With back-to-back games on their schedule against top teams in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Blackhawks got off to a flying start on Wednesday when they crushed the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-1.
That victory was a big boost for a Blackhawks team that had struggled in the early stages of their road trip, losing badly to the Florida Panthers and blowing a three-goal lead against the Tampa Bay Lightning to come out of the Sunshine State with just one point out of a possible four.
So what does the Blackhawks’ big win over Pittsburgh mean for their playoff standing, and what does it mean for who they will play in the first round of the postseason?
To answer that question, here is the latest installment of our Blackhawks Playoff Update.
Where Things Stand Now:
Thanks to the Blackhawks’ victory, they now hold a nine point lead over the Minnesota Wild in the Central Division with just five games remaining on their schedule. If the Blackhawks can manage to get four more points out of their final five games, then they will not only clinch the Central Division title, but they will also clinch the best record in the Western Conference and guarantee themselves home ice advantage through at least the first three rounds of the postseason.
Their schedule isn’t easy, as they’re playing three playoff teams over the final days of the regular season, but the finish line is in sight for the Blackhawks as they attempt to secure home ice advantage.
Who the Blackhawks Could Play in the First Round:
For quite a while, the Blackhawks were in line to play the St. Louis Blues in a first round rematch, but after the last few days, that has changed, as the Blackhawks would now play the Nashville Predators if the playoffs were to begin today.
Even with that change, there are still a slew of teams that the Blackhawks could potentially play as the stretch run continues. Nashville is only one point behind St. Louis for the third spot in the Central Division, and whichever team fails to secure that spot will drop into a wild card spot and potentially will have to face Chicago in the first round.
The Pacific Division race is even tighter, as the top four teams in that division are separated by only five points in the standings. The Anaheim Ducks are currently in the top spot there with 95 points, but the San Jose Sharks (93 points), Edmonton Oilers (93 points) and Calgary Flames (90 points) are all nipping at their heels.
If the Blackhawks can get four more standings points, they will lock up the Central Division title and the top spot in the Western Conference, meaning that they will face the lower-seeded wild card team in the first round.
What’s Next in the Race?
The Blackhawks will play their final two home games of the regular season on Friday and Sunday, when they welcome the Columbus Blue Jackets and Boston Bruins to the United Center in a pair of tough games against Eastern Conference playoff teams.
The Wild, desperate to hang onto any hope at all in the Central Division race, will welcome Ottawa to the Xcel Energy Center on Thursday night as they begin a stretch of three games in four days. They’ll have back-to-back games over the weekend, as they take on Nashville (currently fourth in the Central) and Colorado.
The Blues will play on Friday against Colorado in what is a must-win situation, but their big test will come on Sunday as they’ll take on the Predators at Scottrade Center in a game that will likely have a big impact on which team can get into the 2-3 matchup in the Central Division instead of having to face a division winner in the first round of the postseason.