If you haven’t been paying much attention to the wild-card race in the Western Conference, you’ve missed a lot of bland, mediocre hockey.
The Western Conference has been quite top-heavy this season and there is a clear divide between the contenders and pretenders. The issue here is that the cutline for the contenders stops at effectively six teams, which has left a field of painfully average teams to chase two remaining playoff berths up for grabs. (I would be remiss to not note that this remains a flaw with the NHL’s current playoff system. The Eastern Conference has eight of the 12 best teams in the league by current points per-game, which means that the soft part of the playoff format this year resides out West.)
Outside of an incredible recent surge by the St. Louis Blues, none of the teams in the wild-card chase out West appear very interested in reaching the postseason. If we look at all of the potential Western Conference contenders for the two wild-card spots (eight points currently separate the second wild-card spot and the Los Angeles Kings, who are dead last), this is how they stack up by simple win-loss record since the turn of the calendar year:
Give credit to the Chicago Blackhawks for playing better of late, but this is a team that was abysmal for most of the regular season. Playing at a 99-point pace – while the rest of the competition, on average, is playing at a 71-point pace – has been just enough to get them in the playoff conversation. That’s how bad things were for the Blackhawks in the early parts of the 2018-19 season.
An important distinction here isn’t that these teams just suddenly stopped winning. Outside of Minnesota and, to a lesser extent Colorado, these are bad teams playing bad hockey at a critical point in the season:
The average team in this group is getting about 48 per cent of the shots and scoring chances, and about 47 per cent of the goals. In other words, the teams pushing for the seventh and eight seeds in the Western Conference are being outplayed on a regular basis and that substandard performance has turned the race for those two playoff berths into a crawl.
What’s particularly unfortunate about this divide is that there are teams surging in the Eastern Conference that are at risk of being kept out of the playoffs, largely due to talent imbalance between the two conferences. As an example of this, I will show you two similar tables: how Eastern Conference tweeners have performed since the turn of the calendar year and their underlying numbers over that same period.
This is more in line with what you would expect in a legitimate race. Teams like Montreal, Carolina and Philadelphia are surging; other teams like Columbus and Florida are treading water. And you have the one team in Buffalo that has crashed out of the playoff race. (Their fall from where they were earlier this season has been remarkable.)
Like their records of late suggest, the underlying numbers are much better. The average Eastern Conference contender for the two wild-card berths is getting close to 51 per cent of the shots and scoring chances over this period, and right around 50 per cent of the goals.
The unfortunate reality is one of the 16 best teams in the league is likely going to be left on the outside looking in because of the NHL’s postseason format. The Western Conference’s turtle race – regardless of what happens – is going to put two teams into the playoffs, likely to act as cannon fodder for some of the elite Central and Pacific Division teams.
We can only hope that the quality of play in the middle of the Western Conference improves down the stretch.
Scoring Chance Data via Natural Stat Trick