As the season winds down and teams vie for optimum playoff positioning, there are several enthralling battles that take place. In a league ripe with parity, many teams know not their playoff fate until the final days of the regular season. The West, arguably the more competitive of the 2 conferences, is currently playing host to 3 unique struggles. The Pacific division is up for grabs, the final 2 playoff seeds are in question, and the coveted 4th spot is being hotly contested for. It’s that last battle that the Detroit Red Wings find themselves in the midst of.
The other teams in contention? Familiar Central Division rivals in the Nashville Predators and Chicago Blackhawks. Following Saturday’s NHL action, the tight race looked like this:
As you can see, the 3 teams find themselves all within a 3 point spread from 92-95 points after 75 games as they desperately try to climb over one another for the highest seed they’ll reach (while the St. Louis Blues have not yet clinched the Central, it is highly unlikely they will be caught), but are they really that desperate?
The NHL’s current playoff seeding system automatically sits each of the division winners in one of the top 3 spots of the conference. This is how the Dallas Stars, leaders of the Pacific Division, can be seeded in 3rd with 87 points despite 3 other teams having higher point totals than they do. You are rewarded for conquering your division, but does that reward potentially punish the team that finishes in 4th? According to some, it does.
Should Detroit finish in the 4th place slot, they will be forced to take on the 5th place team. That team will almost assuredly have more points than the team that finishes in 3rd place, making them an arguably more difficult opponent to face. With this information in mind, why wouldn’t Detroit intentionally attempt to position themselves in 6th place in order to face an “easier” opponent as so many have suggested? It boils down to 3 things.
Home Ice Advantage
The Red Wings are kings on home ice this season, going 29-5-2, the 2nd best home record in the NHL. Comparatively, they’re just 16-20-3 on the road, 19th in the NHL. With numbers like that, it would seem a no-brainer to covet such an advantage, but there’s even more to it than that.
Taking a glance at the rest of the home records across the NHL you’ll find that just 6 teams have a losing record at home this season (not coincidently, they’re also the bottom 6 teams in the league). Home ice advantage still matters in the NHL. Any 3rd seeded team the Wings could face will have a winning home record. And what if Detroit were to flub up their standing drop and finish in 5th?
Then they’d be forced to face either a Chicago or Nashville team that possesses home ice advantage. Why is that so scary? They’re 2 of the top 6 teams on home ice this season (26-7-5 & 24-9-5 respectively).
The difficult travel for teams in the Western Conference is not something to be glossed over lightly. In fact, aside from the relocation of the Atlanta Trashers, it was one of the main reasons for the proposed (and then rejected) NHL realignment plan. Extensive travel takes a toll on your body, and like anything else, that toll is often more quickly felt the older a player is. Detroit just so happens to be the oldest team in the league.
Playing Chicago or Nashville means incredibly light travel in the Western Conference Quarterfinals. That is, incredibly light when compared to their potential Pacific Division opponents in Dallas, Los Angeles, San Jose, and Phoenix.
In a 7 game series with Chicago, Detroit would travel in total roughly 1,150 miles. That’s about half of the distance one trip to face the Los Angeles Kings would be. In a 7 game series with the Kings, the miles traveled total would top 11,400.
No team in the league is easy to beat these days. The salary capped NHL is more competitive than ever in 2012, and no series is a sure win by any stretch of the imagination. Add to that the fact that any team sneaking into that 3rd place spot will be coming into the playoffs hot, and you’ve got a whole different monster on your hands.
Detroit possess a winning record against every division in the West. Chicago & Nashville are 9-9-2 and 10-8-1 against Pacific Division teams respectively. Either the teams in the Pacific are better than their given credit for, or Nashville and Chicago aren’t quite so fearful. Either way, the argument made isn’t very compelling; The possible teams Detroit could face are all on par with one another.
The Bottom Line
No first round match up is going to be a cake walk for Detroit despite their winning record against every division in the West.They can either fight for the 2 factors that will assuredly help them (lighter travel & home ice advantage) or they can slip to 6th on the veiled hope that their opponent will somehow be easier to face, along the way learning bad habits and losing momentum when they need it the most. The idea that Detroit would prefer to be the 6th seed come April 8th is ludicrous, and isn’t worth entertaining in any fashion.