By Stu Hackel
Will the Blackhawks make the playoffs and give themselves a shot at repeating as champions? Can the Flames, who overcame a brutal start and jumped into the thick of things, finish their rise from the basement? Do the up-and-down Kings have one more push left? We'll know the answers in a couple of weeks, but the remaining regular season schedule will have much to do with the outcome of who goes to the postseason and it gives some hints of what to expect.
Although the Western Conference is not the 13-team pile-up it was at times this season, the season-long game of musical chairs will probably go down to the wire. Realistically, there are 10 teams now fighting for eight spots. The top clubs in each division may not change. The Canucks are safe at No. 1, and the Red Wings should take the Central. The Pacific's peak is more uncertain, with the Sharks currently three points up on the Coyotes and holding an extra game. Beneath those division leaders, however, it's wild.
Not the Minnesota Wild. They slid off the pizza during the last two weeks. Their brutal 8-1 home loss on Sunday to the Canadiens was not the game that did them in. That happened the day before when they came home from a four-game, four-loss road trip and dropped a 5-4 OT decision to the Blue Jackets (who themselves fell behind the pack by dropping four of five right before heading to St. Paul). The Wild's loss to Montreal was just the loud thud they made while falling out of the race, the exclamation point on the day before.
As for the rest of the pack, Tuesday morning (March 22) found the seven teams ranked fourth through 1oth in the conference separated by all of four points. On Monday, it was even crazier with the six teams in fifth through 10th separated by only two points. Then the Kings grabbed the bonus point in the postgame skills competition against the Flames, which vaulted them over the Blackhawks. Calgary ended up in a three-way tie with the Stars and Ducks for the final playoff spot. It's been like that all season. It will probably all look different on Wednesday.
Which two teams won't make the cut? With so many this close, almost anything is possible, but checking the schedule for clues about how things might unfold, the Flames are in the worst position, if only because they have the fewest games left to play.
The opponents on a team's remaining schedule are certainly crucial, but in what way? The Flames, for example, play four of their seven remaining games against teams that are not in playoff contention. If you subscribe to the theory that the clubs on the outside will play loosey-goosey while the teams fighting for the playoffs are afraid to make mistakes, then it looks bad for the Flames. On the other hand, if you believe the Flames have more to play for and are probably better than the four teams beneath them, then you'll say Calgary has a better chance to win and you discount the loosey-goosey factor.
Rather than try to predict the games' outcomes, let's look at each club's schedule for broad outlines and notable stretches that might have an impact on the final standings. And if you want to see the exact schedules, they're linked with each club.
Coyotes: 89 points, 8 games left, six home (St. Louis, Columbus, San Jose twice, Dallas, Colorado), two road (Los Angles, San Jose). Next to Calgary, Phoenix has the fewest games remaining. Three are against non-playoff teams, but three are against the Sharks, who the Coyotes are fighting for the division championship, so those could be real battles.
Kings: 88 points, 9 games left, five home (San Jose, Colorado, Dallas, Phoenix, Anaheim), four road (Edmonton, Vancouver, San Jose, Anaheim). They close out their schedule with a home-and-home on Apr. 8 and 9 against the Ducks. That may be the closest those two teams have ever come to a playoff series against each other.
Blackhawks: 86 points, 10 games left, five home (Florida, Anaheim, Lightning, Blues, Red Wings), five road (Detroit, Boston, Columbus, Montreal, Detroit). The Hawks have a challenging three games in four nights coming up: hosting the Ducks at home on Saturday, then a Monday game in Detroit and one on Tuesday in Boston.
Predators: 86 points, 9 games left, seven home (Edmonton, Anaheim, Dallas, Vancouver, Detroit, Atlanta, St. Louis), two road (Colorado, Columbus). The Preds have a four-game and a three-game homestand, separated by one match on the road.
Ducks: 85 points, 10 games left, four home (Colorado, Dallas, San Jose, Los Angeles), six road (Dallas, Nashville, Chicago, Calgary, San Jose Los Angeles). In addition to their home-and-home with the Kings, the Ducks have two other sets of back-to-back games.
Stars: 85 points, 10 games left, three home (Anaheim, Columbus, Colorado), seven road (Nashville, Phoenix, San Jose, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Colorado, Minnesota). The Kings and Ducks back-to-back in SoCal against the Kings and Ducks will be a test, but they also have a home-and-home on back-to-back nights against deflated Colorado.
Flames: 85 points, 7 games left, three home (Anaheim, Edmonton, Vancouver) four road (San Jose, Edmonton, St. Louis, Colorado). Calgary has no back-to backs, but is in the midst of a four-game road trip.
The Flames can blame their poor start for their tenuous situation. As with the Devils, who we wrote about last week after they went a remarkable 23-3-2 between Jan. 9 and Feb. 16, the Flames similarly clawed their way back into contention with a strong 22-6-6 run from Dec. 23 to March 9. But like New Jersey, Calgary has stumbled of late, with only one win and a regulation tie in five games.
It's easy to think that games late in the season are more meaningful than those early on. Play does get more competitive in the last two months as teams try to lock down berths and refine good habits going into the postseason. But a bad start can doom a team, leaving it with very little margin for error when making a big second half push. You can't clinch a playoff spot in the first two months, but you can pretty much guarantee missing one with a start that makes you fall too far behind. There are too many teams to climb over, too much ground to make up, too few points available.
Some other things pop out from that rundown: The heavy home schedules of Nashville (the Preds have the fewest regulation losses in the league, 8, tied with the Capitals) and Phoenix (who aren't that dominant at home), the heavy away schedule of Dallas (a decent road team), and the two or three fewer games that Calgary has left compared to the other contenders. The Ducks also have a three-game homestand.
There's also a pretty decent chance that the new tiebreaker procedure, which eliminates shootout victories from win totals as the first tiebreaker, may come into play. NHL.com has been running this stat in its standings for a few weeks in a column named "ROW," for regulation and overtime wins. This also works against Calgary, which has only 29 ROW's, the fewest in the group. Nashville has the next fewest, with 32.
Even with the Flames tough road to the finish line, this season has demonstrated that any team that goes on a little -- or big -- hot streak can jump a few places pretty quickly, so only a fool would count it, or any of these teams, out just yet.