Jim Neveau, NHL Correspondent
Through much of the 2011 portion of the NHL schedule, the jockeying for position in the playoffs has been endlessly entertaining to watch. While teams like the Canucks and Flyers have run away and hidden with their playoff spots, other teams like the Devils and Flames have made impressive runs, and even if they end up falling short, it still injected some great drama into the proceedings.
The Western Conference especially has been riveting, with nearly every team involved at one point or another in the proceedings. Even the Blue Jackets and Blues made runs to stay near the top eight, but with the season winding down and with every team having fewer and fewer games to play, the final eight teams in each conference are starting to shake out. Teams like Minnesota have fallen by the wayside, and all that remains for the most part is where each team will end up within the top eight spots.
To get ready for this remaining stretch run of 10 or so games, here are three of the seeding battles that NHL fans should pay attention to as the season draws to a close:
Seeds 5-8 Up for Grabs Among Five Teams
With the Calgary Flames seemingly out of the picture, the battle for the final four spots in the West has come down to five teams. The Phoenix Coyotes are probably a solid bet to make the postseason, so those other four spots are going to come down to who gets hot among the remaining contenders.
The Los Angeles Kings are currently fifth when ranked by their point percentage, and it seems likely that they’re going to be in. They’re on pace to rack up 100 points, and that still may only be good enough for the fifth seed. The biggest obstacle facing them is their tough schedule over their last eight games. After two easy contests against Colorado and Edmonton, they have to travel to Vancouver and then play their last five games against teams within the Pacific Division. Their final two games are a home-and-home series against the Anaheim Ducks, who are also chasing a spot.
The Chicago Blackhawks are currently in the sixth spot in points percentage, and they have some tough obstacles to overcome as well. Not only are they likely without Patrick Sharp for the rest of the regular season, but they also are missing Dave Bolland, whose solid two-way play was really helpful in getting them back into the playoff picture. Road games against Boston, Montreal, and Detroit also pose challenges to this bunch.
The seventh spot in points percentage belongs to the Nashville Predators, and they have one of the easiest remaining schedules in the league. All of their remaining tough games are on home ice, with Dallas, Vancouver, and Detroit all coming to town. Their only remaining road games are against Colorado and St. Louis, which isn’t exactly a murderer’s row of opponents. With the stellar goaltending of Pekka Rinne backing them up, they should be in when all is said and done.
The eighth spot belongs to the Dallas Stars currently, and they are locked in a tight battle with the Anaheim Ducks for that seeding. The Stars are looking at a difficult challenge, with a five game road trip starting on Saturday against Nashville, and games also on that trip against their four Pacific Division rivals. This includes a three-game in four day stretch against San Jose, Los Angeles, and Anaheim. Fortunately for Dallas they do wrap up with contests against Columbus, Colorado (twice), and Minnesota. The question of course is whether or not they’ll still be a playoff contender after that tough upcoming schedule.
The Ducks have five divisional games remaining, with trips to San Jose and Los Angeles on the docket. Like the Kings and Stars, they do hold their fate in their own hands with games against their divisional rivals, but with Jonas Hiller back in the fold, it could be argued that the Ducks have the mental edge going into the season’s closing weeks.
Chicago vs. Detroit for the Central Division Title
As of right now, this divisional race doesn’t appear close on paper. The Red Wings hold a seven point lead over the Blackhawks, and the Hawks only have one game in hand on their arch rivals. Looking at those numbers alone, this division could almost just be called for the Wings, but other factors are at play that make this a race to watch.
The two teams do have three games remaining against one another, so it is feasible that the Hawks could make ground up quickly on Detroit. One seeming advantage that the Wings have is that two of the games will be played at Joe Louis Arena, but when you consider that the Motor City denizens are tied with the Canucks for the most road wins in the league, it would almost be more of an advantage to play two games at the United Center in Chicago.
The other interesting factor at play are all of the injuries that both sides are facing. Detroit just put Chris Osgood back on injured reserve, and they also are without the services of Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen at the moment. These injuries have helped lead the Wings to three consecutive losses, and it’s unlikely that either player will be fully healthy anytime soon.
Chicago is dealing with injury concerns of its own, with Patrick Sharp out with a lower body injury and Dave Bolland sidelined indefinitely with a concussion. The Hawks also just got Brian Campbell back from injury, but he is still getting back up to speed. Fortunately for them, Chris Campoli has stepped up in Campbell’s absence, and the team is still getting solid goaltending from Corey Crawford.
If one were to bet on the outcome of this race, the Wings would be where to lay the smart money. Seven points is a tough deficit to overcome, even with three games remaining between the clubs. It’s still a competitive race, however, and one definitely worth keeping an eye on.
Phoenix vs. San Jose for the Pacific Division Title
Similarly to the battle for the Central Division crown, the fight for the top spot in the Pacific is going to come down to head-to-head games between the two top teams. Saturday night at Jobing.com Arena will mark the first of three remaining games between the Coyotes and Sharks, and it will go a long way toward deciding who will grab one of the top three seeds in the West.
The Sharks are currently two points ahead of the Coyotes with a game in hand, so unless Phoenix can take at least four of the six points against San Jose, it will be tough to see them grabbing the division crown.
The best thing that Phoenix has going for it is its remaining schedule, with four of the six contests coming at home, including two against the Sharks. They are also a hot team as of late, going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games and winning seven of their last eight games overall. They are a blazing hot team right now, and they seem to be peaking at exactly the right time.
As for the Sharks, they are playing very well as of late too, getting at least one point in 16 of their last 18 games. One worrisome stat is how many shots they are allowing in their past few games, giving up at least 30 shots in five of their last six contests. This could be an indication that their defense is tiring as the season winds down, but fortunately for them goaltender Antti Niemi and the team’s offense have been up to the task.
This division is more open than the Central is at this point, but with a game in hand and a two point lead, San Jose will probably be able to hold onto the top spot.
The Vancouver Canucks are obviously going to be the number one seed, but the remaining spots are still up for grabs. Here are my predictions for how the remaining spots will fall:
1st: Vancouver Canucks
2nd: Phoenix Coyotes
3rd: Detroit Red Wings
4th: San Jose Sharks
5th: Los Angeles Kings
6th: Chicago Blackhawks
7th: Nashville Predators
8th: Anaheim Ducks
9th: Dallas Stars
The Stars are the odd team out in this prediction, simply because of the difficulty of their remaining schedule. Anaheim’s road to the playoffs isn’t exactly easier, but when you look at the five game trip Dallas has coming up, and the momentum boost that the performances of Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne have given the Ducks, it makes sense to slot the Stars in the 9th position.
Whether these predictions are dead-on or completely off, the remaining two weeks in the NHL schedule are going to be full of drama, and that’s great for the game.