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Buffalo's charge and Wheeler wows

With 54 points in 65 games, Blake Wheeler has had a career year for the Jets. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

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With 54 points in 65 games, Blake Wheeler has had a career year for the Jets. (Photo by Marianne Helm/Getty Images)

Playoff races are ramping up, the games are taking on that post-season atmosphere and the best time of the year is closing in fast. Here are some thoughts that raced through my mind last night as I was flipping between Pittsburgh-Phoenix and Winnipeg-Buffalo, while pondering another long-standing pet peeve.

LET’S GO BUFFALO

Good thing no one wants to finish eighth in the Eastern Conference, because the playoff race has become much more exciting.

While Washington, Toronto, Winnipeg and Florida had weeks of opportunity to pull away and either challenge for the seventh seed or, for three of them, win the Southeast Division, their lollygagging has opened the door for Tampa Bay and Buffalo.

On Monday it hit me: Buffalo is going to end up with that last playoff berth. I haven’t had a good feeling about the Sabres for most of the year, but Ryan Miller seems to have found his top-tier game and in such a short span (16 games remaining) a hot goalie can be all the difference.

As Miller goes, so do the Sabres, so the fact he posted two shutouts and earned player of the week honors is good news for the city of Buffalo. Even in Monday’s crucial loss to Winnipeg, Miller was outstanding, victimized by a lack of offense and fight from his forwards. With Tomas Vokoun injured in Washington (plus the team not playing very well), the Lightning going with Mathieu Garon, the Panthers counting on Jose Theodore and the Leafs juggling between two unprovens, Miller is easily the best backstopper in this race.

The Sabres have three back-to-back scenarios this month, but Jhonas Enroth can help rest Miller for the big games in these sets. Expect Enroth to see Carolina, Minnesota and Toronto, while Miller will get Boston, the Rangers and Pittsburgh. The Sabres are four points out, which is tougher to make up than it looks, but because their competitors for No. 8 have major crease concerns, the door is wide open for the squad whose goalie plays the best down the stretch.

(For the record, I believe Winnipeg will win the Southeast and Florida will crash, as always.)

THE AMAZING STAAL

How awesome has Jordan Staal been since returning from a knee injury Feb. 11? Wicked - that’s how awesome. He’s had 13 points in 11 games and if he hadn’t missed time his season would be getting more press.

Evgeni Malkin and James Neal have gotten, and deserve, all the attention for their monstrous campaigns, but let’s not forget the two-way tenacity Staal brings to the table. He’s always had that potential for offense (which is why he was picked No. 2 overall in 2006) and if his recent play is a sign that side of his game is emerging, he’ll quickly become one of the most talked about players in the league.

MULLIGAN ON WHEELER

I write a weekly newspaper column in Winnipeg and early in the season I mentioned how I thought the team should explore dealing an inconsistent Blake Wheeler.

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Wrong.

Ever since that column went to print, Wheeler has been the Jets’ best player - with the possible exception of Ondrej Pavelec. And now Wheeler’s got the confidence behind him, too.

Monday night, when he came in alone on Buffalo’s hot netminder in a 1-1 third period tie, Wheeler went top shelf with authority for what was a pure sniper’s goal. Because of a crowd that inspires Winnipeg to be one of the best at home, along with the play of Pavelec and others who have stepped up at times (Burmistrov, Wellwood, Kane, Little, etc.), the Jets aren’t a team I’d want to play in Round 1 if they earn home-ice advantage.

(On a side note, did Chris Thorburn’s goal Monday night remind anyone else of Darren McCarty?)

BIG, BAD, BOISTEROUS BURKE AND THE FIRST ROUND PICKS

And finally, Leafs GM Brian Burke takes a lot of heat even though he’s done a pretty good job (though his attitude is often a bit much). But this notion that he should have traded players to get the “four first round picks” he said were floated out there on trade deadline day is nuts. Who thinks a first round pick (supposedly from a good team looking to add players) is better than an NHLer?

Just look at the Marian Hossa-to-Pittsburgh deal (Daultan Leveille) or the Chris Pronger-to-Anaheim deal (Riley Nash) or the Chris Pronger-to-Philadelphia deal (Peter Holland and Emerson Etem) – are these the types of players a team pushing for the playoffs in the near future wants over NHLers? These are only a few examples of a much larger point. Top three picks are one thing, but first-rounders in general are wildly overrated. They are far from an assured asset.

There’s a reason legendary GM Sam Pollock said whichever team ends up with the best player wins the trade. If anything, Burke should be taking heat for not landing a big-name player, not for turning down unknown commodities (talk about backwards priorities). Use these players in a package for actual assets, not for the off chance you’ll snag a star in the mid-to-late first round. The time for Toronto to play the lottery has passed.

Though, for as much as I agree with the moves Burke has made in Toronto, this five-year extension with a $5.5 million cap hit for Mikhail Grabovski makes little sense to me.

Rory Boylen is TheHockeyNews.com's web editor. His column appears regularly only on THN.com.

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