Oh NHL.com. Never, ever change.

As we peer through the murky, muddled waters of the playoff picture, ever so slowly some clarity has emerged thanks to the events of the past week.

We see the East, where the eighth place Sabres now hold a five-point lead over the Hurricanes, and have seven points over the Leafs, a lead accumulated after Buffalo earned all six points available in Week 24 over their three games. And we see the West, which remains the far closer race, with just five points still separating fifth and ninth. But given the intense closeness of the West throughout the second half of the season, even a small gap is notable, and three points now divide the ninth place Flames and the eighth place Blackhawks.

But most of all, we’ve observed mounting and in some cases haunting questions for teams bound for the playoffs.

Top storyline: Looming questions

It starts with either one hit, or one stretch of putrid play, and the stench grows. That foul odour is the smell of playoff doubts.

We just assume it smells bad, because bad news usually does (diapers, curry). Over the last seven days, some teams have developed a serious need for Febreze at the worst possible time.

Here are some of the questions and problems that emerged in Week 24, and need to be solved fast.

Will the Habs score a goal again before the playoffs?

We understand the Habs have struggled through a litany of injuries this season, with the bug mostly causing havoc on the blueline (Josh Gorges and Andre Markov). The forward unit has suffered its injuries too, with Michael Cammalleri the most notable absence earlier in the year after missing 15 games. So yes, a decline in scoring is acceptable and excusable to a certain extent. But this is getting a little ridiculous.

Starting with a 2-0 shutout loss to the Sabres on Tuesday, Montreal has now been blanked in three straight games, and outscored 11-0. The game clock tells an even more horrific story: over 186 minutes have passed since the Habs’ last goal. Cammalleri, last spring’s playoff hero, has scored just three goals in the 17 games since he returned from injury on Feb. 20. Meanwhile, Scott Gomez is still a notorious salary cap anchor, and is earning $210,204 per point. He may finish with less than 50 points for the first time since a disastrous 2006 season in New York.

The Habs traditionally survive on goaltending in the playoffs, and Carey Price has been outstanding this year. But he still can’t score goals.

To live and break ankles in L.A.

The jostling for playoff seeding can result in the loss of key players, causing serious damage to a deep playoff run. Right, Los Angeles?

The Kings suffered a critical injury after losing forward Anze Kopitar for the rest of the season with a broken ankle. Kopitar is the Kings’ leading scorer, and it’s not even close. With 73 points he’s well ahead of Justin Williams, who’s also on the shelf until the start of the playoffs with a dislocated shoulder. The absence of Kopitar is clearly significant, but the kings can lean towards being a more defence-oriented team without a major adjustment. The Kings are sixth in goals allowed, and have surrendered three or more goals only three times in their last 10 games.

Gone in a flash?

Earlier today, Rick Moldovanyi took a look at the struggles of Steven Stamkos. Tampa Bay’s goal-scoring leader who had a blazing start to this season and scored 34 points in 19 games has now gone pointless in five straight. While Stamkos’ cold hand is clearly a troubling, the concern over Tampa’s late-season slump and potential early playoff exit may be misdirected. The real problem still lies on the back end.

While Stamkos has laboured recently others have pick up their pace. Martin St. Louis has 14 points in his last 10 games, and Vincent Lecavalier has six in his last four. But Tampa has still lost five straight games, a stretch in which the Lightning goaltenders and defence have coughed up 19 goals. Dwayne Roloson has helped to solidify the team’s weakest link, but he still has a mediocre 0.899 save percentage over his last four starts.

Quick hits

  • This week’s comical stat: despite their 7-0 embarrassment in Boston Thursday night, the Habs still outhit the Bruins 25-11.
  • Also mildly comical, and historic: the Penguins set a record with four straight shootout wins.
  • Tiny Nathan Gerbe has made some major contributions during the Sabres’ current run. He has 14 goals this season, and five of them have come in his last five games. However, Gerbe’s largest role is on the penalty kill, and his most notable play came during Tuesday night’s win over the Habs when he broke up a pass just inside his own blueline and scored the game-icing empty net goal.
  • The Ducks aren’t quite safe yet–who is in the West?–but they’re getting closer thanks to a sizzling Ryan Getzlaf, who incredibly has 12 points over his last five games, 11 of which have been assists. Despite missing 15 games earlier this year, Getzlaf is still fifth in assists, and only five helpers behind Daniel Sedin.

Plays of the week(end)