Because of three-point games, the salary cap and increased parity, there tends to be a few NHL playoff races that come right down to the wire every year. But this year, even with five weeks to go, most of the playoff picture seems set. Sure, some races aren’t totally decided but does anyone think Carolina, New Jersey or Philadelphia will catch Pittsburgh?
The lone exception seems to be the race between Minnesota and Colorado for the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. The way it stands now, the teams are tied with 70 points while the Wild have one game in hand.
As an added bonus, the teams seem to be developing something of a rivalry of late. Both are relatively new to the league; the Wild joined as an expansion team in 2000 while the Avalanche moved from Quebec in 1995.
The Central Division is the best in the NHL again this year. Of this, there is little doubt. But while St. Louis and Nashville have turned it on in the second half of the year and Dallas and Chicago have been among the league’s point leaders all year, the division’s fifth playoff team will not be as strong. There was some talk earlier in the year about the demise of the Western Conference’s dominance, which now seems greatly exaggerated. However, it’s really beginning to look like there are only seven good teams this year. Regardless, one of these two teams will play beyond the regular season.
Minnesota – While the Wild are not a particularly strong possession team (21st in even-strength, score-adjusted corsi), they’re certainly better than the league-worst Avalanche. They’re also deeper. While Minnesota doesn’t have the top-flight talent to match the likes Chicago and LA, it has the luxury of rolling four solid lines of competent NHL players. The same goes for the defense essentially.
Colorado – The Avalanche are essentially the opposite of Minnesota. The depth isn’t great but the talent is there up front. Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon are both 20 goal scorers already. Captain Gabriel Landeskog has 45 points, Jarome Iginla is on the brink of scoring 20 for the 657th time (approximation) and Tyson Barrie is a solid first-pairing option.
Minnesota – This team was built on late-prime free agents and the cracks are beginning to show. Zach Parise is 31, Thomas Vanek is 32, Jason Pomminville is 33. None have seen the production warranted by their respective contracts. Mikko Koivu – a rare home-grown star – leads the team in points with 44, but he’s also on the wrong side of 30. As is Ryan Suter, who’s still relied on as top-pairing defenseman. With plenty of money committed to players solidly in their post-prime, the Wild may have a difficult future. That’s unfortunate, because the very-recent past isn’t much to pine for either.
Colorado – The blue line beyond the first pairing. The coach. The front office. The forward depth. The goaltending. Other than that, they’ll be fine.
The Avalanche have been badly mismanaged over the past decade to the point where they’re in danger of missing the playoffs for the second year in a row, despite boasting three legitimate stars at forward. I could go on for 10,000 words about this but I’ll sum it up as such: this is not a playoff roster.
The reality of the NHL is randomness will play a major factor in a sub-20 game sample size such as this race. Just look at last season, when Ottawa rode a mediocre AHL goalie to an insane hot streak to catch the Bruins and make the playoffs. With two teams that are fairly evenly-matched, this can essentially be a guessing game.
But I think the Wild make it and not just because of the extra game they have. Minnesota has been better than Colorado, even if it hasn’t totally shown up in the standings yet. The Wild have more depth, Devan Dubnyk has been slightly better than Seymon Varlamov and for those not swayed by the possession differential, Minnesota’s goal differential is 20 better than Colorado’s at the moment.
The Wild are a better team, which should earn them the privilege getting shellacked by LA or Anaheim in the first round.