We’re a couple of weeks away from any potential Game 7 scenarios, but fans looking for playoff atmosphere won’t have to wait much longer. On Thursday night in San Jose, the first of the three games that will determine the final Western Conference playoff spot will take place.
In the contest, the Colorado Avalanche will head into the Sharks’ building with a chance to put the finishing touches on an unexpected campaign in which they’ve risen from league laughingstock to wild-card contender, but this isn’t the only contest that will decide the final playoff spot. On Friday, the Chicago Blackhawks will travel to St. Louis to square off against the Blues, and if St. Louis can pick up at least a point, it will set up a winner-take-all Game 82 pitting the Blues against the Avs.
So, who takes the final post-season spot out West? Here’s what needs to happen, and why they will — or won’t — be playing playoff hockey this season:
ST. LOUIS BLUES
How They Get In: The Blues have slightly less control over their own fate given their final-seconds defeat at the hands of the rival Blackhawks on Wednesday, but St. Louis still has the keys here. Wins in both of their remaining games — a rematch with Chicago and the season-ending clash in Colorado — will send St. Louis into the post-season. A single point Friday paired with an Avalanche loss would mean the Blues need to beat Colorado in regulation or overtime on Saturday. A loss to the Blackhawks in regulation on Friday, though, means the Blues will need nothing less than back-to-back regulation losses for the Avalanche, the second of which will be up to St. Louis.
Why They Make It: It comes down to the individual talents that St. Louis possesses. While Colorado boasts a potential Hart Trophy winner, few players can singlehandedly take over a game like Vladimir Tarasenko. He has 10 goals and 15 points over his past 19 games, and his line with Brayden Schenn and Jaden Schwartz remains one of the league’s most lethal. None of this is to mention the depth of the roster, either, which includes Alex Steen, Patrik Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka. And it’s going to be hard to convince anyone that Alex Pietrangelo isn’t about to do everything in his power to push the Blues into the post-season. Finally, you have to consider the schedule. Yes, St. Louis just blew a late 3-1 lead to the Blackhawks, but Chicago is without Jonathan Toews, without Corey Crawford and are a shadow of the team that they were even last season. The Blackhawks also haven’t won back-to-back games in six weeks, so two points should be ripe for the picking on Friday, at which point St. Louis prepares for the winner-take-all game on Saturday.
Why They Miss: The past month-and-a-half hasn’t been kind to the Blues. They’re a combined 9-10-2 since Feb. 15 and their 20 points puts them into a tie with the likes of the Blackhawks and Ottawa Senators, two teams who are looking forward to the draft lottery. The offense has been downright dreadful for much of the season and that’s particularly so over the past several weeks. Only one team, the Calgary Flames, has scored fewer goals since mid-February, and it’s really looking like trading away Paul Stastny, who could have provided an extra bit of offense, might come back to bite the Blues. You also have to worry — and we mean really, truly worry — about whether either St. Louis keeper can get the job done right now. Jake Allen and Carter Hutton have combined for a .895 save percentage over St. Louis’ past 21 games. Ugly.
How They Get In: Two wins and they’re in. That much is simple. The scenarios beyond that, however, are a bit more convoluted because of the NHL’s tiebreakers. So, let’s dive in. First, let’s say Colorado earns a victory of any variety over the San Jose Sharks. That paired with a Blues regulation loss on Friday means the Avalanche are in. If St. Louis earns a single point Friday, though, Colorado needs a win over San Jose and to take the Blues to extra time. If the Blues win in a shootout Friday, the Avalanche would then need to beat St. Louis in regulation or overtime on Saturday to get in. If the Blues win in overtime or regulation Friday, Colorado could still sneak in by pairing a regulation or overtime loss to San Jose with a regulation win over St. Louis. Got all that? Good.
Why They Make It: Nathan MacKinnon has looked like a man on a mission all season long, and what reason has he given anyone to believe he’s about to slow down now? He has 14 goals and 33 points over his past 23 games and he has formed a deadly 1-2 combination with Mikko Rantanen, who has 11 goals and 30 points of his own over the past 24 contests. Colorado is also getting high-end contributions from Gabriel Landeskog, Carl Soderberg and defenseman Tyson Barrie, and the Avs' attack has been the 11th-most potent since the start of March. Maybe you’re not a fan of Colorado’s odds as they head into a tilt with the Sharks, but consider that the Avalanche have beaten San Jose both times the two teams have squared off this season and by a combined score of 8-4, no less. The one-point advantage for Colorado also has to come into play here. They are entirely in control of their own fate, and this is as close to a playoff game as the core of this team has seen in years. They’re going to come ready.
Why They Miss: Losing Erik Johnson would have been bad enough, but that his loss came along with an injury to Semyon Varlamov is bordering on disastrous. Earlier in the season, Jonathan Bernier was playing lights-out, but the Avalanche backup hasn’t been anywhere near as good in recent weeks. In fact, in four starts and six games played, Bernier has a combined .884 SP with a bloated 3.76 GAA. He stands to be busy Thursday against the Sharks, too. It should be noted that despite the two wins, Colorado has been outshot by a whopping 87-42 margin against the two tilts between the teams. And if it comes down to the winner-take-all game, it’s tough to imagine the Avalanche, who finished with a near historically bad record last season, will beat out a team as experienced and deep as the Blues. Colorado will have to prove a lot of doubters wrong.
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