With the Anaheim Ducks’ loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Wednesday night in California, the Chicago Blackhawks clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, giving them home-ice-advantage throughout the conference playoffs.
With that milestone achieved, the Hawks can now focus on getting guys healthy for what will be a truly grueling stretch of playoff hockey, but who the Blackhawks will ultimately play is still very much up in the air.
There are currently four teams vying for the eighth playoff spot in the West, with the Columbus Blue Jackets currently holding a two point edge over the Detroit Red Wings. The Wings have a game in hand, however, so they can’t be discounted just yet.
The Dallas Stars, four points back, have two games in hand on Columbus, and also play a game against the Red Wings in Texas on the final day of the regular season. Finally, the Phoenix Coyotes are still gasping for air in the race, but they are six points back of Columbus with two games in hand as well.
Out of those four teams, which one should the Blackhawks be hoping grabs the number eight seed in the playoffs?
The Blue Jackets are a team that the Blackhawks have dominated in recent years, including sweeping the season series this year, but it is still a matchup that could give the Hawks a problem. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky has been playing out of his mind down the stretch, and when you couple the possibility of a hot goaltender stealing a series with the fact that the team has won five games in a row, you have a recipe for a pretty tough first round series.
The Red Wings also were swept in the season series by the Blackhawks, and have not looked at all like a team that has made the playoffs in 21 consecutive seasons. Their road record is 10-9-3, and they have gone 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. If they make the playoffs, it will be without very much momentum, so this could be a good matchup for Chicago.
The Stars have played the Hawks tough for the most part this season, and are against all odds still in the playoff picture despite trading away several key pieces, like Derek Roy and Jaromir Jagr. Despite this, their defense, one of the worst in the West in giving up 126 goals in only 42 games, has to look pretty appetizing to a Hawks team that leads the West by a country mile in goals scored.
The Coyotes are likely done in the playoff race, but the one thing that is odd about them is that their road record, often a strength, is a huge detriment this year. They are 5-9-6 on the road in 2013, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to see them as a team liable to go down 0-2 in short order in a playoff run.
And the “winner” is….
Out of the teams realistically in playoff contention, the Hawks should be rooting for the Stars to grab that eighth seed. Yes, Kari Lehtonen can make life difficult on the Hawks, as he did early in the season, but the team’s overall defense and lack of real scoring punch would make them an easy target for a Hawks team that excels in both areas.
Detroit and Columbus have not beaten Chicago this year, but both teams played the Hawks tough in several regular season contests, and could be a stumbling block early on as the Hawks try to win a Stanley Cup title.