Alex Burrows and the Canucks and Jarret Stoll and the Oilers are in the thick of the playoff hunt in the West. (Photo by Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)
Who says there’s a problem with the regular season schedule?
Let’s face it, over an 82-game, six-month season, not every match will be thrilling and have you on the edge of your seat. And not every one will be an end-to-end, free-wheeling spectacle.
OK, so the schedule isn’t perfect. Each team should play in each city and seeing the same divisional foes too often is tiring. But with a finish like the one we’re being treated to in the Northwest Division – not to mention the many other close races going down to the wire – can you really be upset?
Eight points separate the top of the Northwest from the bottom.
And the exciting part about it is nobody plays any of their remaining games outside the division; making for a wild avalanche of canuckle-clenching, oil-burning, rivalry games to take us into the official playoff season.
Whoa, excuse me. I got caught up in the excitement for a second.
If you were to look at the standings today, I’m sure the majority of people would pick Minnesota and Calgary as the two teams most likely to still be alive after Game 82 – Minnesota because of its current standing atop the divisional hill and Calgary mostly for its reputation as a team that thrives in the playoff atmosphere.
But if you look a little more closely, these teams might be the most vulnerable, making this race all the more tantalizing.
The Wild have lost six of eight and although a recent win over the Avs have Minnesota starting the battle on the right foot, it is a long way from winning the war.
The Flames, a team that would be hard to picture on the outside looking in come playoff time, have lost four of six; including losses to teams a clutch club should beat, like Columbus and Atlanta.
And while they struggle, the other three are making a case for their own post-season inclusions.
The Canucks, currently tied with the Flames and Avs, have won five of seven. The problem is they don’t seem to ice the same team every night. One game they get shutout by Phoenix, the next they score four against the Stars. But the Roberto Luongo factor gives them an instant advantage every time they step on the ice.
And how about the Avs? They’re still clinging onto that three-way tie for seeds six, seven and eight and have won eight of their past 11 games, including big wins over Anaheim, Dallas and Vancouver. They are getting healthy and will send a nostalgic chill down the spine of their opponents.
And the Oilers? Sitting on the edge of the off-season abyss, they have suddenly gone on a roll winning 10 of their past 12. They are five points behind the Avs and eight behind the Wild, so it’s a long shot, but if the Oil continue this streak, their playoff dreams are far from over. And hey, stranger things have happened.
The X-Factor lies in the Central Division, however. The Predators have the advantage of playing Columbus, St. Louis and Chicago down the stretch, so they are in a good position to sneak into a slot. And this makes each one of these games that much more important.
Another variable, of course, is the three-point game. Minnesota could technically lose the rest of its games and still sit comfortably in a playoff spot – as long as it loses games in extra time.
I’m looking at this stretch as the first round of the playoffs. Call it the divisional round robin, if you will. The teams that have played well all season long are rewarded (i.e. protected by the three-point games) for their higher standing; the ones below have to overcome odds to upset them.
The regular season schedule isn’t perfect, but then again, nothing in this world is. With the many races and big games to be played down the stretch – especially in the Northwest corner of the hockey world – we should all take our complaints with the system and sit on them…in a bar stool or recliner…with friends and/or a remote close by…and just take in all the action and excitement shaping this year’s quest for the Cup.
This is what it’s all about. Like Easter, the playoffs have come early this year.
Rory Boylen is THN.com's web content specialist. His blog appears Thursdays.
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