NHL Playoff Race Report: East Stabilizes, West Up For Grabs

Eight more days.  That’s how much time is left in the NHL regular season, which wraps up on Saturday, April 7. The Eastern Conference race looks to be stabilizing, while the West appears ready for a wild crackup in the Pacific Division. The SportsNotebook summarizes the landscape for fans distracted by March Madness and the onset of baseball season…

Washington and Buffalo are tied for the last playoff berth in the East, and it’s fair to say these two cities haven’t been on each others’ minds this much since the Redskins and Bills dominated the NFL all year long in 1991 and ultimately met in the Super Bowl. This historical reference is my coping mechanism as a Redskins fan. Our present state of affairs is so porous that I’m desperate for any reason I can find to insert 1991 into a discussion and the year that ended with a not-as-close-as-it-sounds 37-24 win in the Super Bowl.

While the Capitals and Sabres are tied in points, Buffalo does have one additional game left. They play Pittsburgh tonight. Then on Saturday, both contenders are in action, as the Sabres get NHL Network coverage in Toronto at 7 PM ET, and Washington hosts a Montreal team that’s in disarray. As a Bruins fan, seeing Montreal in disarray is only slightly less enjoyable than seeing the Lakers and Cowboys in disarray. Which is only slightly less enjoyable than seeing the Yankees in disarray. And once the latter happens, I can die in peace.

Anyway, back to hockey and away from my personal musings, the rest of the East is pretty well set. The New York Rangers and Boston Bruins appear to have staved off divisional challenges from Pittsburgh and Ottawa respectively and will likely be seeded 1-2 in the East bracket. Florida’s comfortable in the Southeast Division and will probably be #3. The Penguins and Flyers look headed for a 4-5 series, and while Pittsburgh holds a two-point lead right now, home ice is very much up in the air for that one. New Jersey is settled in at #6. It’s possible any of these could change, but with just a handful of games left, it would take a dramatic move to upset the applecart beyond who’s #8.

Now that wild, wild, wild West. Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Jose are still separated by one point. There’s still only room for three of the four in the playoffs and that number could be reduced to two. Some of the pressure has been eased by Colorado’s four-game losing streak. The Avalanche are still just two points back of the Pacific quartet, and Calgary’s three points back, but in this race, being up two points seems like a lot. Of the Pacific Four, Dallas and Phoenix are tied for first at 89 points, while Los Angeles and San Jose are at 88. The division would pick up the 3, 7 & 8 seed positions if they can hold off Colorado and Calgary.

Dallas is the team under the gun this weekend. They visit Vancouver tonight and then have a road trip to San Jose. Even stealing one win from this road swing would be a huge relief for the Stars. Phoenix’s next game is on Sunday against lowly Anaheim. Los Angeles is the team you have to wonder about—they have the opportunity in front of them, with games against Edmonton and Minnesota, both non-contenders. But both games are on the road and teams like the Kings are ultimately in the position they’re in because they haven’t been consistent. Los Angeles needs to step up and get two take-care-of-business kind of wins.  On the outside of this group, Colorado visits Calgary tonight in a game that has all the earmarks of a de facto elimination battle. The best case for the Pacific teams would be for Calgary to win there, and then go lose at Vancouver on Sunday, with the Canucks playing well, sitting at #2 in the West and still just two points back of St. Louis and New York for the best record overall.

Elsewhere in the West, the biggest note would be that Chicago has finally given its fans room to breathe. The Blackhawks had been sitting in the 6-spot and had the Pacific Four at arm’s length, but a strong 7-1-2 run in their last ten games have put seven points of distance between Chicago and the end of the playoff ladder. It looks like the Blackhawks will pair up with whoever wins the Pacific.  The Blackhawks could move up to #4—they’re only two points back of Detroit. But here’s the question: Given that the #6 seed gets the Pacific champ even though the division winner will be one of the three worst teams in the draw, are you better off being there, rather than moving up to the 4-5 matchup? It would certainly seem so. I never like to suggest teams should lose, as I think an anti-competitive mindset within is more dangerous than any opposition from without. But if you’re a fan with vested interests in the Detroit-Nashville-Chicago trio, there’s no reason to get too worked up about being #6, unless you’ve got access to playoff tickets and want the 4-spot and an extra home game.