Still In It?

One week ago we posted about several NHL teams that could see their playoff dreams die during the upcoming weekend.  In that post we talked about the Toronto Maple Leafs, the New Jersey Devils, the Carolina Hurricanes and the Minnesota Wild.  At the time of that post the Toronto Maple Leafs were four points behind the Buffalo Sabres for the eighth and final playoff spot.  The Hurricanes were two points out and the Devils were six points out.  In the West, the Wild were six points behind eighth place Calgary.

It’s one week later and the Hurricanes and Leafs are now both three points behind the Sabres.  New Jersey is nine points back and Atlanta has somewhat stepped back into the picture.  They are seven points behind the Sabres.  In the West, the Wild have fallen to nine points out of eighth place and the Flames and Stars have fallen out of the top eight.  They’ve been replaced, at least temporarily, by the Ducks and Predators.

So out of the four teams we mentioned last week, it looks like only the Leafs and Hurricanes are still in contention.

This weekend is another critical one for both teams.  Carolina plays a home-and-home with Tampa Bay tonight and tomorrow.  The Leafs play only once this weekend, heading to Detroit on Saturday.  As important as that game is, their Tuesday night game against the Sabres is as critical as it gets.  Buffalo plays at home tonight and tomorrow, against the Panthers and Devils respectively.

Perhaps the most critical aspect of this race is that the Leafs have played 75 games this season, while the Hurricanes and Sabres have only played 73.  That means that while Carolina has nine games to make up the three point difference between them and Buffalo, Toronto only has seven.  Those two games in hand could make all the difference in the world.

The difference in games played will cut to one this weekend, since the Hurricanes and Sabres play twice and the Leafs only play once.  If the Sabres and Hurricanes win both of their games, they’ll have 85 and 82 points respectively.  The Leafs will have 80 if they can beat Detroit on Saturday, and they’ll still have played one additional game.  A five point gap with only six games left could be too much for even James Reimer to overcome.

However, if the Sabres and Hurricanes lose both their games this weekend in regulation and Toronto defeats Detroit, the Leafs pass Carolina and pull to within one point of the Sabres.  That would set up an absolutely crucial game on Tuesday night when the Sabres come into Toronto.

Overtime losses and tiebreakers may come into the equation at some time as well, but this is shaping up to be a nailbiting race.

The same is true in the Western Conference where there is only a five point difference between fifth and 10th place.  The Calgary Flames have played 76 games this season and they currently occupy the number 10 spot.  The teams ahead of them – Los Angeles, Nashville, Chicago, Anaheim and Dallas – have all played fewer games.  In particular, the Dallas Stars have only played 73 games and they remain a point ahead of the Flames.  Calgary will likely need some help in the form of opposition losses if  they hope to qualify for the postseason.

The shootout, three point games and the salary cap have certainly increased parity in the NHL.  Playoff positioning and who will make the cut is never certain until the last game of the season.  Every game is “must see TV” right now.