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Photo Finish

The Western Conference standings couldn't be any tighter and with all five Northwest teams still in the mix, there are endless possible scenarios to finish out the year.

Monday, 31.03.2008 / 1:46 PM / Features
By Jeff Paterson
 Ladies and gentlemen, your fifth/sixth/seventh/eighth/ninth/tenth or maybe even 11th place Vancouver Canucks.

Less than a week to go in the National Hockey League’s regular season and enough scenarios exist that could see the Canucks wind up in one of seven spots in the Western Conference. Is anybody having any fun yet?

From the highs of a first place showdown with the Minnesota Wild on March 21st to the depths of despair following a four game losing streak just a week later to the promising signs in Sunday’s 6-2 romp over the Calgary Flames, there’s been enough turbulence lately that this stretch drive should have come complete with motion-sickness bags for hockey fans everywhere. And the amazing thing is with just six days and only three games remaining in their regular season, the Canucks don’t have a clue where they’re ultimately going to finish when the songs finally stop in this high-stakes game of musical chairs.

INSIDE THE BOX
Jeff Paterson is a Team 1040 broadcaster and a regular contributor to the Georgia Straight.

E-mail him at jeff.paterson@team1040.ca
All that matters to the Canucks right now is that they got enough help on the out of town scoreboard and most-importantly helped themselves on Sunday to wrestle their destiny away from others. All the hard work that went into maintaining control of their playoff fate went out the window with four straight losses. But with both Nashville and Colorado gaining just single points Sunday and Calgary getting nothing, the Canucks have both hands firmly on the wheel and have a chance to put the pedal to the metal.

Three more wins and the Vancouver Canucks will be on the road to the Stanley Cup and they’ll get there in the passing lane moving past Colorado and Calgary in the process. If the Canucks win out, there’s nothing the Avalanche or Flames can do to keep the Canucks in the rear-view mirror. Of course, that’ll be easier said than done since they play both Colorado and Calgary before the dust settles, but what an opportunity – especially with those games (and one against Edmonton) all on home ice where the Canucks are now 7-1-3 in their last 11 outings.

The National Hockey League got this one right. All of these divisional games to finish up the season have produced exactly what the league had hoped in terms of fantastic finishes and playoff pushes. But even the schedule-maker couldn’t have expected that so much would still be up for grabs with so few games to go.

It really is mind-boggling trying to project what will happen in the games left to be played, but what the heck, it’s worth a shot:

If the Canucks go 3-0, they’ll finish with 94 points and finish no worse than sixth in the conference. Even if they go 2-1, there’s a pretty strong possibility they’ll get where they want to go. If the Canucks get two wins, they’ll move to 92 points which still has the potential to be better than both the Flames and Avalanche.

Of course, if Edmonton beats Calgary on Tuesday at Rexall Place, then the Oilers come here on Thursday with a chance to get to 90 points including 42 victories. The Canucks need three points from their remaining three games to ensure the Oilers can not catch them because Edmonton will end up with more victories than Vancouver if the two teams tie at 90 points.

If Calgary loses in Edmonton on Tuesday, that’ll leave the Flames on a three game losing streak (and with four losses in their last five) heading to Minnesota on Thursday and then flying all the way back to Vancouver for a Saturday showdown.

The Flames are sitting at 90 points, but clearly have the toughest schedule remaining not only in terms of opponents, but with all three of their games on the road and having to spend plenty of time in the air. If Calgary stumbles in its next two games, the best the Flames could do would be to beat the Canucks on Saturday and finish with 92 points and 41 wins.

If the Canucks beat Colorado and Edmonton, they’ll get to 92 points with 41 wins and they hold the tie-breaker on Calgary meaning next Saturday’s game won’t be as pivotal as some thought it might be.

Colorado’s biggest concern (aside from the health of Peter Forsberg) is the fact that it has just two games to go. And the way the schedule is laid out, the Avs play Tuesday in Vancouver but not again until Sunday -- the final day of the regular season when they host Minnesota.

If Colorado doesn’t pick up any points at GM Place, the Avs will have four days to sit and scoreboard watch hoping for results that will render that final game of the season meaningless. Or perhaps, they won’t get the results they want and know that Sunday’s showdown with the Wild is a must-win hockey game to qualify for the playoffs.

Now, that’s just a snapshot of possible scenarios in the Northwest Division and it really doesn’t take the possibility of bonus points into account (although of the 14 Northwest Division games played over the past 10 days, only two have gone beyond regulation time, so the bonus point hasn’t been nearly as much of a factor as many figured it would be).

Of course, Nashville is still very much in the mix with three games to go.

But the Canuck victory over the Flames combined with the Predators overtime loss in Detroit Sunday means the Canucks are back to having to simply match the Preds result for result and they’ll finish higher than Nashville. And the Predators finish with three games in four nights (with two of those on the road), so a clean sweep of those contests will be a tall order.

It’s been an absolutely breath-taking sprint to the finish and one that doesn’t show any signs of slowing down until the teams have played all their games. And even then, the possibility exists that the Canucks and/or Calgary, who finish up on Saturday night, may have to wait until Sunday to find out their playoff fate.

And the way this race has gone so far, who would expect anything less?