There was a time when the National Hockey League was mocked for how easy it was to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Throughout the 1980s, 16 of the league’s 21 teams would qualify. Every year, teams that won just 25 of 80 games would play in the playoffs, sometimes making for lopsided first-round series.
Now only half the league’s teams qualify for the post-season. But with the wild-card format in place since 2014, this season in the Western Conference it’s a wild jumble of possibilities.
There are essentially two spots on the table: Third place in the Pacific Division and the second wild-card spot.
There are four teams in contention for the two spots — the Vancouver Canucks, Vegas Golden Knights, Los Angeles Kings and Dallas Stars — but it’s not a straightforward equation in determining who will finish in playoff positions.
What is really on the table is three teams — Vancouver, Vegas and Los Angeles — vying for the final Pacific Division playoff spot, with the team that finishes second in that race hoping to finish ahead of the fourth team — Dallas — for the wild- card spot.
More than once, former Canucks play by play announcer Jim Robson saw the Canucks team make the playoffs in the 1980s in surprising circumstances.
“But I don’t recall anything like this,” he said of the current setup.
“It’s great for the fans.”
Canucks head coach Bruce Boudreau led the 2007-08 Washington Capitals from nearly oblivion to a playoff spot on the last day of the season, a run he will have to repeat in 2021-22 if the Canucks are to make the post-season.
It was his first NHL coaching job, having been promoted from the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears to take over for Glen Hanlon.
When Boudreau took over in late November, the Capitals were sitting at the bottom of the league. They improved and by March had an outside chance at the playoffs, but like the current Canucks had no margin for error.
The Capitals finished the regular season by winning 11 of 12 games, 14 of 18 games, and became the first NHL team to make the playoffs after sitting at 14th or 15th in the conference at the halfway mark.
Boudreau admitted Wednesday that, yes, he does look at the standings and his team’s rivals’ schedules, running through projections of where things might shake out.
“I’ve just been in the office right now, (looking) at everybody’s next five games, my projections where we’re going to stand after that,” he said.
“We don’t lose too many when I’m doing the projections,” he added with a grin.
Like the Capitals, his Canucks have no margin for error.
With all this in mind, a look at how things stand on Wednesday afternoon.
Arizona Coyotes vs. Vancouver Canucks
7 pm, Roger’s Arena. TV: Sportsnet. Radio: Sportsnet 650.
Vancouver Canucks (5.6 per cent chance of playoffs, according to HockeyViz.com)
The Canucks have eight games left and have 82 points. They trail Vegas, who have played the same number of games, by three points. They trail LA, who are third in the Pacific, by six points. The Canucks have a game in hand on LA
The Canucks trail Dallas, who have a game in hand on Vancouver, by six points.
They face Arizona on Thursday, then are off until Monday, when they begin a seven-games-in-12-days stretch to close the season. The first game of this gruff sprint to the finish is vs. Dallas.
Their penultimate game on the season, April 28, is vs. THE
Given that their two Pacific Division rivals in this equation hold tiebreakers on them, the Canucks can’t afford more than one loss in their remaining schedule and possibly none at all.
Vegas Golden Knights (46 per cent chance)
Like the Canucks, the Golden Knights have eight games left. They have 85 points.
They also hold the first tiebreaker — regulation wins — over Vancouver, LA and Dallas. They also have the second tiebreaker, regulation and overtime wins, over Vancouver and LA
Vegas are in Calgary on Thursday and Edmonton on Saturday, two opponents who will pose plenty of problems.
Any kind of win for Vegas on Thursday will increase their playoff chances by more than 10 percentage points, while a regulation loss will hurt their chances just as much.
Los Angeles Kings (70.3 per cent chance)
The young Kings may have only seven games left and play Wednesday night vs. the Colorado Avalanche, but they remain in the drivers’ seat for the third playoff spot in the Pacific. They have 88 points. Five wins in their final seven games would get them to 98 points.
According to HockeyViz.com’s projection model, their Wednesday game in Denver will have a massive impact on their playoff chances, one way or another.
A win of any kind will increase their playoff chances by about 10 percentage points and will drop Vegas’s chances by about six per cent. A loss in regulation for the Kings would drop their playoff chances by more than 10 percentage points and boost Vegas’s by about seven percentage points.
But even such a loss would still have the Kings as slight favorites over Vegas going into Thursday’s action.
The Canucks’ chances will get a slight positive bump if LA loses in regulation, and a negative dip if LA wins in any fashion.
If LA manages to get a point out of the game but loses after regulation, there will be negligible impact on any team’s playoff chances.
As it stands, LA has more regulation wins than Dallas and Vancouver.
Dallas Stars (85.9 per cent chance)
The Stars are in the driver’s seat for the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference. They have nine games left, more than the other three teams in this equation.
They have 88 points and have more regulation and overtime wins, the second tie breaker, than Vancouver, Vegas and LA
They host the Minnesota Wild on Thursday and the San Jose Sharks on Saturday before traveling to Vancouver for Monday’s game.
Five wins in their remaining games should secure their playoff spot. They face Seattle, Arizona and Anaheim in three of their final four games of the season.
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