After 81 hard-fought games by both Chicago and Dallas, it will take the final day of the regular season to settle the final standings in the wild Western Conference.
The key game will be Sunday's clash between the Detroit Red Wings
the Blackhawks (12:30 p.m. ET, NBC, TSN) at the United Center. The Hawks can clinch a playoff spot and avoid becoming the fifth team in the expansion era to miss the postseason one season after winning the Stanley Cup by picking up a point against the Wings, or having the Dallas Stars
lose to the Minnesota Wild
(6 p.m. ET, NHLN-US, NHLN-CA) in the final game of the 2010-11 season.
Two points for the Blackhawks also could move them all the way to fifth place in the conference. How long it takes them to get that win, though, will be significant.
A win in regulation or overtime would give the Blackhawks 99 points, the same as fourth-place Anaheim, fifth-place Nashville and sixth-place Phoenix. However, the Ducks would remain fourth based on their 43 regulation/overtime wins, the first tiebreaker in the final standings. A regulation/overtime win for the Hawks on Sunday would give them 39 regulation and overtime wins, one more than Nashville and Phoenix, and place the Hawks fifth.
In that scenario the Predators would slide to sixth, the Coyotes to seventh. The Predators would stay ahead of the Coyotes based on the final tiebreaker, goal differential; the teams split four regulation games during the regular season, but Nashville had a plus-25 goal differential, compared to Phoenix's plus-5.
Where things get tricky is if Chicago wins in a shootout, which would leave four teams tied with 99 points. The Ducks would remain fourth based on their advantage in regulation/overtime wins. What about Chicago, Nashville and Phoenix? All three would have 99 points and 38 regulation/overtime wins.
According to League rules, if more than two clubs are tied in points and regulation/overtime victories, the next tiebreaker is points percentage in games among the three clubs.
Under that format, Chicago would finish fifth, based on going 3-1-2 against Nashville and 2-1-1 against Phoenix for a total of 13 points out of a possible 20 (.650 points percentage).
The rule applies to all teams, so the Coyotes would jump to sixth based on their 2-1-1 record against the Blackhawks and 2-2-0 mark against Nashville, giving them nine points out of 16 (.563). Nashville would finish seventh after going 3-3-0 against the Blackhawks and 2-2-0 against the Coyotes for a total of 10 points out of 20 (.500).
The fifth-place team will open the playoffs against fourth-place Anaheim. The team that finishes sixth will start against third-seeded Detroit, and whoever ends up seventh will open against second-seeded San Jose.
If the Blackhawks lose in overtime or a shootout Sunday, they would have 98 points, the same as the Los Angeles Kings
, but the Blackhawks would win the tiebreaker and finish seventh; the Hawks have 38 regulation/overtime wins, two more than the Kings' 36.
A Blackhawks loss, combined with a Stars loss of any kind, would leave the Blackhawks eighth in the conference with 97 points and an opening-round series against the Presidents' Trophy-winning Vancouver Canucks
If the Stars win in regulation or overtime and the Hawks lose in regulation, the teams would be tied with 97 points and 38 regulation/overtime victories, but the Stars' season would continue based on their 3-1-0 regular-season record against the Blackhawks.
And that would leave the 2010-11 Blackhawks in the same club as the 2006-07 Carolina Hurricanes
, 1995-96 New Jersey Devils
, 1969-70 Montreal Canadiens
and 1967-68 Toronto Maple Leafs
as teams that never got a chance to defend the Stanley Cup in the following postseason.
Contact Adam Kimelman at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK