There are four NHL teams tied at 95 points, all their respective division leaders, all sharing first place for the Presidents Trophy. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen such an equal distribution or, for that matter, a relatively equivalent Eastern and Western Conference. Let’s jump right in, shall we?
The Division Leaders
Montreal sits atop the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference with 95 points, 2 ahead of the second place Tampa Bay. In the Metropolitan Division, the Rangers also have 95 points, this time with a 5-point lead over the Islanders. It’s a good year for hockey in New York. In the Central Division of the Western Conference, a surging St. Louis team (7-2-1 in their last 10) has overtaken a slumping Nashville team (2-7-1 in their last 10) by a point for the division lead and 95 points. And in the Pacific, Anaheim continues to face no competition at all, with an 11-point lead over second place Vancouver’s 84 points. At this rate, the Central will take both Western Conference wild card slots with Minnesota and Winnipeg before the Pacific ever catches on.
Besides the obvious rarity of having equivalently scoring division leaders, which is a novelty in itself and very satisfying to my OCD, it also provides lots of intrigue as we start our steady descent to the end of the season and into the race for the Presidents Trophy. In the past 33 years, 11 President’s Trophy winners have hoisted the Stanley Cup, and another 11 made it to either the Conference or Stanley Cup Finals. We’ll also see Tampa Bay, with 93 points, and Nashville (if they can ever stop losing), with 94 points, continue to jockey for a spot. This ties in neatly with the continuing race for playoff seeding and home ice throughout the playoffs.
The Eliminations and Periphery
We’ve reached the point in the season where it isn’t yet the end of the world for some teams, but you can definitely see it from here. Thus far eliminated from the playoffs are the Maple Leafs, Sabres, Oilers and Coyotes. The Hurricanes and Blue Jackets should follow swiftly enough. But with only three weeks of hockey left, the door is slowly closing on teams trying to break into the playoffs. Poor Ottawa has won 4 straight and 8 of 10, but 4 points behind the no-longer-horrible Bruins might prove too much to overcome in such a short span. If they fail to beat the Bruins at home tonight, I’m mentally eliminating them. If they win… it’s a competition.
In the West, we have a competition for the last playoff spot between the Jets and the Flames, 1 point apart. Winnipeg currently has the lead, having won two straight to outpace Calgary’s two consecutive losses. Winnipeg has a much harder schedule than Calgary for its final games though; Calgary gets to play the Coyotes, Blue Jackets, Flyers, Avalanche and Stars all at home, plus the Oilers and Stars again on the road. Winnipeg’s only easy games are two road games against Edmonton and Colorado. To make things even better, the two teams end the season playing against each other in Winnipeg. If the Jets can keep it close, they can steal it on the last day.
The Equalizing of the Conferences
Conventional wisdom has for years held that the Western Conference is simply stronger. This was evidenced by their interleague play, the result being that it took far fewer points to enter the playoffs in the East. At least as of this year, this is no longer true. Not only is the threshold for entry to the playoffs lower in the West, but both divisions in the East are competitive. The Central may be highly competitive, but the Ducks have gained an irretrievable lead in the Pacific, partly because they’re playing such poor teams.
The evening out of this generally accepted convention is for the better, at least for fans of the game. The Stanley Cup Playoffs in the East will matter, and 1st seeded teams won’t simply have a quasi-bye by playing an 8th seed that never deserved to be in the playoffs.
As we near the end, I’m looking to see two things: how the tops of the conferences jockey back and forth, and who breaks into the bottom tier. It may be mediocre hockey, but the Flames-Oilers game will have playoff implications, which keeps the people of Calgary and Edmonton involved with hockey for another few weeks. And hey, if it serves the fans, I’m having.
Photo Credit: Sarah Connors- Wikimedia Commons