If you were expecting to find a bit more clarity on the Western Conference wild card race since the last time we spoke in this space, well… you’re not going to find that here. The playoff picture, in terms of which will be the last couple teams to sneak in, remains as blurry as ever with eight or nine games remaining, depending on the team.
The clubs in the top three spots in each division—Winnipeg, Nashville, and St. Louis in the stacked Central, and Calgary, San Jose, and Vegas in the topsy turvy Pacific—seem to be pretty well set, though there is a slim chance we’ll see some jockeying in position. Watching those teams has become a bit less enthralling at this point, as the fun of hockey around this time of year is to keep your eyes on the teams that are fighting for their playoff lives.
What’s odd is that we’re still in this situation where the teams rounding out the bottom of the playoff field continue to lack any obvious desire to actually earn a postseason berth. Whatever team is left standing in the final spot when the dust settles will almost surely be viewed as backing in to some degree, as none of the four teams left battling has been willing to take control of the situation. And yet, Colorado, Arizona, Minnesota, and Chicago could all potentially find their way in.
Dallas still feels like the favorite to take the top wild card spot, especially after it managed to give itself a little cushion with a crucial win over Florida on Tuesday. Tyler Seguin notched four points that night and is now up to 70, a pretty solid season for a guy who was publicly and deliberately called horses**t by team CEO Jim Lites earlier this year. The Stars also have apparently dodged a bullet after Ben Bishop—who left Dallas’s game against Minnesota last week with a lower body injury—has played the last two games. Bishop had just set a franchise record for longest shutout streak and is having an incredible season, so losing him long-term, something that has derailed this team in the past, could have spelled disaster. Dallas did lose to Colorado on Thursday, but with a four-point lead for the top wild card spot, the Stars should get in.
Speaking of Colorado, guess who snuck back into the playoff bubble for the first time in months with that win over Dallas. We all know this is a top-heavy team, with Nathan MacKinnon (37 goals, 54 assists, 91 points), Mikko Rantanen (31-56=87), and Gabe Landeskog (33-36=69) doing almost all of the offensive lifting. But Landeskog went down with an upper body injury on March 8th after running into Bishop. The Avalanche captain is expected to miss at least four weeks, which would carry us to the end of the season. Even without a third of their top line, though, Colorado is suddenly finding ways to win, and has come away with three gigantic victories in a row over New Jersey, Minnesota, and now Dallas. Colorado is even in points with Arizona, but tiebreakers have moved the Avs back into the final spot for now.
Crossing over to the Pacific, the Coyotes have every bit as good of a chance to sneak in as the Avalanche, but they did lose a crusher in Tampa Bay on Monday, then followed that up with another disappointing defeat to Florida on Thursday. This team just doesn’t score a ton of goals (Alex Galchenyuk and Brad Richardson are tied for the team lead with 17), so it’s putting pressure on its defense and backup netminder, Darcy Kuemper, to help steal games. Kuemper has been great in injured Antti Raanta’s place, but is historically streaky and hasn’t been outstanding in his last three games. After a hot stretch put Arizona in the picture, recent stumbles have now dropped the Desert Dogs out. They will need to find a way to get hot again in these last few if they’re going to keep this surprise season alive.
One point behind Arizona and Colorado is Minnesota. Now, I’ve been watching Minnesota very carefully, because that’s my team, and I must say, it does not have the feel of a playoff squad this season. It’s having its worst campaign in franchise history on home ice, and with gigantic standings points on the line Tuesday against the Avalanche, the Wild couldn’t muster up more than a goal against Philipp Grubauer. To be fair, Grubauer did play out of his mind, but Jason Zucker missed a wide open net with a chance to tie late, and that miss felt like a pretty solid metaphor for this season. With a tough remaining schedule, it’s very feasible that Minnesota will miss the postseason for the first time in seven seasons.
And finally, the Blackhawks. They’ve had a few hot stretches that have made it seem like they were going to overcome a huge mountain and get back into the race. But now that Chicago is down to nine games left and still has a four-point deficit and three teams to jump over, this team’s window of hope is closing very quickly. The potential playoff miss would come despite this squad boasting three 30-goal scorers in Alex DeBrincat, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane, who by the way now has 41 goals and 101 points. This could end up being the best statistical season of Kane’s career, but it still probably won’t be enough to get his team over the hump.
When it gets to this time of year, you pick the teams with the hot hand to get in, and right now, Colorado seems to have that hot hand. Still, with just one point separating the Avs, Coyotes, and Wild, it’s anybody’s turtle race. Buckle up, hockey fans!