By Allan Muir
Herewith, the first of our looks at the final week of regular season action. Today, the Western Conference. Check back Sunday for the East.
Just two teams -- Chicago and Anaheim -- have officially clinched berths in the Western playoffs, there really are just two spots up for grabs.
Four clubs -- Vancouver, Los Angeles, San Jose and St. Louis -- are virtual locks that will close out the campaign by jockeying for position. That leaves four others -- Minnesota, Columbus, Dallas and Detroit -- to battle it out for the seventh and eighth seeds.
If past seasons are any indication, this race will go down to the final weekend. Here's how each team's chances stack up.
Minnesota Wild (seventh, 51 points): They sure picked a lousy time to lose their mojo. The Wild have lost seven of their last 10, loosening their once-firm grip on a playoff spot. The good news? They've beaten Calgary and Edmonton during this slump, and those are two of the four teams remaining on their schedule (Colorado and Los Angeles are the others). If they win two, they're in. Win one and get a consolation point in another...that should do it, too. But just as important as getting the results is getting their game back in order. Tightening up the back end and closing their gaps would be a nice start.
Columbus Blue Jackets (eighth, 49 points): Playing their fifth game in seven nights in a fourth different time zone makes for a great excuse, but that 2-1 loss to the Kings on Thursday night might have signaled the end of Columbus' playoff dreams. They still hold a two-point lead on Detroit and Dallas, but those teams both have two games in hand...and they both hold the tiebreakers.
What really hurts is that the Jackets have just three games left -- at San Jose, at Dallas, and home against Nashville. There's a chance that a team that's gone 7-3 in its last 10 could win out, especially with two days between games offering some much-needed rest. And they've had success against these foes, going 5-1-1 on the season.
That sounds good, but Sportsclubstats.com has the Jackets' chances at just 21.2 percent, largely because of those tiebreakers. The gut agrees with the math here.
Dallas Stars (ninth, 47 points): They have five games remaining, with their next three coming on the road at St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Jose, before closing at home with Columbus and Detroit. All five are playoff contenders, which will complicate their quest to 54 points. They do, however, hold tiebreakers on both the Wings and Jackets, so if they fall short of that point total, they might still have a chance.
The Stars have gone on a tear since flushing their system of three big-name veterans at the trade deadline, winning six of seven despite trotting out a lineup that features a great first three and three fourth lines. They've gotten a huge boost from the call-up kids, who've provided energy on the forecheck and might be too naive to recognize this team should be toast right now.
It's been an impressive run, but you have to think that schedule finally smacks them back to reality.
Detroit Red Wings (10th, 47 points): The possibility of their 21-year playoff streak ending became a statistical probability after that loss to Calgary on Wednesday, but the schedule could be the difference-maker for Detroit. With five to go, the Wings face two road games -- Saturday in Vancouver and the season finale in Dallas -- and have Phoenix, Los Angeles and Nashville coming to the Joe. That's a finish that puts the team's fate in its own hands.
But can these Wings be trusted? They've struggled this season not so much because of the loss of Nick Lidstrom, but because too many young players have been asked to fill roles they're just not ready to handle. Is there any reason to think they'll suddenly answer the call now?
Detroit needs to go at least 3-1-1 over these games, with one of the regulation wins coming against the Stars. Dallas holds the tie-breaker, so that one is imperative. The odds are against them, but it says here the team's veteran stars step up and get the job done. Phoenix Coyotes (11th, 44 points): They have five games remaining, facing Chicago, Detroit and Anaheim on the road, and San Jose and Colorado at home. If they run the table, they'd end up with 54 points, which might be enough if other teams cooperate. Having lost four of their last five, that seems highly unlikely. Odds are the chair will be pulled out from under them by Sunday morning.