Technically, the Colorado Avalanche are still in playoff contention, but their chances are slimmer than a Slim Jim. They currently sit in 10th place, 2 points out of the playoffs, with only two games remaining on their schedule. All four teams ahead of them that they could conceivably catch have three games left. It doesn’t help that all three games the San Jose Sharks have remaining are against other teams battling for those same playoff spots, guaranteeing that the Avalanche will have even more ground to make up.
If the Avalanche fail to make the playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks will be the only team from the Northwest Division in the postseason for the second straight year. The competitive imbalance in the Northwest isn’t good for the team or the fans.
The gap between first and second in the Northwest Division is larger than in any other division in the league. In fact, it’s not even close. The Canucks have 19 more points than the Avalanche and may end the season with an even larger lead. The second largest gap is in the Central Division between the Blues and the Red Wings, but it’s just 7 points. The gap in the Northwest is nearly three times as big.
That is one of the main reasons the Canucks have had so little to play for down the stretch. While other teams are battling for the division lead in order to ensure home ice advantage in the playoffs, the Canucks have had no competition for first place in the Northwest. They were seemingly fated to finish second in the Western Conference until their recent 6-game winning streak reeled in the Blues.
While I have avoided panic over the Canucks’ lacklustre play of late, mainly because I recognize how little import these games have had for the team, but I am legitimately concerned over whether the team will be able to gear up for the playoffs or if they have lapsed into bad habits that will take time to break.
The last three Stanley Cup winners have come from strong divisions that each had two other representatives in the postseason. You have to go back to 2003-04 to find the last Cup winner that was the only team to make the playoffs from its’ division. That year, the Tampa Bay Lightning dominated the woeful Southeast, finishing with 28 more points than the second place Atlanta Thrashers.
Because the Canucks play more games against Northwest Division opponents, those teams should ideally be challenges for the Canucks. According to the Proverbs, As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another. Instead, the Canucks’ Northwest Division opponents have been dull and unimposing for the last couple years. The Canucks have a combined 17-4-1 record against the Northwest this season, far better than their record against the rest of the league. The team is not well-served by having their most frequent opponents provide so little a challenge.
It’s also disappointing for the fans, many of whom grew up on bitter rivalries with the Calgary Flames and (a little more recently) Colorado Avalanche. The Oilers have a long history of success and it used to be a big deal when the Canucks would play them. As for the Minnesota Wild…they certainly consider the Canucks to be a rival, even if the feeling is not necessarily mutual.
After the Canucks earned an overtime victory over the Flames on Saturday, one of our Bulies commented that he “hates the Flames” and that the victory was “as satisfying as a playoff win.” I can’t agree. It felt perfunctory. There was no drama to it. The Flames were essentially out of the playoffs already, so the only thing at stake was first in the Western Conference for the Canucks. Games against the Flames used to mean something! They were battles for playoff position or for division supremacy. Now a game against the Flames is just another regular season game.
A revitalized Northwest Division would be good for both the Canucks and the fans. Fortunately, it may be on its way. The Avalanche have made some steps forward and are looking like they will be a playoff team next season if they don’t pull of a minor miracle this week. If the Oilers can put together a decent defence corps, they could compete for a playoff spot within the next couple seasons, as long as their management gets its act together.
The team to watch out for, however, is the Minnesota Wild. While they massively overachieved to start the season, they have one of the best prospect pools in the NHL, with several high-end players ready to make the jump to the big leagues next season. Combine that with Chuck Fletcher’s savvy moves at the trade deadline to bolster the Wild’s defence, and you have a team that could surprise a lot of people next season.
I look forward to it. Maybe next year at this time we’ll have a heated race for first in the Northwest Division, instead of a half-hearted race for the Presidents’ Trophy.Tags: Avalanche, Canucks, Flames, Oilers, The Northwest Division is terrible, Wild