Coming off of a fantastic week for Bluejacket hockey, last night notwithstanding, and with 12 games to go (the Dirty Dozen), it is an appropriate time to revisit where things stand in the playoff hunt.
First, let's look at the projected standings, based upon every team playing at the same pace they have played from Day 1 through last night. Obviously, by this point in the season, this becomes more accurate, as the opportunity to move the numbers hugely in any direction are fairly limited, and various hot and cold spells have been accounted for. Top 3 seeds are reserved for division winners, regardless of point totals.
1. San Jose 121 points
2. Detroit 118 points
3. Calgary 102 points
4. Chicago 102 points
5. Vancouver 98 points
6. Columbus 91 points
7. Edmonton 88 points
8. Dallas 88 points
9. Nashville 87 points
10. Minnesota 86 points
11. St. Louis 86 points
12. Anaheim 83 points
13. Los Angeles 82 points
14. Colorado 74 points
15. Phoenix 74 points
So, the final two qualifying slots are hovering right in that 87-88-89 point area where they have been for awhile, and are likely to stay there. Assuming that the top 5 (San Jose, Detroit, Calgary, Chicago, Vancouver) are in the playoffs, let's look at the contenders for the final 3 spots, and what faces them down the stretch.
In looking at this, I tried to quantify games remaining, games against the top echelon teams (defined as teams with more than 80 points right now), home road games, etc. One factor that also needs to be considered is the "games in hand" concept, which at this point in the year cuts both ways. Of the 7 contenders (Columbus, Edmonton, Dallas, Nashville, Minnesota, St. Louis & Anaheim), all have played 69 games except the Bluejackets (70), and the Oilers (68). The Bluejackets have just finished a tough string of games, and now get some breaks between games. The other teams are just embarking on those strings, so will be coping with fatigue along with playoff pressure. Finally, the analysis includes what each team needs to do to reach 90 points. Although the 8th spot will likely fall at 88, 90 provides a good standard for comparison purposes. Here is the skinny:
Bluejackets -- 78 points, 12 games left, 6 home 6 road, 5 games vs. elite teams. The Jackets have 3 remaining with Chicago (1-1-1 so far), 3 with St. Louis (1-2-0 so far) and 2 with Nashville (2-2-0 so far). Nothing easy, but no more killer road trips, and just need 6-6 record to reach 90 points. Health is good, schedule provides rest, we have a bit of a bulge, so things are better than we could have expected heading into the Dirty Dozen.
Edmonton -- 73 points, 14 games left, 8 home 6 road, 6 games vs. elite teams. While the Oilers have a good home/road mix and 2 games in hand, they also have a brutal schedule. Starting tomorrow, they play 8 games in 12 days, and still have the Sharks, Flames, Canucks, Blackhawks and Red Wings on the schedule. Need an 8 -5 -1 record to reach 90 points, which will require them to really bear down coming home. They are 3-2-5 in their last 10.
Dallas-- 74 points, 13 games left, 5 home 8 road, 5 games vs. elite teams. The Stars have been up and down more than a see saw this year. Without Brad Richards, they are searching for scoring help, and Turco has been hot and cold of late. They are just about .500 on the road, which they will need to improve upon down the stretch. Need 8 - 5 - 0 or 7 - 4 - 2 to reach 90 points, which will be tough with 5 vs. San Jose, Calgary and Vancouver on the slate.
Nashville -- 73 points, 13 games left, 5 home 8 road, 6 vs. elite teams. Nashville had a nice surge to get themselves into contention, but face a road-heavy schedule coming home, including 2 on the road in Detroit, and home & home series with Chicago and San Jose. They need 8 - 4 - 1 to reach 90 points, which will be a tall order. They are 7 - 2- 1 for the last 10, but only 2-2-1 in the last 5. They start a 3 game California road trip tonight, including a wicked Anaheim-San Jose back-to-back on Wednesday & Thursday. They also have to improve on their NHL rank of 27th in scoring, as you can't rely exclusively on defense and goaltending down the stretch.
Minnesota -- 72 points, 13 games left, 6 home 7 road, 6 vs. elite teams. The Wild are an enigma, in the sense that they have a terrific goal differential number (177 Goals for, 172 Goals against -- 12 in the NHL on a per game basiis). However, the overall numbers don't support enough scoring to translate into necessary wins. They are 26th in the league in scoring which puts huge pressure on Backstrom in goal, and upon the defense. They need a 9 - 4 record to reach 90, and face an East Coast swing, with games against the Devils, Rangers and Islanders, on top of remaining games with Vancouver, Calgary, Chicago, Detroit.
St. Louis -- 72 points, 13 games left, 4 home 9 road, 5 vs. elite teams. After being an after-thought for most of the season, St. Louis has made a nice run to get their name in the playoff conversation. Unfortunately, their run came at the expense of home games, as they have only 4 left at Scottrade Center, and 2 of those are against the Jackets. Remaining road games against Vancouver, Calgary, Chicago, Detroit will make it tough for them to reach the promised land. Like Minnesota, need a 9 - 4 record to reach 90.
Anaheim -- 70 points, 13 games left, 6 home 7 road, 3 vs elite teams. Anaheim is right on the fringe of contender status, but needs to be included due to their schedule. Just about an even split between home and road, and only 3 games against elite teams. They face Phoenix and Colorado a total of 5 times, and have another 5 against Nashville, Edmonton and Dallas. 2 against the Sharks and 1 in Vancouver round it out. Still, Anaheim needs a 10-3 record coming home to reach 90, which looks fairly undoable, particularly since ownership sent white flag sounds out at the trade deadline. Still a proud organization, but one that is probably more focused on retooling than on mounting a serious playoff run this year.
Finally, keep in mind that these 7 teams have a total of 91 games left, 35 of which are among each other. This is one of the big reasons the Jackets current advantage is so big -- very difficult to make big jumps in the standings at this time of year, particularly in the West. Also, keep in mind that for the Jackets to miss the playoffs, 3 teams would have to play well enough to pass them and take the 6 through 8 spots. Anything is possible, but not very likely, considering the difficulties each team has in its schedule, and the character the Jackets have shown to date. Only twice this year have the Jackets gone 3 games without a point, and that was under vastly different circumstances than now.
Put it all together, here is how I see the Western Playoff Race right now:
1. San Jose
11. St. Louis
13. Los Angeles
Go Jackets !!