The NHL playoffs begin Wednesday night in Dallas.
To be clear, the post-season for the rest of the league officially begins April 9. But for the three powerhouse clubs atop the Pacific Division, the playoffs begin in earnest.
San Jose, Dallas and Anaheim play each other twice each over the final two and a half weeks of the regular season, games that will go a long way towards deciding the NHL’s most important division title.
“These games are of vital importance,” Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle told The Canadian Press on Tuesday.
The defending Stanley Cup champs are in Dallas on Wednesday night, the Ducks carrying a tenuous one-point advantage over the Stars into the affair. Anaheim then plays Friday night at San Jose. The sizzling Sharks are first in the division, three points ahead of Anaheim before taking on the Kings in Los Angeles on Tuesday night.
“Those are games that we’ve talked about from three weeks ago,” said Stars head coach Dave Tippett. “We put together a month-long plan for our team to prepare down the stretch and those are games that are certainly highlighted on your calendar.
“San Jose has been on a phenomenal run so that’s pushed them up top a little bit,” added Tippett. “But they have games against Anaheim and games against us so we’ll see where everything falls.”
The winner of the division likely gets the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference and a somewhat easier first-round matchup – although in the West there’s nothing too easy. Still, the two Pacific clubs who don’t win the division are likely to face off in the opening round in the 4-5 conference matchup. Ouch.
“I think it’s disrespectful to think that way because there’s good teams in every division,” said Caryle, downplaying the hype of such a series. “There’s good teams in the East and the West. When you don’t play one another at regular intervals, you don’t really have a measuring stick. Until you really play those teams and see how you match up, no one really knows.”
Caryle and Tippett may not want to say it, but we will.
Along with the NHL-leading Detroit Red Wings, we argue the three Pacific Division contenders make up the best four teams in the NHL. And one will almost surely be out in the first round. Hence the urgency of the six total games involving the Sharks, Ducks and Stars.
“Those games against Dallas and San Jose are critical,” said Carlyle.
If you think you’ve seen this movie before, it’s because you have. The same three clubs also came down to the wire last season and finished three points apart, the Ducks winning the division with 110 points followed by San Jose (107) and Dallas (107).
“It’s very close again and I think it’s going to come down the same way as last year where you have a couple of points separating three teams,” said Tippett.
The Ducks feel getting a top seed with last year’s division win was key. It allowed for home ice advantage in the opening two rounds and facing Minnesota and Vancouver in the first two rounds sure beat what San Jose got – Nashville (a powerhouse last year) and Detroit.
“Last year it took us until the last game of the season to win the division,” recalled Carlyle. “Vancouver beat San Jose in overtime for us to clinch with 110 points. We felt it was big for us from our standpoint of our organization.”
Unless the Sharks cool off, the Ducks and Stars better get used to each other past Wednesday night.
“With the standings and how tight we are and where both clubs are situated, it leads to a matchup that quite possibly could take place in three weeks from now,” agreed Carlyle. “What we have to do is play to a higher level than what we’ve played against their hockey club for sure. We’ve only won one game against them.”
That may surprise many hockey fans who don’t watch much Pacific Division hockey but yes, the Stars have manhandled the Ducks this season to the tune of winning five of six games.
“Their specialty teams have definitely outplayed ours,” said Carlyle. “If you look at the makeup of those games, their power play and their penalty killing has won them the hockey games.”
The Stars have their own issues going into Wednesday’s game.
They’ve suddenly slumped to a 1-5-0 in their last six, falling out of first place in the division after leading it for six weeks. Tippett points to the adjustment period that was needed after the blockbuster acquisition of star centre Brad Richards at the Feb. 26 trade deadline. Tippett has tried different combinations to make Richards feel comfortable while also trying to accommodate centres Mike Ribeiro and Mike Modano.
“When we made that trade, a deal like that shakes up things,” said Tippett. “Because you have a player of Brad’s status that comes in and we have to figure out where he is. Plus we lost three players off our team. So it’s taken us a little time to get things smoothed over a little bit.
“But I felt like the last game (4-3 loss to Vancouver), you take the first period out, I felt like things were coming together pretty well. Hopefully it’s kind of the end of that and we can start pushing forward here.”