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No one really knows

by Jeff Paterson / Vancouver Canucks
Like the weather forecasters who just happened to miss the fact Metro Vancouver was going to be blanketed by snow earlier in the week – whoops! – hockey prognosticators appear to have missed the mark as well.

For most of the season, conventional wisdom has suggested – and many pundits have concurred – that it would take 92, and perhaps as many as 94, points for a team to make the playoffs in the National Hockey League’s Western Conference. But a closer look at the numbers and some quick math reveals a much different story.

As things stand with a month to go in the regular season, not one of the teams below the Vancouver Canucks in the playoff chase is on pace for even 90 points and none of the teams currently outside of the top eight in the west is on pace for more than 88 points.

And considering the fact that all of the teams chasing the Canucks still play each other a handful of times, it appears that it will be difficult for eight teams to reach that 88 point mark. That means it could take a few as 87 points to make the playoffs. Let’s use the Minnesota Wild as an example:

Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

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Minnesota has 69 points with 17 games remaining. The Wild has played slightly better than .500 hockey all season, so there is no reason to think things will change dramatically over the final few weeks. If the Wild goes 9-8 over its remaining games, it’ll secure 18 of a possible 34 points giving it 87 for the season.

Now, it’s quite possible that Minnesota will win more than nine games the rest of the way. But if it does, then there is a every likelihood that it will wind up winning remaining games against teams like Dallas, Edmonton and Nashville which are all in the same predicament as the Wild – desperately fighting for one of those playoff berths. And if Minnesota beats Dallas or Edmonton or Nashville, then those are games that those other teams will not win and points they won’t secure in the standings.

Oh sure, there is always the possibility of overtime and there will be those instances where both teams grab at least a single point. But at a time of the season where every point is crucial, even if games are decided beyond regulation time, it means someone is leaving at least one very valuable point on the table.

And just look at all the juicy match-ups that remain on the schedule. Minnesota still has two games left with both Dallas and Edmonton and single games remaining against Nashville, Dallas and Columbus. The Predators face both Anaheim and Columbus twice while Edmonton has a pair of games remaining against the Ducks. And there are a host of single games remaining involving two teams chasing the Canucks in the standings. Again, both teams can’t win on the same night which means there are really fewer points available than it would appear. That’s what makes it so difficult for several teams to make up ground over the final few weeks of the season.

For a team like Anaheim with 68 points and just 15 games remaining, the Ducks find themselves needing to win 10 of their final 15 just to reach 88 points on the season which might be good enough to be in the mix come season’s end. But winning 10 of 15 is bound to be a tall order considering only eight of Anaheim’s final 15 games are on home ice.

Minnesota has seven of its remaining 17 games on home ice while both Dallas and Nashville – currently tied with 70 points -- will play seven of their final 16 at home. The Edmonton Oilers have the most-favourable schedule of the teams currently straddling the playoff bar. Not only do the Oilers have more games remaining than the Ducks, Preds or Stars, they also play 10 of their final 17 games at Rexall Place.

Of course, from a Canuck standpoint, they still have a number of games remaining against almost all of those teams trying to reel them in – two with both Anaheim and Dallas and singles against Minnesota and Edmonton. The surest way for Alain Vigneault’s club to distance itself from the pack is to win the majority of those head to head match-ups.

After their 3-2 loss in Los Angeles on Monday, the Canucks hopes of keeping the heat on Chicago -- in the battle for home ice in the first round of the playoffs -- and possibly even the Calgary Flames -- in the race for the Northwest Division title and the third seed that goes along with it – took a hit. Just like the teams below them in the standings, the Canucks are running out of time to make up sizeable gaps in the standings.

With 17 games to go, the Canucks are now in a position where if they go 10-7 over their remaining games, they’d wind up with 96 points. That means the Blackhawks would need 15 points from their final 18 games (7-10-1) and the Flames would need 12 points over their final 16 (6-10) to match.

It’s highly unlikely that good teams like those are going to struggle that badly down the stretch.

In reality, it would likely take something along the lines of a 14-3 finish for the Canucks to catch Calgary – and even that may not be enough. Considering the Canucks are currently on a 14-3 run over their past 17 games, they’ve shown it can be done, but they’d be a longshot at best to repeat that remarkable run to close out their schedule.

It serves the Canucks well to set their goals high and to keep the Hawks and Flames in their sight. But in reality, the Canucks immediate goal has to be to fend off the chasers and make sure they lock up a spot in the top eight.

And if, as it appears, the total it’s going to take to make the playoffs is likely to be 87 or 88 instead of 92 or 94, then the forecast for playoff hockey in Vancouver this spring looks good – although as the weather watchers proved earlier in the week, no one can ever really know for sure.
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