Teams have passed the final quarter pole of the regular season and have entered the home stretch sprint. With a month and a half left, two separate races exist. The first is which teams will make the playoffs and which teams will fall just short. This annual drama of musical chairs typically isn’t settled until the final weekend of the regular season. The first category, of course, is really two races: in the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. The second contest involves the push for seeding among the six division leaders.
Regarding the playoff push for teams on the bubble, the race in the Western Conference has never been tighter at this point of the season. All 15 teams have a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. In the West, the top four teams are securely ensconced: division leaders San Jose, Detroit and Calgary plus fourth-seeded Chicago. But no other team is safe, or out of it. At the time of writing, the Colorado Avalanche have a conference-worst 57 points, but are only seven points behind the eighth-seeded Minnesota Wild. The spread between the fifth-seeded Vancouver Canucks and the two teams tied for ninth is just five points.
The Eastern race does not include as many participants, but is no less compelling. The Bruins, Capitals and Devils comfortably lead their respective divisions. But the spread between fourth-seeded Philadelphia and the 10th-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins is seven points. So in essence, seven teams are competing for five slots and fascinating questions abound. Will the storied Canadiens, who had spent most of the season as the fourth seed, plummet out of contention? Will the Florida Panthers make the postseason for the first time in nine years? Will the Rangers, who led their division for most of the season but have been falling like a stone in the ocean, right their ship under new head coach John Tortorella? Is it possible that the Penguins, the defending Eastern Conference Champions, could have the league’s top two scorers and miss the playoffs? Will Carolina miss the postseason for the third consecutive season after winning the Stanley Cup? Can Buffalo hold on despite an injury to goaltender Ryan Miller?
As for the division leaders, they would all like to claim the President’s Trophy and home ice advantage throughout the playoffs. Having Game Seven at home in the 2004 Finals certainly helped the Lightning. But just as significant is securing the top seed in the conference. Upsets regularly occur in the playoffs, but in my opinion, San Jose, Detroit, Boston, Washington, New Jersey, Calgary and Chicago have shown that they are a cut above the rest of the pack. So let’s assume that all of those teams get past their first round opponents. In the East, if Boston can hold onto the top seed, then the Bruins wouldn’t see the Caps or Devils until the Conference Finals and Washington and New Jersey would have to meet in the second round. Furthermore, Boston would get home ice in that Conference Final series. The West presents a slightly different wrinkle because fourth-seeded Chicago ranks among the top teams, so the top seed would get the Blackhawks in the second round. But Sharks and Red Wings are the cream of the crop in the West and barring a shocking upset, they figure to meet in the Conference Finals. Both have been dominant at home and earning the top seed would mean home ice advantage in that series.
Trades made at the deadline could certainly affect both the playoff push and the race for the top seed. But the activity on March 5 should only enhance the drama, not diminish it.