Handicapping a Pacific Division race going down to the wire
Playoff races are different in every division. In the Atlantic, the triumvirate of the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Tampa Bay Lightning seemingly solidified their playoff berths months ago. Out in the Pacific? A very different story.
There were two notable outcomes on Tuesday night – the first being Calgary’s regulation win over the Los Angeles Kings, the second an Edmonton Oilers’ victory over the Vegas Golden Knights at T-Mobile Arena. With the Oilers gaining a net two points on the Golden Knights and Kings, the division further tightened, offering a compelling playoff race to finish the season.
Separated by just three points, consider each team’s remaining outlook:
Squint at these tables three different ways, and you can come up with a credible argument for each team winning the Pacific Division.
The Golden Knights are in the driver’s seat, two points up on the Kings with the regulation win tiebreaker in hand, and three points up on the Oilers with a game in hand and the regulation win tiebreaker in hand. The Knights will play three of their remaining eight games on home ice, and only once play a team – the Dallas Stars on April 8 – with a better goal differential on the year. Notably, they will play the Kings two days prior at T-Mobile Arena.
The Kings are two points in trail of the Golden Knights and have a much more difficult schedule than the other two Pacific contenders. Not only do they play five of eight on the road, but five of their remaining opponents have relatively outperformed them this season. The good news for the Kings is they have the most leverage within the division – two of their games are against the Oilers, with one against the Golden Knights, so they still control their own destiny.
The Oilers, meanwhile, have the best goal differential of the three teams and have made considerable headway in the division in recent weeks. Save for the Colorado Avalanche on April 11, every one of their remaining opponents is roadkill and have been capitulating in the standings for months. Edmonton’s biggest issue might be time – the Oilers have one fewer game remaining than the two teams they are chasing and are three points plus a tiebreaker in trail of the division, which is not insignificant this late in the year.
One helpful gauge for forecasting how this race may resolve in the Pacific is to see how each of the three teams are trending. Whereas the Golden Knights have preferred the slow-and-steady approach, the Oilers and Kings have been white-hot since the turn of the calendar year:
What fascinates me most about these three teams is, despite how clustered they are in the standings, the makeup of the three clubs couldn’t be more disparate from one another.
The Golden Knights are a deep, possession-based team that generally dominate teams at even strength. On the year, Vegas is the ninth best even-strength team (+0.41 goals per 60 minutes), and notably are one of a small group of teams getting quality goaltending despite a carousel in net – Jonathan Quick is the most recent addition to a group featuring Laurent Brossoit, Adin Hill, and Logan Thompson.
The Kings and Oilers have more similar even-strength performances – the Kings at +0.23 goals per 60 minutes (12th), the Oilers at +0.19 (13th). But these two teams tow the deadliest power plays you will find in the league.
For the Oilers, that’s just business as usual. They are averaging a whopping 13.5 goals per 60 minutes on the man advantage in another season where the Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl-led power play will comfortably lead the rest of the league in terms of performance.
To understand how silly this is, compare them to the other best power plays you can find in the league. The daylight between them is extraordinary – unless you look at what Los Angeles has done in recent months:
Eight games left – seven if you are in Alberta. Who do you have taking the Pacific Division crown?
Data via Natural Stat Trick, NHL.com, Evolving Hockey, Hockey Reference