One year ago, I wrote an article describing the competitiveness of the entire Western Conference and the surprising ease of possible fluctuation in playoff positioning. Now, while some of those in divisional spots have created some separation, the wild card hunt is still very much a race.
It is a race that has become increasingly difficult to judge as teams may project to make the playoffs after one game and then falter the next.
The absolute uncertainty that stems from these teams is a testament to one of hockey’s best qualities: parity.
This is a quality that many attribute to the entertainment of the sport. It is parity coupled with uncertainty that creates headlines and give both fans and teams some of their greatest moments.
Remember when I claimed that goaltending might hold Columbus back? It has been the exact opposite as goaltending has kept them in the playoff race amid injuries. Remember when I claimed that Pavel Francouz’s inexperience could be troublesome for the Avalanche? Since Grubauer’s injury, he’s carried a lot of the slack with some fantastic performances.
What you should be getting from this — besides not trusting my opinion on goaltenders — is that with a sport driven by excitement, parity and uncertainty are often welcomed.
After Nashville acquired Duchene, many thought of them as a playoff lock. Same with Arizona who acquired star forward Taylor Hall when atop the Pacific. Both teams currently sit outside a wildcard spot.
It goes both ways too. The Minnesota Wild have continued to sell with plans of rebuilding. The Jason Zucker trade reaffirmed that. Now, due to the otherworldly performance by Kevin Fiala along other quality reasons, a team that was once suspected to be among the bottom of the league currently sits in a playoff spot.
Surpassing minimal expectations is what the Winnipeg Jets have done as well. Only one of their top 5 defenders in ice-time remain from last season. Whether it’s a lack of quality defence, the drama that surrounded Byfuglien’s decision, or the roster being absolutely decimated by injuries, Winnipeg has somehow found ways to win and a large portion of that is due to the Vezina-worthy season that Connor Hellebuyck has had. Neal Pionk’s incredible progression doesn’t hurt either. Regardless, playoffs are somehow a real possibility.
These are just a few Western Conference teams who have defied expectations and remain with playoff admirations.
The competitiveness is something that is absolutely worth noting, too. The first and fifth ranked teams in the wild card race are currently distanced by four points. That means that two wins are all it takes to jump a team that holds a spot.
Comparatively, in last years “Wild Western Conference” article, the first and fifth were separated by eight points. There’s obviously plenty of room for separation as more games are played but the cushion that playoff ranked teams have are now becoming minimal. The room for failure has become slim and the stakes high. Everyone loves a chance to make the playoffs, right?
The Eastern Conference isn't too far behind in this competitive regard either. The crop of teams competing for a wild card placing are statistically better than that of the West but they still have managed to keep it competitive. The first and fifth teams are separated by five points. That’s only three wins.
The current holders of a wild card spot are Columbus and Carolina. The Hurricanes are doing this without either of their regular goaltenders and the Blue Jackets continue to win despite a ridiculous list of injuries.
It is key for teams to take advantage of their opportunities though. One cold streak could end all hope of a playoff berth.
A primary example of this can be found in Vancouver. The Canucks were first in the Pacific a few weeks ago and are now sitting outside of the playoffs by a single point. That’s all due to a bad stretch.
Looking at Florida, their continuous battle with Toronto for third in the Atlantic is well-documented but they faltered and it seemed as if they had lost that. This was a fantastic opportunity for the Leafs to create some separation and increase playoff odds. Toronto then got swept on their California trip while the Panthers gained a point versus Boston and won critical games against Montreal and St. Louis. They are now only one point behind the Leafs. Bad stretches for both have led them back to where they were weeks ago. Luckily for them, the Atlantic division isn’t as competitive as the Metropolitan is.
Speaking of the Metro, the New York Rangers are in the race after a huge start to 2020. Since the beginning of January, they rank top 10 among all teams in points with a lot of that success due to the proficient play of star forwards Mika Zibanejad and Artemi Panarin. They are a fantastic example of a team that has gained enough momentum to propel themselves into the race. Now they have the opportunity of playoff hockey. A finish in a divisional spot is unforeseeable but the wild card would definitely suffice.
Five teams in each conference and only two spots. That makes ten teams battling for four. Some were unexpected, some are creating new expectations, and some are outright disappointing. That's what makes hockey exciting.
So if anything can be said right now, it’s that the only certainty is uncertainty as the postseasons nears. Teams will need to separate themselves from the others so we will see who earns the opportunity of spring hockey.