Monday, March 21, 2011

The Western Conference Playoff Race

For those of you who follow the NHL, you know that right now, The Western Conference is in the midst of the closet playoff race in recent memory. The Eastern Conference to me, seems pretty much sewed up, but in the West anything is still possible. Vancouver has clinched their division title, and although Detroit and San Jose have not done so yet, they’d have to pretty much lose the rest of the games this season for them not to make it. On the other side, Edmonton, Colorado and St. Louis are completely out of it, and Minnesota and Columbus would need to win ALL of their remaining games to get to 96 points – which is looking like the division between playoffs and not (at the moment, this number may even go up as high as 97 or 98 points, but I have a feeling as the games dwindle, it probably settle at 95 or 96).

That leaves 7 teams, competing for 5 spots, all within 5 points of each other, with anywhere between 8-10 games to go this season. So let’s look at those 7 teams, and what they need to do to get in.

Fourth Place: Phoenix – 89 points, 8 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. St. Louis, v. Columbus, v. San Jose, v. Dallas, v. Colorado, @ LA, v. San Jose, @ San Jose.

The Coyotes look good to make the playoffs once again. Yes, they only have 8 games to go, but they are 3 points up on 5th, 6th and 7th, and have a good schedule ahead of them. To get in, the Coyotes need 7 points – or 3 wins and one overtime loss, in their last 8 games. They have 6 of those games at home, which helps them. The fact that they have two teams not in the race in St. Louis and Columbus for their next two, it seems to me that Phoenix is pretty much cannot miss at this point. If they don’t make the playoffs, it will because they completely collapsed down the stretch.

Fifth Place: Chicago – 86 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. Florida, v. Anaheim, @ Detriot, @ Boston, @ Columbus, v. Tampa Bay, @ Montreal, v. St. Louis, @ Detroit, v. Detroit.

The defending Stanley Cup champions have had an up and down season this year, but appear to be on the upswing right now, which is good for them. Having said that, they have a very tough schedule remaining, and they need to win five to get in. They need to beat Florida, which they couldn’t do a few weeks ago, and then win the games they have against the other non-playoff teams – Columbus and St. Louis. Those are the easy games. Boston, Tampa Bay and Montreal are all fighting in the Eastern Conference right now, and will not be easy. Anaheim has been on a role, and also won’t be easy. Then they have three against their arch rivals from Detroit. Yes, Chicago should be more desperate than the Wings, yet the Wins would love to put the Blackhawks out of the playoffs, so they don’t have to face them. Those three games will be a battle, so Chicago should try to get their wins elsewhere in their last 10. They need at least 5 wins in their last 10 games.

Sixth Place: Los Angeles – 86 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaing:
v. Calgary, v. San Jose, v. Colorado, @ Edmonton, @ Vancouver, v. Dallas, @ San Jose, v. Phoenix, @ Anaheim, v. Anaheim

Since the beginning of 2011, the Kings have been pretty much unbeatable on the road – but cannot seem to win at home, meaning they are probably the only team in the NHL upset that they have more home games left than road games. The Kings need to end their current two game slide ASAP, or risk falling into another pit like they were in in November and again in January. Of their remaining games, only Colorado and Edmonton are easier teams – meaning the Kings have to win those two games and find a way to win at least 3 of the remaining 8 against some tough opponents. It could all come down to the home and home against Anaheim to end the season.

Seventh Place: Nashville – 86 points, 9 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. Edmonton, v. Anaheim, v. Dallas, v. Vancouver, @ Colorado, v. Detroit, v. Atlanta, v. Columbus, @ St. Louis.

The Preds have been on a tear recently, and despite the fact that they have only 9 games left, compared to 10 for most teams, they still have a advantageous schedule. Not only are 7 of their final 9 at home, where they are extremely tough to beat, but they have games against Edmonton, Colorado, Atlanta, Columbus and St. Louis left. They should win those five, which by itself, should get them into the playoffs.

Eighth Place: Anaheim – 85 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaining:
@ Dallas, @ Nashville, @ Chicago, v. Colorado, @ Calgary, @ San Jose, v. Dallas, v. San Jose, v. LA, @ LA.

The Ducks looked dead a little while ago, but they have come on strong recently – topped with back to back overtime wins against the Kings and Flames. Having said that, of all the teams in the race, they have the toughest schedule – with only one game against Colorado being against a team completely out of the playoffs. Assuming they win that, they will still need to generate 9 points in 9 games against some very tough opponents. My guess is Anaheim teeters on the brink until that home and home against LA to finish the season.

Ninth Place: Dallas – 85 points, 10 games to go
Games Remaining:
v. Anaheim, @ Nashville, @ Phoenix, @ San Jose, @ LA, @ Anaheim, v. Columbus, v. Colorado, @ Colorado, @ Minnestota.

The Stars led the Pacific division for much of the year, but have fallen on hard times since the beginning of February, and things aren’t going to get easier for a while. After a home game against Anaheim, they have to play Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, LA and Anaheim again – all on the road, in a five game road trip that could make or break their season. But if they are still in it at the end of that trip, things get much easier with games against Columbus, two against Colorado and one against Minnesota. The key for them will to be not to fall too far behind in the next 6 games - they need 11 points in 10 games.

Tenth Place: Calgary – 84 points, 8 games to go
Games Remaing:
@ LA, @ San Jose, @ Edmonton, v. Anaheim, @ St. Louis, @ Colorado, v. Edmonton, v. Vancouver.

The bad news for the Flames is that out of the 7 teams competing for 5 spots, the Flames are 7th, and have fewer games than anyone. The good news is that four of their final 8 games are against St. Louis, Colorado and Edmonton (x2). Those four are must win, then they need to find a way to get two wins in four games against LA, San Jose, Anaheim and Vancouver – and hope the magic number does not rise above 96 points, as it is threatening to do. The Flames have almost zero margin of error for the rest of the season, but they ain’t dead yet.

Prediction: Taking all factors into consideration, I think it’s fairly safe to say that Phoenix makes the playoffs. They’d have to collapse in their final 8 games not to. I think the experience of Chicago will be enough to push them into the playoffs, despite their tough schedule. Nashville has the easiest schedule of any of the teams left, meaning they get in as well.

That leaves three teams from the Pacific – LA, Anaheim and Dallas, along with Calgary – two are in, two are out. I don’t think Calgary can do it. The pressure is immense right now, and having to go 6-2-0 in the final 8, and hope the number doesn’t go up, means they will be on the outside looking in. As for which team in the Pacific doesn’t make it, it’s tough to say. The Kings are reeling right now, but one win could turn that around really quick. The Ducks are on a roll right now, but have the toughest schedule coming up. The Stars have had trouble with consistency all season, and have a tough 6 games before they face an easier team. Everyone knows I am a Kings fan, but I am pretty sure I would pick them to make the playoffs anyway at this point - just one win in their next two games, following by wins against Colorado and Edmonton, and they look to be unsinkable. Between the Stars and Ducks, I will put my money on the Ducks right now. But of course, as has happened in this race pretty much every day since the beginning of February, that could change by tomorrow. There are only 3 weeks left in the regular season – and sooner or later, something’s gotta give.

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