With the NHL regular season coming to an end, it is time to start thinking about the playoffs. The Blackhawks have already clinched the Central Division and first place in the Western Conference. They are not far off from clinching the best record in the league and winning the President’s Trophy for doing so. It would seem that the Hawks are in position to make a good run in the playoffs, but in order to do so, they must get by the first round, which they haven’t done in three years. So now the question becomes, who could they play in the first round, and who do they want to play in the first round?
The 7th and 10th spots in the West are only separated by 4 points. That means that virtually anyone currently sitting in one of those spots or between there could end up with the 7th or 8th seed in the West. Right now, Minnesota holds the 7th seed with 51 points (44 games played), and Columbus has the 8th seed with 49 points (45 games played). Detroit and Dallas currently sit 9th and 10th in the conference respectively, both teams with 47 points (Detroit with 43 games played, Dallas with 44 games played).
A lot can happen over the next couple weeks here, but I’ll say that Minnesota and Detroit end up making the playoffs as the bottom 2 seeds in the West. I will also predict that Minnesota hangs onto the 7th seed (they won’t pass the Blues, who are currently 6th), with Detroit finishing 8th. Detroit has played 2 fewer games than Columbus and are only 2 points behind them in the standings.This would mean that Detroit would play the Blackhawks in the first round.
Of the possible first round opponents for the Hawks at this point, Detroit, Dallas or Columbus (assuming the Wild hang on to the 7 spot), I think that Dallas would be the one team the Hawks would rather play. Dallas is not a very deep team, and they recently traded away Brendan Morrow (their captain), Derek Roy, and Jaromir Jagr. Those were 3 of their 4 best players. They still have Jammie Benn, and they still have Kari Lehtonen in net, but that won’t be enough to scare the Hawks. In the three games that these two teams played against each other this regular season, the Blackhawks won all three and outscored the Stars 16-5. Two of those games were before Dallas traded away Morrow, Roy, and Jagr…
The Detroit matchup isn’t one that worries me too much either, to be honest. Yes, they are still the Red Wings, which is always scary, but they aren’t the same team that they have been over the last decade. With the loss of Lidstrom and Holmstrom after last season (among others), the Wings really lost a lot of talent and leadership. This year, they have barely stayed in the playoff hunt and have had to rely on a lot of young players to get them through the season. They still have Datsyuk and Zetterberg, and they still have Jimmy Howard in net, but the Hawks have proven this year by going 4-0 against Detroit that they are way too much for the Wings to handle, especially in a 7-game series.
A Hawks-Jackets series is one that concerns me. If there is any team that has given the Hawks big problems this year, Columbus is it. The Hawks might have a 4-0 record against them this season, but all four of those wins were by just 1 goal. With the way Sergei Bobrovsky is playing in net for the Blue Jackets (he’ll be a Vezina Trophy finalist), I wouldn’t want to face these guys in the first round. Not to mention the work ethic of the Blue Jackets, who are one of the hardest working teams in the league. Yes they traded away a handful of players at the deadline, but they got Marian Gaborik in return. He hasn’t had his best season this year, but he is still one of the most dangerous and prolific scorers in the game. If you take all of that into consideration, plus the fact that they are playing good hockey right now (7-3-0 over their last 10 games), this would be the toughest matchup for the Blackhawks in the first round.
I am anticipating that the Hawks will play Detroit in round one, but that is just a guess. The players will never admit which team they would prefer to play, but I can guarantee you it is not Columbus. The playoffs are almost here, and I can’t wait for them to begin.