Of course, there remains no better measure — especially now that the entire league plays everyone else both home and away — of how good a team is than how it does over six-plus months and 82 games, but the fact of the matter is that being the best in the regular season means very little in the eyes of hockey fans and, probably, players and teams as well.
Since 1985-86, only eight teams to win the regular season have gone on to win the Stanley Cup, so perhaps there's a little bit of a good reason for skepticism; but regardless, this year might be the most important race to the top in history.
There are currently five or maybe even six teams currently in the running for a spot, with the reigning double-winners Chicago Blackhawks sitting in the pole position once again. The fact of the matter is that this team is dismantling just about everyone they play, having lost just six games out of 34(!) in regulation this season, and boasting a league-best goal differential of plus-36.
The next reasonable candidate to occupy the top spot in the league is St. Louis, which entered last night eight points back of Conference III rival Chicago but also held a whopping five games in hand, and their goal differential was even more impressive at plus-33 in just 29 games. Then there's also the perfectly credible candidates in Anaheim, where the Ducks still haven't lost a regulation game. All seven of the games in which they failed to win a point have come on the road, most during an absurdly lengthy single trip. The San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings, oh yes, they're there too, with games in hand, strong underlying numbers, and all the rest.
Out East, you can throw the Boston Bruins into the mix, which will enjoy the benefit of playing a ton of awful teams for the rest of the year while all these Western powers pummel each other for another two or three games each. With that having been said, they are a very good team overall and if they're there at the end of the season, it won't be an accident or a fluke of how bad their conference is. Not that the latter factor hurts.
It should be noted, however, that the probability is that the Presidents' Trophy winner comes out of the West and it's going to be crucial to the ability of any of these juggernauts to win the Stanley Cup. The degree to which the new playoff format will hurt the chances of any team to advance throughout the postseason is now officially massive.
There didn't used to be much difference between finishing first or second in your conference, because if you got the seventh-place team or the eighth, the likelihood was that the opening-round opponent would be quite bad. Now, the difference between winning your division or not doing so is going to be killer.
If, for example, the Blackhawks end up winning this thing again, they play Vancouver, Colorado, Phoenix, or whoever finishes eighth. That means the Blues get the Wild, for example. Plus, it's starting to look more and more like the No. 7 team in the West is going to be running pretty close with the third-place teams in either division, which isn't going to be any sort of picnic.
Imagine the value, then, of letting these other great teams go through a first-round meat grinder while you get to dispatch a relatively weak competitor and wait for whichever bruised, battered, and beleaguered opponent shambles weakly from the wreckage. It stands to reason that the pickings will be much easier.
This will be particularly true if the Presidents' Trophy winner is one of the Ducks, Kings, or Sharks, because whoever misses out on winning that division is going to be in tough to advance. One of the league's four or five best teams is guaranteed to be going home after two weeks, which is obviously nonsense and a huge flaw in this awful new incomprehensible playoff system, but also makes for a compelling first round; there's a pretty good chance that a Ducks/Kings series, for example, might be the best of the playoffs simply because of the quality of the two sides involved.
Not that we aren't all but guaranteed a great Western Conference Final, but this is also going to help ensure a great regular-season stretch run in that conference.
Last season, for example, the Blackhawks were able to take their foot off the gas pretty considerably in the final few games of the season. They just didn't matter. They finished the year 11 points ahead of No. 2 Anaheim, and 17 in front of the second-place team in their division, and that's why Ray Emery played three games in four days, and five overall, in the month of April.
The chances that some of these teams which have been very good to this point drop off are fairly high; the Ducks, for instance, have dramatically outperformed their corsi percentage with the score close, as they're only 12th in the league in that regard, and are probably not getting enough scoring from people not named Getzlaf, Perry, or Penner at present. But the rest seem to be right where they belong. Chicago, San Jose, Los Angeles, and St. Louis are teams Nos. 1-4 in this category in the whole league, and it's likely to stay that way given that none of them are doing extremely or un-sustainably well in terms of PDO.
Three, four, maybe all of them are probably going to be heading into the last half of March within a few points of each other, and given what's at stake, they're going to be whipping the horses extra hard. That after acknowledging the entire regular season as a run-up to that will have been treated as a marathon as well. Every game for the entire rest of the season is essentially going to be a must-win for these teams that absolutely don't want to see each other in the first round.
Fifty games of insanity to get a few off. Seems out of whack.
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