DETROIT – The NHL’s Western Conference playoff race is simply wild.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this tight,” Detroit Red Wings defenceman Nicklas Lidstrom said. “If you don’t play well, someone is going to take your spot.”
The league’s trading deadline on Monday afternoon gives teams one last shot to improve their roster for the stretch run.
Lidstrom likely will be in the post-season for the 19th straight season, but Detroit is determined to catch Western Conference-leading Vancouver and to hold off whomever wins the Pacific Division.
The Canucks are enjoying being atop a race with 13 of the 15 teams in the conference entering the final run of the regular season with a legitimate shot to finish among the top eight.
“It’s a long way to go, but I’d rather be where we are than where they are,” Vancouver’s Daniel Sedin said.
The Canucks and Red Wings have double-digit cushions in the Central and Northwest Divisions, setting them up to probably be two of the top three seeded teams when the regular season ends April 10.
Not much else is certain.
The San Jose Sharks have a slim lead over Phoenix, Los Angeles and Dallas in the Pacific Division.
“It is what it is,” San Jose coach Todd McLellan said.
What is it?
“Tight,” McLellan said. “Every night is a playoff game.”
The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks are one of those teams struggling to get in the post-season.
Blackhawks goalie Corey Crawford, though, is not deterred.
“It’s so close you can jump from that spot up to fourth or whatever it is,” Crawford said. “We’re looking at the standings, but you can’t pay too much attention to it.”
The teams fighting to get in the playoffs are all within a few points of each other. And the teams move up and down the standings seemingly every day.
“It’s insane,” Nashville coach Barry Trotz said.
Kings defenceman Jack Johnson agreed.
“This year has been crazy,” Johnson said. “Every game means so much.”
When the Blue Jackets aren’t playing, their coach Scott Arniel has a hard time deciding which other teams to root for.
“You’re trying to figure out who the right opponent is and who is the right team to cheer for,” Arniel said.
Hall of Fame defenceman Larry Murphy, an analyst for the NHL Network and Fox Sports Detroit, traced the race in the West to the collective-bargaining agreement that came after the lockout wiped out the 2004-05 season.
“We’re seeing the result of the salary cap, which has created parity in the league,” Murphy said. “The West, which is stronger than the East, has only a couple teams that don’t have a shot to make the playoffs. That means there are going to be some teams that have a good season and don’t make the playoffs.”
The Blackhawks hope they’re not one of those teams relegated to watching the post-season on TV.
Chicago had to cut ties with several players to comply with the NHL’s US$59.4 million salary cap, saying goodbye to key contributors such as goaltender Antti Niemi—now starring for the Sharks—after they helped the franchise win its first title since 1961.
The Blackhawks tried to regroup by signing Marty Turco, but after watching the 35-year-old goalie struggle, they’ve given Crawford a chance to be No. 1 in the net for the first time since drafting him in 2003.
Crawford is trying to avoid the big picture.
“We can’t really focus on the standings and the playoffs,” Crawford said.
Blackhawks defenceman Duncan Keith said that he’s well aware of what is on the line.
“At least in my mind, it’s definitely there knowing what’s at stake,” Keith said.
The Western Conference standings are updated daily in Detroit’s dressing room on a dry-erase board that the players can’t miss.
Red Wings coach Mike Babcock hopes it serves to motivate his team.
“To me, that boards speaks for itself,” Babcock said. “You talk about playing your best hockey going in, but you’ve got to get to April and win enough games to get in.”
Like Lidstrom, Red Wings general manager Ken Holland believes the NHL hasn’t had a race as tight as this season’s in the Western Conference. But Holland said the closely contested competition is going to be a trend.
“It will be tighter every year because the cap is doing what it was designed to do,” Holland said. “This is the tightest race in the history of the league, but it’ll be topped in the years to come.”
AP Sports Writers Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, Greg Beacham in Los Angeles, and freelance writers Kevin Woodley in Vancouver, and Mark McGee in Nashville, Tenn., contributed to this report.