"I guess that's the way the whole durned human comedy keeps perpetuatin' itself." -- "The Stranger" in "The Big Lebowski."
Truer words were never spoken, even out of context. The Western Conference playoff race has been one such human comedy, or perpetual tragedy, depending on the night's results. Yesterday, the Columbus Blue Jackets solidified their playoff seeding; the Nashville Predators toppled the San Jose Sharks to move back into a postseason slot; the St. Louis Blues continued to keep pace with the postseason pack; and the Los Angeles Kings kept their faint hopes alive while costing the Dallas Stars a point in the standings.
Every team from the seventh seed down to the 13th has played 74 games, and they're separated by eight points, giving us one hell of a finish.
Beyond the obvious -- how much would playoff ticket revenue mean in cities like Nashville and St. Louis? -- the final two spots in the Stanley Cup playoff draw could dramatically alter the chase for the Cup; if you believe either the San Jose Sharks or Detroit Red Wings are, given the right matchup, susceptible to an upset.
Coming up, a look at the stretch run for the bottom of the Western Conference playoff standings. Who do you think will fill the seventh and eighth seeds at the end of the season?
Two great sites to keep an eye on during the playoff race, and whose information we're sharing here: Sports Club Stats, which tracks playoff probability percentages, and NHL Playoff Race, which tracks teams' "tragic numbers" (the amount of points lost by a team or gained by the eighth place team that would mathematically eliminate a team), among other factors.
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As an example of how quickly these things can change, take tonight's Ducks/Oilers game. According to Sports Club, the Ducks currently have a 64.6-percent chance of making the playoffs; with a win tonight, it jumps to 77.1. The Oilers have a 33.8-percent chance before the game; with a win, it leaps to 49.9.
Here's a glance at the contenders, the probabilities (before tonight's action), "tragic numbers" for elimination and remaining games.
7th place, 80 points; Chance of Finishing Seventh: 34 %; Chance of Finishing Eighth: 21%. Remaining Games: Mar 27 vs. Edmonton; Mar 29 vs. Colorado; Mar 31 at Edmonton; Apr 2 at Vancouver; Apr 4 at San Jose; Apr 5 vs. San Jose; Apr 10 vs. Dallas; Apr 11 at Phoenix.
We called the Ducks for the playoffs, and so far we're looking like smarty-pants with the hockey they've been playing. The two games against the Oilers are critical; the two games against San Jose are fascinating in the sense that the Sharks need them for a run at the top seed and, conversely, they could determine if the first all-California playoff series since expansion finally happens in the Western Conference.
8th place, 80 points; Chance of Finishing Seventh: 14%; Chance of Finishing Eighth: 20%. Remaining Games: Mar 28 vs. Los Angeles; Mar 29 at Detroit; Mar 31 at Columbus; Apr 3 at Chicago; Apr 4 vs. Columbus; Apr 7 vs. Chicago; Apr 9 at Detroit; Apr 10 at Minnesota.
The Predators are four games under .500 on the road, so the tilt in the schedule doesn't help. Does Nashville need a sweep at home to make the cut? Better question: Can Jason Arnott come back at some point in these eight games?
9th place, 79 points; Tragic Number: 15 points; Chance of Finishing Seventh: 15%; Chance of Finishing Eighth: 17%. Remaining Games: Mar 27 at Anaheim; Mar 29 vs. Minnesota; Mar 31 vs. Anaheim 9:00 pm; Apr 2 vs. San Jose; Apr 4 vs. Vancouver; Apr 7 vs. Los Angeles; Apr 10 vs. Calgary; Apr 11 at Calgary.
Nothing like having your season on the line against your arch nemesis in the last weekend of the season, huh? The Flames could still be a dogfight for the division title at that point, too. The Anaheim games will tell us a lot about what this Edmonton team really is, as Dwayne Roloson has done his share of bailing them out lately. They're a tough team to figure out; minus-18 in the second period for the season? The hell?
St. Louis Blues
10th place, 79 points; Tragic Number: 14 points; Chance of Finishing Seventh: 11%; Chance of Finishing Eighth: 18%. Remaining Games: Mar 28 vs. Columbus; Mar 29 at Columbus; Apr 1 at Chicago; Apr 2 at Detroit; Apr 4 at Dallas; Apr 7 at Phoenix; vs. Columbus 8:30 pm; Apr 12 at Colorado.
The new darlings of the underdog set, the Blues are playing on borrowed time but a rather hopeful path to the playoffs: They've not played well on the road (three games under .500), but at least three of their games away from home down the stretch are incredibly winnable. Dan Hinote's quote about what drives this team: "You start pulling on the same rope and you realize that we may not be a great team on paper, but we're a great team. We all believe in each other because we're all kind of underdogs. That's a dangerous group when you put a bunch of people like that on the same team... because we believe in each other but people are counting us out."
11th place, 78 points; Tragic Number: 14 points; Chance of Finishing Seventh: 11%; Chance of Finishing Eighth: 17%. Games Remaining: Mar 28 at Calgary; Mar 29 at Edmonton; vs. Vancouver; Apr 3 vs. Calgary 8:00 pm; Apr 5 at Detroit; Apr 7 vs. Dallas; Apr 10 vs. Nashville; Apr 11 at Columbus.
This is a scary team if and when it gets center Mikko Koivu or defenseman Brent Burns back; and Koivu could be back this weekend, according to the Pioneer Press. Marian Gaborik has played some outstanding offensive hockey since his return. If the offense can figure itself out against better competition than the Islanders, the Wild could easily be the eight seed. Then again, there isn't an easy game left on the schedule, especially when you consider Niklas Backstrom is 0-2-1 against the Stars this season.
12th place, 75 points; Tragic Number: 11 points; Chance of Finishing Seventh: 1%; Chance of Finishing Eighth: 3%. Remaining Games: Mar 28 vs. Florida; Mar 30 at Phoenix; Mar 31 at Los Angeles; Apr 2 vs. Calgary; Apr 4 vs. St. Louis; Apr 7 at Minnesota; Apr 9 at Colorado; Apr 10 at Anaheim.
In all probability, it's over for Dallas, sitting five points out. But then you look at a schedule with three games against teams playing out the string and three games against teams the Stars are chasing. And you start to think about the resiliency this team has shown in the face of massive injuries and turmoil all season. Again, they seem destined to miss the cut, based on their inconsistent play. But is it over? And if it isn't, how badly do the Sharks and Wings really hope it is for Dallas?
Los Angeles Kings
13th place, 72 points; Tragic Number: 8 points; Chance of Finishing Seventh: 0. Chance of Finishing Eighth: 0. Mar 28 at Nashville; Mar 31 vs. Dallas; Apr 2 at Phoenix; Apr 4 vs. Phoenix; Apr 6 at Calgary; Apr 7 at Edmonton; Apr 9 at Vancouver; Apr 11 vs. San Jose.
So long, and thanks for all the fish. Terry Murray and Jonathan Quick brought this team deeper into the postseason hunt than anyone thought possible. But when your playoff hopes rest on the twin miracles of your own running of the table and other teams' complete collapse ... well, then it's time to wonder what that nutty Dean Lombardi's going to do in the offseason to put the Kings over the top.