Monday, April 4, 2011

The Western Conference Playoff Race - One Week Left

In ways, not a lot has changed since I did this similar post last week. In some ways, everything has. Vancouver had already clinched the Conference by this time last week, and the only thing that changed is that they have now clinched the President's Trophy. Detroit and San Jose both locked up playoff spots this week - Detroit also clinched their division - but we all knew that already last week, even if it wasn't official. And the same 7 teams are still competing for the same five spots in the playoffs this year. So let's look at the them and see what they have to do to make it.

Fourth Place: LA Kings (96 points, 4 games remaining - @ San Jose, vs. Phoenix, @ Anaheim, vs Anaheim).
If the Kings win just one of their last four games, or Dallas loses one of their last four in regulation, than they have locked in a playoff spot. This could have happened over the weekend after the Kings beat the Stars, but those stubborn Stars refused to say die, and with a little help from the refs, beat Anaheim yesterday to keep their hopes alive. This could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for the Kings. If they win just two of their last four they will cannot finish below 7th - as neither Dallas or Anaheim could catch them, and likely higher because the best the Black Hawks could do would be to tie them, and the best Nashville or Phoenix could do is finish 1 or 2 points better respectively. But one game at a time. Win one, and they're in - so I have little doubt that my beloved Kings will at least make it to the playoffs.

Fifth Place: Phoenix Coyotes (96 points, 3 games remaining - @ LA, vs San Jose, @ San Jose)
The Coyotes are in a very similar situation as the Kings - they win just one of their last threee, and they are in the playoffs, or Dallas loses just one of their last four in regulation, and they're in the playoffs. The Coyotes have a hard schedule though - the Kings have battled hard all season agains the Coyotes, and Phoenix has yet to beat San Jose this season in four meetings. Still, considering they only need to win one, or Dallas lose one, and you have to think that their spot is almost assured.

Sixth Place: Nashville Predators (95 points, 3 games remaing - vs. Atlanata, vs. Columbus, @ St. Louis).
The Predators should have a cushy landing to their season - facing three teams that are already eliminated from the playoffs, meaning as long as they don't blow it, I can easily see them getting to 101 points, and moving up to slot 4 or 5. Three points by them - or three blown points by Dallas or a combination of the two - and they are in the playoffs. With this schedule ahead of them, I have a hard time believing they won't do it.

Seventh Place: Anaheim Ducks (93 points, 3 games remaining - vs. San Jose, vs. LA, @ LA)
The Stars blew their chance to clinch a playoff spot yesterday which they could have done by beating Dallas in regulation (not to mention, it would have clinched spots for LA, Phoenix and most likely Nashville), but the Ducks came out flat, and are now in real trouble. They have three tough games to go, and to assure a playoff spot, they need to win at least 2 (that may cause a tie with Dallas, but Anaheim wins that tie breaker). The Ducks would have been in a great situation had they won yesterday - they would have had an excellent chance to move up to the 4 or 5 slot by the end of the season had they done so. Now it looks like unless they put together 3 straight wins against tough opponents, and get some help, they most likely will not move up very much if at all.

Eighth Place: Chicago Black Hawks (92 points, 4 games remaining - @ Montreal, vs. St. Louis, @ Detroit, vs. Detroit.)
The Black Hawks have fumbled and stumbled their way down the stretch here, and are now desperately holding on to the eighth and final playoff spot. To assure a playoff spot they need 6 points in their last 4 games, or have the Stars blow 6 points in their last 4, or a combination of the two. You have to think that they can beat the Blues - but that was a mistake we recently made about the Kings and Red Wings versus that team, who is delighting in playing spoiler right now. Montreal is still battling for their playoff spot, and the Red Wings will certainly want to crush their oldest rival - if for no other reason than to avoid them in the playoffs. I honestly believe that the Black Hawks are the team currently in a playoff spot most likely to miss at the end of the season. It's going to be tough.

Ninth Place: Calgary Flames (91 points, 2 games remaining - vs. Edmonton, vs. Vancouver).
Despite being just one point back of a playoff spot, who have to think that the Flames chances are still slim to none to actually make it. For one thing, every team has at least one game in hand against them. For another, the Flames have won so many games in the shootout, that they have to finish AHEAD of people in order to make it, as they will lose any tie breaker. So for the Flames to get in they need to win their final two games - against teams who would love to drive the nail into their coffin AND have 2 of 3 things happen. 1) Anaheim only gets 1 point in their final 3 games. 2) Chicago only gets 2 points in their final 4 games. 3) Dallas only gets 5 points in their final 4 games against weak opponents. I can see the Flames winning out, and one of those three things happening, but not two. Their playoff hopes are still mathmatically alive, but there's a very good chance that by the time the puck is dropped for their final game of the season on Saturday, that they won't be.

10 Place: Dallas Stars (89 points, 4 games remaining - vs. Columbus, vs. Colorado, @ Colorado, @ Minnesota.)
The Stars have one thing going in their favor right now, and that is they have a weak schedule to end the season, as they play four teams already mathmatically eliminated from the playoffs. That means as long as the play the way they should, they could easily end up with 97 points, and make life hard on the likes of Chicago or Anaheim, who have much tougher schedules ahead of them. Still, the truth of the matter is that Dallas has not played very well recently - losing a bunch of games they could not afford to, and barely hanging on against Anaheim last night. If they make the mistake of taking it easy in their last four, thinking they have the games in the bag, then they could easily stumble - and one stumble most likely costs them a playoff spot. Still, the Dallas Stars are the reason why this is still an exciting race, and will likely be right up until the final day of the season.

So, who do I think makes it in? LA, Phoenix and Nashville can pretty much book their tickets now, and two of them will likely finish 4 and 5, meaning they play against each other, which is what all three offensively challenged teams want. My guess is that Nashville gets one of those two slots, and the winner of the LA/Phoenix game on Wednesday gets the other one. The unlucky one gets either Detroit or San Jose in the first round, whoever comes third.

I think Anaheim will likely stumble a little down the stretch, but will hold onto a playoff spot. Whether it's seventh or eight, I have no idea at this point. Still, if they lose to San Jose on Wednesday, and go into the home and home against LA needing wins desperately - which could easily happen - wouldn't the Kings love to knock them off.

Between Dallas and Chicago (eliminating Calgary, as I just don't see it happening), I am going to five the edge to Dallas. Yes, they are three points back, but they have a soft end to the season, while Chicago will have to work hard for every point. Chicago splitting the final two games is likely, but it's also likely that Dallas could win their final four. With only a week left, nothing is decided quite yet.

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