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West playoff race ridiculously tight

by John Tranchina / Dallas Stars

Entering play on Jan. 10, the Dallas Stars sat in 13th place in the Western Conference standings, still trying to climb out of the deep hole they dug themselves with a sub-par October and November. 

Despite playing well throughout December, fashioning an 8-4-1 month, they were still buried behind several other teams and looked way up at the eighth and final playoff spot.

But following a 9-2-2 run over the next month, Dallas had shot up into fifth. A 1-0 loss to Phoenix last Wednesday, however, dropped them to seventh, then another victory Friday pushed them back up to fifth. And as of Sunday morning, following a 6-2 defeat in Chicago Saturday evening, the Stars remained in fifth with 61 points, although they were tied with two other clubs, against whom they own the tie-breaker. But Dallas is also just one point up on the ninth-place Vancouver Canucks, who had been in seventh before losing 2-1 to the Stars Friday. 

Got all that? 

Yes, the extremely crowded Western Conference playoff push can be dizzying to follow and literally changes every day. By the time the Stars take the ice again Monday in Columbus (6 pm start, my27), they could be in seventh and if they happen to lose that night to a Blue Jackets squad that also has 61 points, Dallas could very well find themselves in ninth by Tuesday morning.

It’s that close and every game is critical.

“Of course, you’re looking at the standings, it’s a tight group there who’s battling for the playoffs, and it was a huge two points for us,” winger Loui Eriksson said after the Stars beat the Canucks Friday. “We’ve got to keep going.”

“I think this is going to be a tight race right to the end, every point is going to be very valuable,” Stars coach Dave Tippett said. “You just have so many teams involved in the race right now, you can’t let your guard down. Our guys, we’ve talked about it at length and we know that every game is such a huge game that you can’t take any steps backward.”

As Tippett noted, what makes this season’s playoff push in the West so amazing is that so many clubs are still in it. For example, 10th-place Minnesota is just two points back of fifth-place Dallas, Nashville is in 11th, but three points back of eighth and four back of fifth. 

Phoenix is 13th with 55 points, five out of a playoff spot, although less than three weeks ago, they were in sixth, before a 1-8-0 slump caused them to plummet. 

Overall, just six points separate nine teams, four of which will make the playoffs, ranging from fifth place through 13th. Even last place Colorado isn’t hopeless, still within striking distance nine points behind eighth-place Edmonton. 

“The thing is, even like 14th place, even 15th, if you look at it, everybody’s still in it,” Dallas defenseman Stephane Robidas said. “If you look at it from a fan’s standpoint, every team’s still in it, so every game means something. It’s more like the playoffs, and you look at the way the games have been played, after the All-Star break usually the pace starts picking up another notch and we’ve seen it lately. I think we’re going to see a lot of tight games, because there’s a lot of teams that are still in it. Everybody wants to make it. I think it’s going to be tight and for the fans, I think it’s just great for the sport.”

Comparing the West race to the Eastern Conference demonstrates just how remarkable the bunched-up West really is. While the East has eighth-place Buffalo just three points back of fourth-place Philadelphia, teams nine and 10 (Carolina and Pittsburgh) sit five points behind the Sabres. 

Toronto is currently in 11th, but at this point, can be considered out of the race, a full 12 points out of a post-season slot. That means with about 25 games left in the season, it doesn’t look like the East playoff race will hold much drama - perhaps plenty of jockeying for seeding, but teams 11-15 are already pretty much out of contention. 

Meanwhile, in the West one victory can jump a team up two or three slots or, conversely, one defeat can cause a drop in the standings. Put a streak together, as both Dallas and Phoenix have each recently demonstrated in opposite directions, and a team can dramatically alter their positioning.

“We proved that things can change with a good two weeks,” center Brad Richards noted. “It’s probably going to go down to the last week of the regular season. So many things can happen, teams are playing each other so much, you can gain on each other very quickly. I’m sure the coaching staff and our leadership group, we’re going to keep hammering details every day, a lot of hard work and focus. We’re going to have to get our rest and it’s going to be a lot of fun. This is what makes it fun coming down the stretch.” 

One other by-product of the race is that, with the NHL’s trade deadline approaching just over three weeks from now on March 4, the landscape is significantly different than in past years. If things remain as close as they are now, there will be very few ‘sellers’-  likely just those five bottom Eastern clubs - while everyone else could still be looking to improve their club to take a shot at the playoffs. That could make for some interesting bidding wars for the few available players and will probably mean few trades will be consummated.

Also, with so many clubs involved, almost every game is against another team in the midst of the race, which places even more importance on each contest. That has led to the intensity ratcheting up another notch and that means near-playoff hockey a good two months before the post-season kicks off.

And with so many bubble teams playing each other every night, the three-point game now plays a major role as well. With clubs that lose in overtime or a shootout also gaining a point, sometimes it seems like everybody is gaining ground, whether they win or lose.

“Personally, I go every day and look what the standings look like, it’s pretty tight,” Robidas acknowledged. “But I think for us, the best thing as a group is not to look too much at the standings, focus on one game at a time and trying to bring our ‘A game’ every night. Those games, against teams in that group, they’re like four-point games, it’s big. But for us, we have to focus on one game at a time - that’s the only thing you can focus on.”

For the Stars, who spent so much of the first half languishing among the bottom rungs of the West standings, their recent climb has been especially gratifying. Now the big challenge is to remain there and keep pushing forward.

“The standings have been in our sight lines for quite some time now just because of the reality of the situation - we’re still in a clump of teams that can be in the playoffs or won’t be in the playoffs,” goaltender Marty Turco said. “And I think we’ve had enough lows this year not to let ourselves get that feeling back or feel sorry for ourselves. It’s just one game at a time regardless of who we’re playing or where we’re at in the standings and I think that’s been a big benefit of our recent success.”

Unfortunately for the Stars, who were seven points behind fourth-place Chicago before Saturday, they missed a big chance to continue gaining ground. Instead of moving five points behind and separating a little from the other teams bunched in the race, their 6-2 loss to the Blackhawks left them nine back of fourth.

“You’re always thinking moving ahead, you never want to look back now,” Tippett said before the game. “I look at it, now we’ve just got it stabilized, we got ourselves back in (playoff) position, now we’ve got to push farther ahead and we have the capabilities of doing that. I think there’s still a lot of room for our team to grow.”

As Tippett points out, now that they’ve clawed their way out of the hole they dug for themselves early on, the key is to stop keeping such a close watch on the standings, because if the Stars play the way they’re capable of, they should be just fine.

“Our whole focus is to play to our capabilities,” Tippett said. “If we do that, we think we can be a good playoff team. The first part of that is to make the playoffs, but if you start looking, ‘Let’s catch them, let’s stay ahead of them,’ you lose your focus on what you’re doing a little bit. If we play the way we can, we think that the results will take care of themselves.”

And for hockey fans not just in Dallas but all across the West, buckle your seat belts, it’s going to be an exciting finish.

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