Under the new system, the top three teams in each division qualify for the playoffs automatically, with the final two spots being awarded to wild-card teams. Currently, that means that two teams in the Central, Minnesota and the Dallas Stars, hold down the final two playoff spots, with the Phoenix Coyotes next in line, just three points back.
There was a massive swing in two games Saturday night that ultimately may decide that final spot in the West.
Phoenix had a two-goal, second-period lead to the Washington Capitals and ultimately lost in regulation. Dallas rallied from a goal down to defeat Minnesota in regulation on the same night that Mike Modano’s jersey was retired. That was a four-point swing, with Jaroslav Halak getting the win over Phoenix in his Washington debut and Coyotes coach Dave Tippett lamenting the lost opportunity, noting that if his team doesn’t start finishing teams off soon, they’ll “have an early spring.”
As things currently stand, the West could have four fabulous first-round matchups. The St. Louis Blues hold the Central Division lead, which means they’d play Minnesota, an old Western Division rival going back to the NHL’s original expansion days.
That would leave two of the most exciting teams in the league, the Chicago Blackhawks and the Colorado Avalanche, to play one another.
Meanwhile, the San Jose Sharks would face the Los Angeles Kings and the Anaheim Ducks would play Dallas.
Of course, if St. Louis could pass Anaheim for top spot in the West, then they would get the second wild card team and Anaheim would get the first. Teams will likely jockey back and forth like that from here until the end, with the Eastern Conference so wide open that it doesn’t even bear to think about possible matchups, unless you want to consider the possibility that the Toronto Maple Leafs could play the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round and the Boston Bruins could get either the Detroit Red Wings or the New York Rangers, depending upon how things shake out, two potential Original Six matchups.
Dallas, under new management, is a suddenly an intriguing team to watch, with Tyler Seguin lighting it up again these past two games, scoring eight points and moving up to No. 5 in the NHL scoring race.
Dallas GM Jim Nill’s faith in Seguin – that if he had the chance to play as a No. 1 centre, he would respond to the challenge – appears well-justified at the moment. Boston continues to forge ahead even without Seguin, though the Bruins will probably not be able to get a true reading on Loui Eriksson’s ultimate contributions until he gets healthy. It might not happen until next year.
Meantime, Reilly Smith, who was the forgotten player in the deal, had an excellent start, but has seen his scoring numbers fall off of late. Smith is playing a little under 15 minutes per game for the Bruins.
There is a potential red flag for Dallas – goalie Kari Lehtonen left the third period of the win over Minnesota with an injury, forcing Tim Thomas to go in.
Thomas was acquired as insurance by Nill just for this reason. As good as Lehtonen has been for Dallas – he was probably the best addition made by former GM Joe Nieuwendyk during his tenure – Lehtonen is known for his fragility. The Florida Panthers pretty much had to move Thomas out after acquiring Roberto Luongo to be their starter – too much potential drama there – and Dallas looks as if it could be the right landing spot for him.
The Stars honoured Modano a day after the Calgary Flames honored Nieuwendyk as part of their Forever A Flame program. Nieuwendyk had been linked to the Flames as a possible replacement for fired general manager Jay Feaster, but he had determined that he wanted to spend a full year away from the game with his wife and three children before deciding what to do next.