I’ve said this numerous times throughout the second half of this NHL season, but I believe the Boston Bruins are the Stanley Cup favorite–not because I believe they’re head and shoulders above every team in the league, but because they’re head and shoulders above every team in the East, and whoever gets out of the West will have to fight multiple wars before dragging the remainder of their one-legged battle-weary troops to the Stanley Cup Final.
For a team from the West to win the Cup, they’re going to need to get out of a playoff series or two in less than six or seven games. Every extra game you lace them up with the physical play of the post-season, the pace, the necessity of shot-blocking and all the rest, you’re taking a little off your players video game-like health meters, and are risking more team-crippling injuries.
So, naturally, playoff seeding in the first round matters. And boy-oh-boy, are things getting tight atop the Western Conference standings.
Let’s look at the three (almost four) teams who have the most realistic shot at winning the Western Conference and drawing Minnesota/Dallas instead of the slightly-more-terrifying Los Angeles/San Jose/Chicago.
The St. Louis Blues
The St. Louis Blues are currently first in the Western Conference with 111 points. As you can see, they have three remaining games.
Remaining schedule: At Minnesota (7th), at Dallas (8th), Detroit at home (7th, East)
The St. Louis Blues’ remaining three games are against teams that have been playing competitive hockey for weeks now, knowing every win and loss affects their chances of making the post-season. In a nutshell, they’ve been in playoffs for awhile, and these teams have all emerged victorious. They’re playing good hockey, and won’t offer up any easy games.
Top top it off, they’ve won five of their last 11 games, and find themselves in the midst of a three game losing streak. They went from President’s Trophy contenders to bringing the #1 seed in the West back into contention. Oh, and another note – the Blues would lose the tiebreaker to both Anaheim and Colorado in the event they end tied in points. (*Nervous collar tug from Blues fans*)
The Blues are a good team, probably better than the three teams they’re facing to end the season, but those games are far from locks.
The Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks currently lead the Pacific Division by three points, with San Jose having the same number of games to go as them, three.
Remaining schedule: San Jose (2nd in Pacific) at home, at Los Angeles (3rd in Pacific), Colorado (2nd in Central) at home
Whoaaaa. Look at that remaining schedule. If San Jose beats them tonight there’s a one point differential between them, and the Ducks would have to face the Kings, one of the best teams in the second half, and the Avalanche, who we’ll talk about in a second. That’s a brutal way to end the season, and highlights how the Pacific is far from clinched.
The Colorado Avalanche
The Avs are two points behind St. Louis for first in the Central and the Western Conference, and one behind Anaheim. They’ve got three games to go as well.
Remaining schedule: At Vancouver (11th), at San Jose (2nd in Pacific), at Anaheim (1st in Pacific)
Here’s where things get fun. Last night’s Blues loss and Avalanche win made it possible for Colorado to climb out of a terrifying first round match-up with Chicago and into something more doable, like facing Minnesota/Dallas.
If they take care of business against the 11th-place Vancouver Canucks Thursday, they’ve got a very, very interesting last two games of the season. A win there could potentially have them in a situation where on the last day of the season it could be a one-game winner-takes-the-Conference matchup against Anaheim. The Blues would have to stumble a bit, but given the way they’ve played lately and their hungry opponents down the stretch, it’s not out of the question.
The San Jose Sharks
Just too many teams to leapfrog with not enough games remaining, especially with less ROW (regulation/overtime wins) than the three teams above them.
Remaining schedule: At Anaheim (1st in Pacific), Colorado (2nd in Central) at home, at Phoenix (9th)
The change in playoff format this year greatly increased the importance winning (at least) your division. It’s no longer just jockeying for position one-to-eight within the conference, where finishing third in the West means you draw the sixth best team – you either win your division outright and draw a wild card team, or you’re playing your closest division rival.
These last three games of the season are of vital importance depending on what your goals are (as Teemu Selanne was saying on TSN the other day). If you’re sincere in that the Stanley Cup is your goal, then you have to avoid going through three series of hell. That’s not to call Minnesota/Dallas pushovers, but they’re just not on par with the large majority of other teams looking to make the post-season in the West.
While I think the Avs will be happy with this season no matter what at this point, winning a few games down the stretch could give them a shot at doing some post-season damage. It’s going to be a fun sprint to the finish.