March Madness: NHL Style

March Madness: NHL Style

The win in Dallas on Friday night might not have officially clinched a playoff spot for the Blackhawks, but examining the NHL schedule in the coming couple weeks makes it clear that points will be at a premium in the Western Conference.

At the end of February, we looked ahead at the schedules of teams that were in the playoff hunt at the time and asked if the schedule would help or hurt the Hawks’ chances of advancing past 82 games this year.

Because of how tight the Western Conference playoff chase has remained, it appears whomever made the schedules around the league may have done the Blackhawks a favor… sort of.

After winning in Dallas, the Blackhawks sit in sixth place in the Western Conference with 86 points. They’re five points up on seventh (and eighth), six points up on ninth, tenth and eleventh, and three points ahead of the Pacific-leading Stars. Chicago has ten games remaining this year.

Unfortunately, too often games become three-point affairs this time of year. No team wants to give away both points, so overtimes become all-too regular on the calendar.

But looking around the conference, most of the games in the next few weeks will feature teams fighting to buck the trend and win in regulation.

First, let’s consider how many road and home games the seven teams fighting for position have left:

  • Chicago: 5 home, 5 road
  • Dallas: 6 home, 4 road
  • Phoenix: 5 home, 5 road
  • Colorado: 4 home, 5 road
  • San Jose: 7 home, 5 road
  • Los Angeles: 6 home, 5 road
  • Calgary: 6 home, 4 road

However, the Blackhawks have an advantage because their schedule has a fairly even stagger between road and home games.

  • Dallas has a four-game road trip that includes games in Calgary, Vancouver and San Jose.
  • Colorado has a three-game road trip to San Jose, Vancouver and Calgary.
  • Los Angeles has a four-game trip that starts with games in Vancouver and Calgary.
  • Phoenix finishes the year with two road games, at St. Louis and at Minnesota.

The Blackhawks have consecutive road games to finish the season (at Minnesota and at Detroit), but play five of eight before that at the United Center where they have one of the best home records in the NHL.

Secondly, looking at the remaining games, all seven teams finish the season with a heavy does of playoff-caliber competition. Here’s a look at how many of the remaining games of each team is against a team in the playoff mix:

  • Chicago: 7 of 10
  • Dallas: 9 of 10
  • Phoenix: 6 of 10
  • Colorado: 8 of 9
  • San Jose: 10 of 12
  • Los Angeles: 8 of 11
  • Calgary: 7 of 10

Three-point games will be less popular when that point could come back to bite you in the backside.

Without question, the most intriguing games left on the calendar are the final two of the season for the Sharks and Kings, which are a home-and-home between the two. Those two games could decide third place (the Pacific Division champion), or be completely meaningless by the time we’re into April.

Also interesting, Vancouver plays eight games against five of the seven teams in the mix for the bottom seeds in the West down the stretch, including two games each against Colorado, Calgary and Dallas. The Canucks are in Chicago on Wednesday night.

The schedule certainly isn’t easy for the Hawks down the stretch, but that’s true for all of the teams in this great chase. Thankfully, the Blackhawks have positioned themselves to control their destiny with a cushion.

For those wondering, with ten games left in the 2010-11 regular season (on March 20), the Blackhawks had 84 points and were tied with Nashville for eighth, only one point ahead of ninth place Anaheim and tenth place Calgary.

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