With three games left in the 2007-08 season, after an ill-timed skid in which the Vancouver Canucks lost their division lead, the team was suddenly on the bubble, in tight with a coterie of cities trying to cling to, or wrestle away, a playoff position.
“You’re scoreboard watching a lot, and you’re playing desperate hockey, every night, so you’re physically and mentally worn out,” Vancouver defenceman Kevin Bieksa remembers.
“A lot of times, when you do crawl your way into the playoffs, you’re so exhausted from the last month or two, it’s like you had a month head start on the playoffs.”
In this era of relative parity in the NHL, aided (abetted, some might say) by the common loser’s point, quite a spectacle has coalesced in the Western Conference standings. Six teams are on the bubble, bunched within three points of one another before Sunday’s games. Dallas barely leads the Pacific Division, and stands third in the conference at 83 points. From seventh through 11th, there is Colorado at 83, San Jose at 82, Los Angeles at 82, Phoenix at 81 and Calgary at 80.
One of the four Pacific Division teams will take third. Barring a collapse by Chicago, the situation means three other Pacific teams, and two Northwest squads, scrap and scrape for the last two playoff spots.
Assessing the teams’ schedules, there are few striking differences. Most of the teams have 10 games left, though Colorado has only eight. The balance of home and away games is basically 50-50 for all the contenders on the bubble. In terms of difficulty of schedule, it is again mostly even. Some do face tough stretches: Dallas and Colorado both have to twice play a Vancouver team hungry to get on a roll ahead of the playoffs; Los Angeles hits a difficult three-game run this week of St. Louis, Boston and Vancouver.
San Jose has the best advantage a team might ask for, given what hockey players on the bubble feel when tied to television or Internet to spy out-of-town scores.
The bubble teams each play about half their games against one another. San Jose, however, has eight of its last 11 against others in the bubble six. So while it may be surprising to see the Sharks in eighth right now, the perennial contender controls its fate. The Sharks’ regular season ends with back-to-back games against Dallas, then L.A.
An intriguing first-round matchup, for Western Canadians especially, would be Calgary-Vancouver. The book on the teams’ playoff rivalry is thin, in pages, but bursting with history in three short chapters, each told in a bruising seven games.
In 2004, Calgary upset Vancouver in the first round, 4-3, en route to a Stanley Cup final loss.
In 1994, Vancouver upset Calgary in the first round, 4-3, en route to a Stanley Cup final loss.
In 1989, Calgary was nearly upset by Vancouver in the first round, but prevailed 4-3, en route to a Stanley Cup win.
Vancouver, almost guaranteed at least the No. 2 position in the West this season, knows that while bubble teams can arrive in the playoffs tired, the opposite is also true. Teams that battle into the playoffs can be primed for warring on ice in spring.
“Win more games in the middle of the season, and the beginning,” is Bieksa’s half-joking advice to bubble teams.
“It can work both ways,” he adds. “You start playing your best hockey to get into the playoffs, and you can just keep that going. But I think most teams would prefer to go in comfortably in the last month.”