Long Island. When the racist insults came from the mouth of an opponent, I had a ready response: I would crack the guy's skull."

James has reconnected with hockey friends and recently was honored in Rochester, N.Y., where he was a fan favorite and won an American Hockey League title in 1983.

"He looks terrific. He sounds great. He tells a great story," Gallagher said. "I'm hoping he'll find a niche where he doesn't have to live off the strength of his back any longer. He's done that long enough."

When losing means winning

It's usually root, root, root for the home team ... except in Buffalo, where fans hope the Sabres lose in order to get a better chance at claiming Connor McDavid in the draft lottery.

Fans have been applauding opponents' goals and displaying a sign saying, "Pray for McDavid." Cheers erupted when the 30th-place Sabres lost in overtime to the 29th-place Arizona Coyotes last week.

Fans' discontent is understandable and McDavid is considered a potential superstar, but Sabres players are seething.

"It's tough to get momentum when your fans are rooting against you," defenseman Mike Weber told the Buffalo News. "That's the unfortunate part. I've never seen that before. I've always spoken extremely high of our fans. I don't even know if disappointed is the word."

The last-place team will have a 20% chance of getting the No. 1 pick but can't fall lower than second. Second isn't shabby, either, with Boston University forward Jack Eichel likely to follow McDavid.

Slap shots

The Coyotes gave goaltending coach Sean Burke permission to discuss jobs with other teams. He's likely seeking an executive-level job. ... St. Louis Blues Coach Ken Hitchcock silenced the annual goaltending questions that surround his team when he tabbed Brian Elliott his playoff starter. ... The New York Rangers are learning what West observers already knew: Keith Yandle is weak defensively and a high-risk player.

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