As we get closer and closer to April, the race to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs is really starting to heat up, especially in the Western Conference. With many teams in the conference having struggled at certain points during the year, the cut-off line to make the playoffs is much lower than it has normally been. As a result, every team (even the now-last place Ducks) still has a realistic chance to make the playoffs. Let’s take a quick look at the playoff picture as it stands now.
Squarely in the playoffs-Calgary (74 points), San Jose (73), Winnipeg (73), Nashville (71), Vegas (66)
Barring a complete collapse, these teams have distanced themselves enough from the rest of the conference that they are just jockeying for position. In the Pacific, Calgary and San Jose are neck and neck competing for the division crown, with Vegas lurking behind them, ready to pounce and seize home-ice advantage should either of them falter down the stretch. Since the top 3 from each division are guaranteed playoff spots, and the fourth place Canucks are sitting 11 points behind Vegas, the Pacific’s top 3 have all but clinched their playoff berths. Meanwhile, Winnipeg and Nashville are once again engaged in a heated battle for the Central Division crown. The third place Dallas Stars are 9 points behind Nashville, so the Jets and Predators shouldn’t have to worry about other teams taking their playoff spots.
Holding Down Playoff Spots-Dallas (61), Minnesota (59), St Louis (59)
As it stands now, it is the Central’s third, fourth, and fifth-place teams clinging to the playoffs. This race for the Central’s third guaranteed playoff spot will be a crucial point of contention, as whoever can clinch this spot will not have to deal with other Pacific teams (who can only realistically contend for wild card spots). For now, it is the Stars that lead the way at 61 points, but have been playing .500 hockey recently. The Wild are sitting in the first wild card slot, but just lost captain Mikko Koivu for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, the Blues have surged into the second wild card slot, winning 5 games in a row with games in hand on the rest of the conference. If the Blues can continue their surge and win their games in hand, they may emerge as the third team in the Central.
Knocking on the Door-Vancouver (57), Colorado (55), Arizona (53), Chicago (55), Edmonton (53)
These teams are right there in the mix, and with a late surge they could easily wind up in a wild card spot come April. The Canucks have more home games than road games left on their schedule, but must be careful that their young and largely inexperienced core of players does not tire down the stretch. The Avalanche have struggled mightily recently, backing themselves out of what looked like a sure-fire playoff appearance. However, with how good a start the Avs had, and the points they’ve garnered by losing in OT, they have kept themselves in the mix. The Coyotes have also struggled recently, with several key pieces on IR. It will take a lot for them to overcome these injuries and make the playoffs, but it is still possible if they can string together some wins. The Blackhawks have hit their stride, winning their last 6 games, and slowly starting to ascend into playoff contention. However, they have played more games than their competition, meaning they have less opportunity to make up ground for their slow start. Edmonton boasts the best player in the world in Connor McDavid, who has the ability to single-handedly drag his team to the playoffs if he can put together a spectacular run.
On the Outside Looking In-Los Angeles (51), Anaheim (51)
The two southern California teams are a long shot to make the playoffs, but with the struggles of the rest of the conference, they sit only 6 points behind the playoff line, a margin which is still possible to make up in 2 months. The Kings have recovered from their abysmal start to the season, but like Chicago, their start was so bad that they have a lot more ground they have to try and make up in a short time. Meanwhile, the Ducks have fallen off a cliff, losing 19 of their last 21 (with streaks of 12 and 7 straight losses bookending two wins) and plummeting from a top 3 spot in the Pacific to the bottom of the standings. Now, with the health of starting goalie and Vezina contender John Gibson in question moving forward, the Ducks have dug themselves a massive hole, but still have an outside chance at the playoffs due to the struggles of the rest of the conference.
The team with the lowest points to make the playoffs since 2014 (when the divisions were realigned and the current playoff format was implemented) was the Minnesota Wild in 2016. This year, it looks like the cut-off line for the playoffs may be somewhere in the high 80s to maybe 90. Could we see this record tied or even broken this year? Only time will tell.