Two Weeks Notice: NHL Regular Season Hits Final Crunch Point

The NHL’s regular season only has two weeks left, ending on Saturday April 7, and the Pacific Division is nowhere closer to being settled, with four teams stacked within two points of each other, and current playoff standings allowing only three of them to survive. The Pacific Division race is just the biggest highlight, as TheSportsNotebook seeks to make sure readers don’t lose sight of hockey amidst the Madness that is March.

Los Angeles and Phoenix are tied atop the West with 86 points, a point up on Dallas and two on San Jose. Here’ the rub—the LA/Phoenix loser and Dallas hold the last two playoff spots, so not only is San Jose out, but to get in there’s no getting around they have to take out a fellow Pacific member. Which I’m quite certain troubles no one in NoCal, but it’s rare for the NHL to have a division championship race of such high consequence. Saturday will be a big day in this race. Dallas faces Calgary—who by the way is only two points out of the playoffs. Los Angeles hosts Boston, who will not playing up to their #2 in the East standing, have stabilized a bit over the last week. San Jose and Phoenix go head-to-head in the Bay Area in a huge hockey game that would be worth for Center Ice subscribers, given that the puck will drop out west after the NCAA’s regional finals action is over. Then on Sunday there’s no rest for Phoenix who has to quickly come home and face St. Louis—who happens to be the best team in the league.

Oh, and if all this doesn’t make the four-team Pacific race dynamic enough, Colorado is joining Calgary in the fight to push a second division team out of the postseason. The Avalanche are tied with the Stars for the 8-spot, even if they’d lose a tiebreaker today. Colorado has a stiff test at home against Vancouver on Saturday night. I know the good people of Denver got some good news on the NFL front this past week, but don’t forget your hockey team when they need you.

The East’s race for the bottom isn’t nearly as packed, but the battle between Washington and Buffalo is no less intense. The Capitals hold a one-point lead and host Winnipeg tonight, while the Sabres have a tough trip into Madison Square Garden to play the East-leading New York Rangers. Then the Minnesota Wild will try and be a spoiler in the East, as they go to Buffalo on Saturday, then Washington on Sunday.

While the unpredictability of the NHL postseason make the race just to get in the most important, and while seeding position might not carry the same weight it does in the NBA, you’re surely better off with home ice then without, and there’s more races within the playoff teams that look likely to go to the wire. Pittsburgh has closed to within one point of New York in the Atlantic Division, and the winner of that race gets the #1 seed. The loser will be slotted at #4. The Penguins are still the hottest team in hockey, 9-0-1 in their last ten and with the return of Sidney Crosby, a sure favorite for NBCSN when the playoffs start. Boston keeps holding off Ottawa—the standings still show these teams will meet in a 2-7 series, although Florida continues to nip at Boston’s heels for the two-spot. Ottawa plays at lowly Montreal tonight, but then has Pittsburgh in town on Saturday. The Bruins wrap up a west coast trip with the aforementioned Saturday game in the Staples Center, then a visit to a bad Anaheim team.

And is any team skidding backwards into the playoffs faster than Detroit.  Once the toast of the league and indeed a lot of the sports world for their record home winning streak, the Wings have lost six in a row, have been blown out by St. Louis in the Central Division and may no longer have home ice. With 93 points, they hold down the 4-spot, but Nashville and red-hot Chicago are both just one point back. Although with the winner of the shaky Pacific guaranteed the 3-hole, it bears wondering if the loser of the Detroit/Chicago/Nashville race is best off going into the 6-spot.