Calgary Flames' Matthew Tkachuk chases a loose puck against the St. Louis Blues.
Five teams are in a neck-and-neck battle for the Western wild-card spots, and at stake is the chance to avoid a gruelling trip through the Central Division.
The Calgary Flames' past two wins have been huge. On Monday, Calgary downed the Colorado Avalanche and the two points kept the Flames right in the thick of things in an incredibly tight Pacific Division race. It also helped Calgary keep pace after the Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks picked up crucial points over the weekend.
Maybe more important, though, was the Flames’ Saturday victory over the Blues, which, paired with Monday's win, has kept Calgary two points clear of St. Louis for the top wild-card spot in the Western Conference.
Much has been written about the Eastern Conference wild-card race this season because of how incredibly tight the five-team race for the final spot has become. There’s also been much said about the way the playoff seeding will work in the East, with the New York Rangers likely crossing over into the Atlantic Division for what could be the opening two rounds of the playoffs. The benefit there is entirely for the Rangers. There’s no “easy” road to the conference final, but the fight through the Atlantic looks much easier than through the top-three in the Metropolitan, which consists of three of the league’s four 100-point teams.
And for similar reasons, there could be a big benefit to the team that finishes with the top spot in the Western wild-card race. As it stands, the top wild-card team won’t be tasked with heading into the Central Division for the first round of the playoffs, but instead head into battle against the best in the Pacific. Is it an easy road? No, but one could argue it’s the easier — and more wide open — of the two.
For much of the second half of the campaign, the Chicago Blackhawks have been one of the league’s more dominant teams. In fact, since Jan. 1, the Blackhawks’ 52 points are second only to the league-leading Washington Capitals. The Blackhawks’ offense has been firing on all cylinders, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Artemi Panarin have come alive and the fresh faces in the lineup are starting to hit their stride. Even after dropping back-to-back games in Florida over the past three days, Chicago is still considered among the class of the West.
And even if a team drawing the Blackhawks in the opening round happens to win the series, there’s a fair chance the Minnesota Wild will be waiting on the other side. The Wild have come back down to earth over the past few months after an outstanding start, but Minnesota still boasts a deep roster that is capable of catching fire at the right time. Emerging from the Central to get into the Western final would be hard enough if one of the two was on the docket, but getting to round three is likely going to require beating both the Wild and Blackhawks.
So, while the Pacific isn’t the “easier” path, per se, it might offer a greater chance of success. As such, the race for the top wild-card spot in the West will be one to watch, and it’s hard to handicap who will wind up taking the spot come the post-season.
Heading into Tuesday’s action, the Flames have what could be the toughest road ahead, but the difficulty could come with great reward. Calgary’s six remaining games are against opponents who have an average of 87.3 points in the standings and each game is against a divisional opponent — they’ll play twice against each of the Sharks, Ducks and Kings. Playing two opponents who they’re in direct competition with for both the divisional and wild-card spots gives the Flames the opportunity to make up ground and possibly surpass their Pacific rivals in the standings. Or, you know, it could have the exact opposite effect. Luckily for Calgary, a recent rise up the standings paired with solid goaltending from Brian Elliott has the Flames hitting their stride at the right time.
San Jose finds themselves in a similar situation, facing opponents with an average of 85.1 points, but the issue is that unlike Calgary, the Sharks can’t seem to piece together a victory. They’ve dropped their past six games and head into a section of their schedule where they’ll have to face the Rangers once, Oilers twice and Flames twice. There are, however, two very winnable games against the Vancouver Canucks.
That leaves the Oilers as the only other team with designs on either the top wild-card berth or a divisional seed in the Pacific, and the schedule may actually benefit Edmonton. Over their final seven games, the average point total for opponents is 71.4. A pair of games against both of the Canucks and struggling Los Angeles Kings gives the Oilers a real shot at taking eight points, while two meetings with the Sharks and one with the Ducks offer the chance to make up any lost ground.
This is to say nothing of the two Central teams fighting for the top wild-card spot, though. The Blues and Nashville Predators are within a point of each other in the battle for the final divisional spot in the division, but the easier route for either team might come through landing atop the wild-card race. For both the Blues and Predators, finishing in the top wild-card spot would have a similar effect as it would the Rangers in the East, which is to say St. Louis or Nashville could cross over into the Pacific.
In the fight for playoff positioning, the Predators will face a strength of schedule similar to that of the Sharks. Nashville’s opponents for their final seven games have an average of 83.1 points, and the Predators will face everyone from Eastern wild-card teams to middling Western teams. However, like Chicago, Nashville has been hot in the back half of the season. The only teams with more points are the Blackhawks and Capitals.
St. Louis, though, will have the benefit of facing the weakest competition. Two games against the Avalanche should give the Blues a good shot at four points while a meeting with the 29th-place Arizona Coyotes sets the table for three wins in seven games to close out the Blues’ season, and the average opponent boasts a mere 67.1 point total. Though, earning a berth into the Central might not be the best-case scenario for St. Louis.
Unlike the Eastern Conference, where it actually worked in the Rangers’ favor to drop a few games here and there as the campaign draws to a close, every point is still going to be incredibly important in the West because there’s now a two-pronged race. The first is for the Pacific teams to maintain a spot in their division and end up facing their divisional foes come playoff time. The other is for Central teams to keep pace and potentially earn the top-wild card berth with the ability to cross over.
It may not be the traditional wild-card race with teams on the outside looking in, but the movement in the Western wild-card over the next two weeks go a long way in determining who we see battle it out in a best-of-seven for the conference crown.
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