In the Eastern Conference, five points separate the fifth place Washington Capitals and the sixth place Montreal Canadiens.  In the Western Conference, five points separate the third place Phoenix Coyotes and the 11th place Chicago Blackhawks.  For those teams, and the seven teams that currently sit in between them, the playoffs have already started.

From here on out, we’re going to see wars every night.

Every game is important.  Every shift matters.  Each night could be the difference between competing for Lord Stanley’s Cup and sitting on the sidelines.  Whatever can be done to get an edge will be done.  Bodies and minds will be tested each night.  The playoffs are starting early in the West.

So how will it all look when the playoffs actually start?  Will the defending Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks actually miss the postseason?  Will the surprising Calgary Flames actually make it?

A quick look at the standings shows how close this race actually is.

Outside of the Canucks and the Red Wings at the top and (possibly) the Blue Jackets, Blues, Avalanche and Oilers at the bottom, it’s entirely possible that any team could end up in any spot before the season ends.  The order will likely change drastically as the season goes on, with the rankings looking very different each day.  There will certainly be some scoreboard watching going on in the West.

One very important note is that the Calgary Flames are the only team in the Western Conference that has already played 61 games.  All other teams have played between 58 and 60.  In such a tight race, two points could be huge, so that extra game or two is a big deal.

On that note, it may not even be accurate to discount the Blue Jackets and the Blues at this point.  They’ve both played only 58 games.  The Ducks and Blackhawks sit right ahead of them in the standings, but both of those teams have played 60 games.  If Columbus wins the two games they have in hand, that would give them 68 points and tie them with Anaheim and Chicago.  St. Louis would have 67 points and be only one point behind.  So the race may be ever closer than it looks right now.

In terms of momentum (whether or not it’s real), the Flames have one of the best records over the last ten games.  They’re 7-1-2 in their last ten games.  The Stars have the worst record recently.  They’re 2-7-1 in their last ten.  It definitely looks like the Flames are peaking at the right time and the Stars are unfortunately floundering when it matters most.

Will this sort of competitive nature have an effect on the trade deadline?  With very few teams actually out of playoff contention, there won’t be very many “sellers” in the West.  We will likely see more trades that help both teams, or trades between conferences.  No one will be willing to give talent to someone they’re in a heated race with.

Since it’s possible that almost every game in the West will feel like a playoff game until the end of the season, will the teams that actually qualify for the playoffs be better prepared for the jump in intensity that we usually see during the postseason?  Or will the teams that make it be so beaten down from tough battles that they’ll fall easily to the top two teams in the conference?

Either way, it’s going to be very fun to watch.