Now that the Olympics are over, with Canada bringing home the hockey gold, Sweden the silver, Finland the bronze, and the USA dogs (David Backes is literally bringing home two stray dogs he found in Sochi), the NHL season is set to resume itself. Many teams find themselves in the middle of a heated battle just to get into the playoffs, while other teams are fighting for top spots in each conference and division. As has been the case in recent years, it appears we are in for yet another incredible finish to the NHL regular season.
First, here’s a look at the current standings by division:
Boston – 78 pts Pittsburgh – 83 pts
Tampa Bay – 71 pts N.Y. Rangers – 67 pts
Montreal – 70 pts Philadelphia – 66 pts
Toronto – 70 pts Columbus – 63 pts
Detroit – 64 pts Washington – 63 pts
Ottawa – 63 pts Carolina – 61 pts
Florida – 51 pts New Jersey – 61 pts
Buffalo – 40 pts N.Y. Islanders – 52 pts
St. Louis – 84 pts Anaheim – 87 pts
Chicago – 84pts San Jose – 80 pts
Colorado – 79 pts Los Angeles – 68 pts
Minnesota – 69 pts Phoenix – 64 pts
Dallas – 64 pts Vancouver – 63 pts
Winnipeg – 62 pts Calgary – 51 pts
Nashville – 60 pts Edmonton – 47 pts
It would appear that the race atop the Central Division could be the most fun to keep an eye on. St. Louis and Chicago are bitter rivals, and getting first place in the Central Division could very well be more important than winning first place in any other division. With the new playoff format, the winner of the Central will play one of the two wild card teams in the West. The team to finish second in the Central will most likely get a first round matchup with Colorado. They are a first round opponent that I would want no part of. Of all teams currently in third place in their respective division, Colorado has the most points (79) by quite a bit (9). They would be leading the Atlantic division by one point.
Pittsburgh seems to have a stranglehold on the Metropolitan division (I hate that name), but the second and third place spots are up for grabs. With eight teams in the Metropolitan division, just 6 points seperates the second place team (the Rangers) from the seventh place team (the Devils). This will be fun to watch. I think the Rangers will get one of the two remaining top spots in that division, but the other spot is wide open in my opinion. Watch out for Columbus and Washington.
The Atlantic division is shaping up to be a close race as well. Boston seems to be a sure lock for the playoffs assuming they don’t suffer an epic collapse, but after them, everyone else in that divison (aside from Florida and Buffalo) has a shot at making the playoffs. The Red Wings, currently with 64 points and 6 points behind the third place spot in the division, are trying to make the playoffs for the twenty-third consecutive season. Mike Babcock was recently quoted as saying they “will be in the playoffs.” Knowing Detroit, they will either make the postseason, or fall just a couple points shy. Eight points seperate the number two spot from the six spot in the Atlantic. Notice that Tampa Bay is currently in second place despite being without Steven Stamkos for the past few months.
Out west in the Pacific division, things seem to be a bit more spaced out. There isn’t quite the log-jam that we see in the other divisions. Anaheim, the league’s leading team in points (87), should win that division if they can avoid any key injuries or a major meltdown, which has happened to them in recent years. San Jose sits seven points behind Anaheim, but they have a comfortable twelve-point lead over the third place Kings. Once again, the Kings are putting together a disappointing regular season. They are a team that should theoretically finish in one of the top two spot in their division every year. But, every year they underperform until the playoffs. That is when they step up their game. L.A. has a four-point lead over Phoenix and a five-point lead on Vancouver for the third spot in the division. Calgary and Edmonton are hopeless. If I had to bet, I’d say the top three spots in the Pacific don’t change the rest of the season.
So who ends up with the wild card spots? Well, Toronto and Montreal (each with 70 points) appear to be in good position to get one of the East’s two wild cards. Whichever of those two teams doesn’t get a wild card will probably get the third spot in their division. After that, pretty much any team besides the Islanders, Sabres, and Panthers could be the second wild card team at this point. It’s too hard to predict right now who will win that race.
In the Western Conference, Minnesota currently holds the first wild card spot with 69 points. Dallas and Phoenix, each with 64 points, are tied for the second wild card position. However, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Nashville are all still very much in contention to become the second wild card team in the West.
This is going to be another great finish to the NHL regular season. There are a number of teams seperated by just a couple of points who are all capable of making the playoffs. Injuries could be a factor in determining who comes out on top, and fatigue could be a factor as well. Every team in the league had at least two players take part in the Olympics, with Chicago and Detroit each sending ten. Will those who did play in the Olympics be worn out by season’s end? Only time will tell. If history proves anything, however, teams with large numbers of Olympians can still win the Stanley Cup without being too fatigued. Look no further than the 2010 Blackhawks who won the Cup after six of their top players played in the Olympics.