There are still a few head-to-head games—Calgary and Edmonton are done with each other, but each club has a home-and-home left with the Ducks—and we would predict the three teams will occupy spots No. 2 through No. 4 in the Pacific. (Sorry, Los Angeles.)
As of Saturday morning, the Oilers have a dozen games left while Calgary and Anaheim each have 11 remaining. Edmonton gets the Vancouver Canucks on Hockey Night in Canada Saturday night (10 p.m. ET, 7 p.m. PT) while the Ducks visit the San Jose Sharks. Calgary hosts L.A. on Sunday.
Strength of opponent, home and road, back-to-backs… Here’s a look at which teams have the easiest path down the stretch, and who is going to have play better to nab home ice advantage in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Home and road
Edmonton plays seven of 12 at home while the Flames play five of 11 at home. Anaheim plays six of 11 on home ice.
Calgary does not play on consecutive nights again this season. The Oilers have two back-to-backs while Anaheim has one.
Strength of opponent
Here’s where Edmonton holds an advantage, with two games left against Colorado and three versus Vancouver. Of Edmonton’s remaining 12 games, just four are against teams currently in the playoffs—two against San Jose and two against Anaheim.
Calgary starts a tough road trip on Tuesday—at Washington, Nashville and St. Louis—and faces playoff teams in seven of its last 11 games.
The Ducks also play seven of 11 versus playoff clubs.
The Flames and Ducks each play three games in the final week of the regular season, while Edmonton plays four. Calgary finishes on the road in Anaheim, Los Angeles and San Jose, and the Ducks are home to the Flames, Blackhawks and Kings.
Edmonton plays four games in the final week — at L.A., San Jose and Vancouver, then finishing at home against the Canucks on the final Sunday of the season.
So, the Ducks and Flames play each other and everyone plays the Kings, who will either be highly desperate or eliminated by then.
We’d say the final home-and-home against the long-eliminated Canucks presents the easier of the three schedules to Edmonton.
There are four occasions when teams play on consecutive nights in Alberta down the stretch: L.A. (twice), San Jose, and Anaheim. Edmonton has benefited from that scenario more often this season, but going forward, three of the four teams play in Edmonton the first night with Calgary getting the tired opponent the very next night.
Calgary and Anaheim play a home-and-home on April 2 and 4, which should be must-see viewing. The Flames would do well to break their 26-game losing streak at the Honda Center, both for the valuable points and to establish some confidence in case of a first-round meeting with the Ducks. It’s been 13 years — dating back to Jan. 19, 2004 — since the Flames have won at Disneyland. That simply has to end soon, doesn’t it?
Of course, the NHL schedule maker doesn’t have the advantage of hindsight. But wouldn’t it be great if, instead of Edmonton having three games left with Vancouver, the Oilers and Flames had three games left against each other? Edmonton was lucky to sweep Calgary this season, catching the Flames early when their goaltending was shaky and new coach Glen Gulutzan was still installing his system. The Flames are a much stouter opponent today than they were back in October—of that there is no doubt.
The five games against Colorado and Vancouver, combined with having the most home games, makes us believe that Edmonton has the most preferable schedule of the three teams.
Calgary has a pair of tough three-game roadies left, with five of those contests against very tough playoff opponents.
Anaheim, of course, gets the nod for experience. The Ducks are a veteran team that will handle this stretch-run pressure with nonchalance. They haven’t missed the playoffs in five years, while the Oilers haven’t qualified in a decade.
Finally, Edmonton’s final two games against Vancouver should present an opportunity that the Flames and Ducks do not enjoy: two season-closing games against a Canucks team that’s been out of the hunt for weeks. Usually, the team that needs the points gets them in that scenario. At least, that was how it worked when the Oilers were playing out the string against playoff-bound opponents.
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One team whose schedule bears examination down the stretch is the St. Louis Blues. It’s a patty cake schedule for a team that has won six of its past seven games. Starting Saturday, the Blues begin a stretch that looks like this: at Arizona, at Colorado, vs. Vancouver, vs. Calgary, vs. Arizona, at Arizona, at Colorado.
The Blues’ last three games of the season are also soft: at Florida, at Carolina and home to Colorado. Of their final dozen games, St. Louis plays a team currently in a playoff spot only twice: Calgary and Nashville.
We predict the Blues will pass Nashville in the Central, setting up a Round 1 series against the Minnesota Wild. Or if Chicago falters, the Blackhawks. That pushes the Predators into the wild card mix with one of Edmonton, Calgary or Anaheim — and theoretically the L.A. Kings, who are four points out but play all the right teams down the stretch.
The Kings have three games left against both Edmonton and Calgary, but they’ll have to sweep one of the Alberta opponents in order to make up the necessary ground. The Kings won’t catch St. Louis, a team with an amazingly soft schedule that is peaking at the perfect time in the wake of Ken Hitchcock being fired.
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Coach to the Stars
Speaking of Hitchcock, we’re sticking by our prediction from a few weeks back that he will end up behind the bench of the Dallas Stars in time for next season. But it will come with a proviso: “Get me a goaltender.”
This season was wasted by the Stars, the best team in the Western Conference last season, who currently sit 13 points out of a playoff spot after losing to Calgary Friday night. We predict they’ll attach a prospect or draft pick to one of Kari Lehtonen or Antti Niemi, and ask the Vegas Golden Knights to take one in the expansion draft.
That will leave an open spot to go after Marc-Andre Fleury or Ben Bishop. With goaltending, and at least one defenceman, the Stars are a Cup contender. Without, they’ll finish even lower in the standings next year as every veteran on that roster knows that the leaky tandem in place at the moment can’t win a thing.
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What about Ryan Miller as a short-term answer in Dallas? The pending UFA has fashioned a pretty respectable .915 save percentage behind the NHL’s 23rd stingiest defensive squad in Vancouver while starting 46 games.
The word has always been that Miller, 36, wants to land in California, where his wife Noureen DeWulf has a successful acting career. But does he really want to play behind Jonathan Quick in L.A.? We’d also say the tandems are pretty well set in Anaheim and San Jose.
That leaves Las Vegas—a pretty tall order for a 36-year-old goalie.
Miller has started 11 of the past 12 games for Vancouver while Jacob Markstrom recovers from injury. Markstrom has already signed a three-year, $11-million deal that begins next season—that’s another story.
We believe the Canucks need a very competent netminder to join Markstrom next season. In his four seasons with the Canucks, Markstrom has only produced a .911 save percentage. His career number is .906 — not very strong.
The big Swede has never proven he can carry the load as an NHL No. 1. We’re not sure what the Canucks’ intentions are, but at worst we’d be bringing in a Chad Johnson-level goalie to share duties with him next season.