Jim Morrison said it best: The West is the best.
Although The Doors’ frontman was not referring to the greatest game on ice, if he had been, he would have decidedly chosen the Pacific Division as the pinnacle of the West(ern Conference).
Coming down the final stretch of the season, teams jostle for a playoff berth. The current league rules (which could change in the next season or two) state that all division winners claim the top three spots for the playoffs, leaving the rest of the teams to fight for the remaining five spots. It’s the time of year when players can’t help but become aware of the standings–every point counts. Calgary Flames forward Alex Tanguay summed up every player’s feeling,
“We’re going to put our best effort in and hope that the out-of-town scoreboard is going to be favorable to us as well.”
In the Pacific Division, however, one point can be the difference between claiming the third seed or falling down the ranks to the 9th spot, missing the playoffs. As of the final days of March, only two points separate the top four teams in the Pacific Division: San Jose with 88, Dallas and Phoenix with 87, and Los Angeles with 86. Games played also becomes a critical factor: Dallas, Los Angeles, and San Jose have played 76 games, while Phoenix has played 77 games. And yet, San Jose has the third spot in the West; Dallas and Phoenix are tied for 7th and Los Angeles sits in 9th, currently deprived of a playoff slot.
No other division in the league faces this sort of intensity. Yes, you have the West’s Central Division with St. Louis, Detroit, Nashville, and Chicago, all 100- or 90-point teams, but the race has some slack between competitors. The East’s Atlantic Division also has four 100- or 90-point teams, but once again, the race has some flaccidity. No other division boasts the level of high-pressure that the Pacific Division does, and this is becoming an annual measure. Last year, San Jose did run away with the Pacific, notching 105 points, but Anaheim and Phoenix finished with 99, Los Angeles had 98 and Dallas with 95. Once again, no division was that close. On a daily basis in the Pacific, the stakes are invariably high. One shootout loss could be paramount for a Pacific team.
However, the level of competition in the Pacific Division has caused some players to ignore the rankings entirely. San Jose Sharks forward Joe Pavelski bluntly stated that even with only five or six games remaining in the season, one cannot be consumed by the standings, especially in the Pacific.
“We’ve seen how fast things can happen,” Pavelski said. “We’ve been on both sides of it. Leading the division right now doesn’t matter.”
His coach agreed: “The fact that we got the two points is the most significant thing, not where we are in the standings,” Sharks Head Coach Todd McLellan said. “You can not play a game and drop three spots.”
And that has been the nature of the beast in the Pacific for the past two seasons: one loss in the final stretch can mean dropping three spots in your division and five in the conference. The level of competition for intra-division games in the Pacific has also become heightened. In effect, the race in the Pacific Division has become a shortened pseudo-postseason just prior to the real thing. Winning and losing now can be the difference between the end to a team’s season or moving on to the next round.
A recent tilt on March 24th, between the Coyotes and the Sharks, which ended in a very un-postseason 4-3 shootout victory for San Jose, displayed the gritty, grinding, physical atmosphere of a playoff match. Not surprisingly, the single point also became the difference between San Jose leading the division and Phoenix sitting in 8th.
“They’re playing playoff hockey right now like we are,” Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris said of the Sharks. “It was a tight game. It could have gone either way. It was just a battle on every single shift.”
With only five or six games remaining in the season, some teams will peak at the right moment and claim a shot at Lord Stanley. Others, however, may miss the postseason rodeo by a single victory. And no other division embodies this quality better than the Pacific.
“We know the situation we’re in. We’re battling with a bunch of other teams here to make the postseason or win our division,” Kings defenseman Willie Mitchell said. “We’re just preparing every game the same way — like it’s a must-win. It’s never good to lose this time of year, that’s for sure.”