Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 17, 2011

Dwindling Schedule Makes For Desperate Days

With the NHL regular season entering its final three weeks most of the media focus is on the handful of elite teams at the top of the standings. After underperforming for much of the season, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have gotten hot at the right time. Prior to coming up short 3-2 at Detroit on Wednesday night, the Caps had run off nine consecutive victories to move into second place in the Eastern Conference. The Philadelphia Flyers, last season’s Stanley Cup runner-up, continue to lead the East as they have virtually all season.

Close behind the Flyers and Caps are the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Bruins continue their season of extremes. After looking very much like an elite team during an impressive 6-0-0 road trip, the offensively-challenged Bruins went into yet another goal-scoring swoon and dropped four games in a row before stopping the slide with a win at Columbus on Tuesday. Meanwhile Pittsburgh has managed to hang around near the top of the standings despite the lengthy absence of Sidney Crosby, still recovering from a concussion, and a season-ending injury to star forward Evgeni Malkin. With their two leading scorers sidelined, the Penguins have relied on solid defense. Among Eastern Conference teams, only the Bruins have allowed fewer goals.

Out west everyone is looking up at Vancouver. The Canucks, who in 40 NHL seasons have never won a Stanley Cup, lead the league with 103 points through play on Wednesday. They passed the 100-point threshold at the beginning of the week, making them the fastest team in NHL history to reach that season-long milestone. Sporting a gaudy +62 goal differential, Vancouver is solid on both offense and defense. Perennial contender Detroit sits in second place in the Western Conference. As they showed by stopping the red-hot Capitals, the Red Wings remain one of the league’s best teams.

But for all of the focus on the teams at the top of the standings, the real pressure during the regular season’s closing weeks is on those squads in the middle of the pack. With eight teams from each conference going to the playoffs, the race for the final few spots is fierce and frantic. It can also be consequential, as the Flyers showed last year when they went all the way to the Finals after squeezing into the playoffs as the 7th seed on the very last day of the regular season.

In the Eastern Conference eight points separate six teams, from the 7th place New York Rangers to the 12th place Atlanta Thrashers. The race in the Western Conference is even more desperate. At this point only the three division leaders, Vancouver, Detroit, and San Jose can really feel safe. From the 4th place Los Angeles Kings with 85 points down to the 11th place Minnesota Wild with 77, eight franchises are fighting for one of five available playoff spots.

For the teams that are currently in 8th place or better every win over the final ten or twelve games brings the goal of post-season play that much closer. As long as these teams win, their players don’t have to watch the scoreboard to see how their pursuers are doing. For New York and Buffalo, currently 7th and 8th in the East, and for the quintet of Los Angeles, Phoenix, Chicago, Dallas, and Anaheim in the West, the status quo works just fine.

For those teams currently on the outside wins are of course essential, but so is getting some help. As the number of games remaining dwindles, assistance can sometimes come in the shape of each team’s schedule. Unfortunately for the Eastern Conference pursuers, the relative strength of schedule over the final three weeks appears to favor the Rangers and Sabres. At least on paper they have the two easiest schedules of the six teams fighting for the final playoff berths. On the other hand New Jersey and Atlanta, the two Eastern Conference teams still on the fringe of contention some six points behind Buffalo, have the two most difficult schedules. Each must skate a third of their remaining games against division-leading teams; and both get just two matches against the really bad, sub .500 teams that bring up the rear of the standings.

It’s a different story in the Western Conference. There if the season ended today the Calgary Flames and their fans would have plenty of reason to be bitter. Calgary is actually tied with 8th place Anaheim with 81 points, but would lose out on the final playoff spot under the NHL’s tie-breaking formula. However the Flames have what appears to be the easiest schedule of all of the teams fighting for a playoff spot in either conference, with half of their remaining contests against cellar-dwellers. Conversely, the Ducks have the toughest schedule among playoff contenders; though they do have the clear ability to control their own fate. Nine of Anaheim’s remaining twelve games are against teams that are also contending. Every win that the Ducks can notch in those games not only boosts them, but directly denies one of the teams with whom they are in fierce competition.

Of course, what should happen based on team records and what does happen on the ice are often two different things. There is always a reason for playing the games. Three weeks ago the Capitals were in 5th place in the East. Today they have visions of winning the Conference. Three weeks ago the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks were tied for 9th in the West, and fighting to avoid becoming just the third champion to miss the next year’s playoffs in 41 years. While they’re not safe yet, winning 16 of a possible 20 points over their last ten games has propelled them up to 6th place.

While some will wilt down the stretch, at least one of these middle of the pack hockey teams will likely thrive under the intense pressure of the season’s final weeks and close with a rush. Entering the post-season on a roll and believing in themselves, don’t be surprised if that group of skaters, like the Flyers of last season, just keeps on rushing deep into the battle for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

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