With the end of the NHL season just three weeks away, we thought it was time to take a look at where everyone stands as races heat up and teams make their final pushes for postseason berths.
If the Playoffs Started Today:
Wlid Card #2 Winnipeg vs. Pacific Division Champion Anaheim
Wild Card #1 Minnesota vs. Central Division Champion St. Louis
Central Division #3 Chicago vs. Central Division #2 Nashville
Pacific Division #3 Calgary vs. Pacific Division #2 Vancouver
Who’s Hot, Who’s Not:
-While the two teams at the top of the Central Division have scuffled a bit as of late, three teams have been on a roll. The Chicago Blackhawks have gone 7-2-1 in their last 10 games, and even though their offense has struggled without Patrick Kane in the lineup, their defense has more than picked up the slack.
The Minnesota Wild and Winnipeg Jets have also played well lately, putting some distance between themselves and the fading Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks. The Jets are still well within the Kings’ striking distance, only holding a four-point lead and having played one more game than the defending Stanley Cup champions.
-On the cold side of the spectrum, the Kings have lost two games in a row and have gone 5-3-2 in their last 10 as they have slipped a bit in the race. With Winnipeg facing injury concerns, the Kings were expected to make a big push, and so far they haven’t been able to do that.
Speaking of making a push, the Nashville Predators seem to be going in the other direction. They have lost seven of their last 10 games overall, and despite having Pekka Rinne in goal and a solid offense, they could very well slip into third place in the Central Division as the Blues continue to lead the way and the Blackhawks give chase behind them.
The Road Ahead:
-The Central Division race could tighten up even more this week as the Blues play a light two-game schedule, and the Predators have to play against four playoff teams in six days. Meanwhile, the Blackhawks get a run of easy games as they tangle with the Hurricanes, Flyers, and Blue Jackets, all of whom are currently out of playoff contention. Their lone tough matchup this week will be against the surging Jets as they head to Manitoba for a Sunday showdown.
-In the Pacific Division, the Ducks are all but assured of a division title at this point, but the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames are still battling tooth and nail for second place. The Flames have a tough slate this week, with home games against the Avalanche and Stars (both of whom are playing much better hockey lately) and then two road games against the Wild and the Predators.
Making matters more complicated for the Flames is the fact that they only have a two-point lead over the Kings for third place in the Pacific. With the wild card increasingly looking like it will come out of the Central, that third spot in the Pacific is crucial, and Calgary is going to have to fight hard to hold onto it.
-In the wild card race, the Wild and the Jets are padding their lead as the season wears on. Minnesota has a rough schedule this week, with a cupcake game against the Toronto Maple Leafs setting up for a main course against the Islanders, Flames, and Kings. That Saturday game against Los Angeles will e a big one, as the team is looking to put some distance between themselves and their wild card rival.
The Jets have a similarly constructed schedule, with an easy game against the Oilers being followed up by three tough matchups. A road trip will end for them when they take on the Canucks on Tuesday, but their homecoming will be far from friendly as they have to welcome the Montreal Canadiens and the Blackhawks to MTS Centre.
As for the Kings, they will need to get the ship righted in a hurry if they are going to make a late push toward the playoffs. They’ll be on the road all week, starting out on the East Coast with three games against the Devils, Rangers, and Islanders, and then they’ll start heading back toward the West with games against the Wild and then the Blackhawks early next week.
The Game to Watch:
Saturday’s game between the Kings and the Wild in the Twin Cities has implications for both the wild card race and the Pacific Division race. Minnesota has a serious opportunity to put some distance between themselves and the Kings, who are lurking at just five points back with a game in hand, and the Kings could put some serious pressure on Winnipeg and Calgary with a win in the contest.
One other game to keep an eye on is Sunday’s game between the Blackhawks and the Jets. The Jets are trying to hold onto a wild card spot, and the Blackhawks are trying to make up some ground in the Central Division race. Both teams would benefit big time from a win in this one, and it will have an impact on both the Central and wild card races.