Since the Olympic break, the Detroit Red Wings have been on an impressive pace as they fight for a playoff berth for the 19th straight season. Things haven’t been easy for the club this year with injuries to key players early on, but now the Wings are healthy and playing the best hockey they have all season. Still, the one-way ticket into the playoffs is far from secure as the Wings cling to the 8th seed in the Western Conference with the Calgary Flames right on their heels.
The Wings go into tomorrow’s game against the St. Louis Blues with 85 points, four ahead of the Flames. Over their past five games, the Wings secured nine vital points over top-seeded teams like the Pittsburgh penguins, Vancouver Canucks, and even against the Flames themselves. However, the last point that would have given them an even ten-for-ten over the past five games came during a shootout loss to the lowly Edmonton Oilers, a team that took it to the Wings early and hard, scoring two goals in the first period despite the fact that the Wings were well rested after a four-day layoff. This is a disturbing trend that has manifested itself all season long. The Wings do well and play hard against better opponents, but against weaker ones they look disengaged. If the Wings plan on entering the postseason this year, that trend needs to stop.
Over the last ten games of the season, the Wings will play seven games against opponents ranked lower than them in the standings, including three games against the Columbus Blue Jackets. They will also meet the Nashville Predators twice, a team that Detroit is four points behind in the standings. Detroit will also have the pleasure of playing the Chicago Blackhawks for their last game of the season on Sunday, April 11. The Blackhawks lead the Central Division and are tied for the top spot in the West with Phoenix at 97 points. Meeting Chicago on the last day of the season in a make-or-break game is not what the Wings want. They need to secure points against lesser opponents now, and probably win at least one of the two against Nashville, and ensure that they can walk into that Chicago game with a secured playoff spot.
On the other hand, the Calgary Flames find themselves in a tough uphill battle with a grim outlook. Over the remaining ten games, the Flames will play six games against opponents ranked higher than them in the standings. It gets worse for Calgary. Five of those teams occupy the top five seeds in the NHL right now. That’s right, the Washington Capitals (3/28), Phoenix Coyotes (3/31), Chicago Blackhawks (4/4), San Jose Sharks (4/6) and the Vancouver Canucks (4/10) are all on tap for Calgary before the end of the season. While it doesn’t look pretty, Calgary is a hungry team making a strong push at that last seed. And since the above five teams are all securely in the playoffs, none of them have a strong incentive to win against the Flames except to pad their records and their stats.
Travel will be another factor that deeply affects both teams. The Red Wings will enjoy another six games on home ice where they have played extremely well all season. Plus, none of their remaining away games are on the West coast. The Flames, however, will only play on home ice an additional three times before the end of the season. Their schedule includes an East coast trip against the New York Islanders, Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals before flying back to Calgary for a home game against Phoenix and then back on the road against the Colorado Avalanche and the Chicago Blackhawks. Needless to say, Calgary will be all over the map with no idea what time zone they are in by the time the season is over.
Both the Red Wings and Flames need to be at the top of their game night in and night out if they want to make the playoffs. The Red Wings looked good against Pittsburgh, but they have struggled against lesser teams all season and their recent performance against Edmonton was no exception. With seven games on the schedule against lower-seeded teams remaining for the Wings, they need to buck that trend. Most of those teams won’t make the playoffs, but they don’t want Detroit to either. On paper, the Flames have the tougher schedule, both in terms of opponents and travel. Against opponents that don’t have much to play for, the Flames may be able to steal a few points, but travel and fatigue could certainly be detrimental to their cause. It will be a close race, but with all things considered, the Wings only need to be good down the stretch while Calgary needs to be great. The smart money is on the Wings to nab the 8th seed in the West.