Imagine the NHL's Western Conference playoff race as a game of musical chairs, with nine teams competing for eight spots and one guaranteed to miss out when the music stops.
On Tuesday night, all four of the on-the-bubble contenders in the West were in action and when the smoke cleared, the best possible scenario unfolded for all of Canada's Western-based teams.
Both the Calgary Flames and the Winnipeg Jets won their games – over the Arizona Coyotes and the St. Louis Blues respectively – meaning each team is just a single victory away from clinching a playoff spot, with two games remaining on their schedules.
Idle Tuesday, the Vancouver Canucks nevertheless clinched a playoff spot when the defending Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings lost in regulation to the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers avenged an 8-1 drubbing by the Kings four days earlier in Los Angeles and enhanced both Calgary's and Winnipeg's playoff chances with the victory.
The Flames hold a two-point lead over the Kings and can knock them out of the playoffs with a victory.
All in all, it was a big night in Cowtown – and all across the West.
Realistically, the Flames couldn't look past the Coyotes, an overmatched opponent that traded away key pieces of their core group at the trading deadline and are playing now only for pride and draft position. It was a banana peel game, a chance to slip up, and it was too close for comfort, Calgary getting a third-period goal from centre Sean Monahan to escape with a 3-2 victory.
"We're excited now as a team because we want to play in the playoffs," said Monahan. "This is a crucial time for us as a team. We're trying to stay calm in tight situations and that's what we did again tonight."
It was a game the Flames dominated early, but couldn't build up much of a cushion against goaltender Mike Smith, who played an excellent game.
Flames' goaltender Jonas Hiller made a puck-handling gaffe early in third period that permitted the Coyotes to tie the game, but Monahan's 31st goal of the season turned it back in their favour. Earlier in the game, Monahan's linemate, the Calder Trophy candidate Johnny Gaudreau, had scored a power-play goal, just minutes after getting cut across the bridge of the nose by the stick of Coyotes' forward David Moss.
The only downside for the Flames was losing 16-goal scorer Lance Bouma to an upper-body injury. Coach Bob Hartley listed him as day-to-day, though Bouma could be out longer and his presence will be missed.
As Hartley entered the press room for his post-game media availability, there were 90 seconds remaining in the Edmonton-Los Angeles game, which was being televised on a monitor at the other end of the room. Hartley patiently answered questions about the team's character, about zone time, and around the time he was asked about Monahan's timely scoring, the Oilers salted the game away with an empty-netter.
So of course, the immediate next question centered on Los Angeles and the fact that they were in a position to clinch a playoff spot by winning either one of their final two games.
"We play every game to win," said Hartley. "We can never fault the effort. We can never fault the commitment from our team. That's the thing – I'll put my faith one more time in my players. Tomorrow, we'll have a good meeting, a good practice, let them prepare and then we'll drop the puck on Thursday night."
Hartley went on to say: "We all know what's at stake. There's a great team coming in, the Stanley Cup champs, in our building. We're on a mission. We know what we can do."
Defenceman Dennis Wideman, who contributed two more assists, said the Flames didn't have time for any scoreboard watching, because they were so focused on the task at hand. Told that the perfect storm had unfolded as it related to their playoff chances, Wideman said: "Whatever happens, we need to win that game Thursday. We knew we had to win tonight and we found a way to do that. The biggest game is the next one in front of us. We've been trying to take care of business. Just because of the way everybody's been winning, we knew it would come down to this game – and as long as we won ours ….
"So here we go."
The Jets went on the road and on the strength of back-to-back shutouts by goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, hung on to the second wild card spot in the West, behind the Minnesota Wild, which became the fifth Western Conference team to clinch a playoff spot with a victory over the Chicago Blackhawks. Winnipeg has two games remaining and is in a strong position to clinch its first playoff spot since relocating from Atlanta.
Altogether, six teams are now officially in the playoffs in the West, the two which clinched spots Tuesday – Vancouver and Minnesota – plus the St. Louis Blues, the Nashville Predators, the Blackhawks and the idle Anaheim Ducks, all of which had already booked their playoff positions earlier. Winnipeg and Calgary need just a victory apiece to get in, while the Kings will need to defeat the Flames Thursday to stay alive – and then will need some help beyond that.