Win and they’re in.
With a Canucks victory tonight against the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver can clinch its third consecutive Northwest division title, and with it a much coveted playoff spot in the NHL’s wild Western Conference. In fact, even an overtime loss to the lowly Avalanche would put the Canucks at 102 points and out of reach for both the Flames and Wild.
Without being too presumptuous, its pretty fair to say that Canucks fans can start looking past the regular season and towards the playoffs. With injured players such as Kevin Bieksa, Sami Salo and Andrew Alberts all appearing poised to return to the lineup over the next two weeks, the club should be at full strength just in time for the first round.
The remaining question is who will they face?
The Canucks could realistically encounter any one of up to eight different teams currently embroiled in the playoff chase, depending on how each of those clubs performs over their last dozen regular season games. While the Canucks will tell you that they don’t care who they face in the playoffs, let’s take a look at the potential matchups to see which teams might be soft targets and which one the Canucks would definitely want to avoid playing in the first round.
Los Angeles Kings:
Currently in fourth place with 85 points and 12 games remaining, the Kings seem the least likely team at the moment to drop into eighth place. Of course that could always change within the span of two or three games.
The Kings have played very well against the Canucks this season, having defeated them twice in the three meetings between the two clubs. With a team led from the backend talent of Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson and bolstered by the newly acquired Dustin Penner, the Kings are possibly a bigger threat than last season when they squandered a 6-4 lead in Game 4 against the Canucks (losing an opportunity to go ahead 3-1 in the series), before bowing out to the Canucks in six games.
While the Kings struggled in the early going, they have been red hot as of late going 7-2-1 in their last 10. They would be a tough out in the first round.
The story with this club continues to be focused off the ice. And despite few people coming out to watch their games, the Coyotes have put together another solid season.
The young team is anchored by a couple of veterans in Shane Doan and Ray Whitney, not to mention very reliable goaltending, the Coyotes are in strong contention for a playoff spot. The first three games this season between the Canucks and Coyotes have been varied, with the Canucks winning twice (once in overtime). They’ll get one more look at each other in Vancouver on Friday night.
The Hawks seemed to be at risk of missing the playoffs a couple of weeks ago, but have erased some doubts for the time being going 7-1-2 in their last 10. Now they are one of the hottest teams in the league. And with all the heartache suffered by the Canucks at their expense in recent years, the Canucks might want to avoid any matchup with Chicago come playoff time.
Dallas has managed to go from a playoff lock to a bubble team in a matter of weeks, struggling to score following the injury to Brad Richards. They have rebounded in their last few games, but have not played well against the Canucks this season. With The Canucks scoring at least four goals in each of their games against them, the Stars may be the best cure for any Canucks’ playoff struggles.
After struggling during the first half of the season, the Flames have perhaps been the league’s best team during the second half, going 21-7-6 since Christmas. With Jarome Iginla scoring again and with proven capable playoff goaltending in Miikka Kiprusoff, a first round match up with the Flames would be a daunting but thrilling pairing.
The Predators play an incredibly frustrating style of hockey, and that showed in their recent 3-0 win over the Canucks. Should the Canucks face the Preds, Vancouver’s superior skill should prevail. But many fans may want to fast forward to end of the series rather than watch the teams grind it out.
Should the Ducks manage to sneak in, they would probably not pose a significant threat to the Canucks. A mystery illness to Jonas Hiller has really hurt the Ducks down the stretch drive and many of the Ducks players who derailed the Canucks playoffs drive in 2006-07 have since moved on. While the tandem of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry are always dangerous to play against, but too many question marks on defense and in net should scuttle any chance of an upset by Anaheim this time around.
The Wild seem to be slumping at the wrong time of year and are now on the outside of the playoff race. But if they can sneak into the top eight, then they might give the Canucks some trouble with their tight checking style, especially in Minnesota (where the Wild won two of the three meetings). But home ice advantage should be enough of an edge to tip the balance into the Canucks’ favor.