Back on March 11th I had a look at the various races in the NHL as teams prepared for the last four weeks of action. At that time the San Jose Sharks were “the only team…sitting pretty” in either a divisional race or a race for a Wild Card spot. However, ten days have changed a lot in the Pacific Division and the Sharks aren’t exactly “sitting pretty” anymore. Following a loss at Minnesota on Tuesday night, the Sharks are losers of four straight as both Anaheim and Edmonton look for a window to get back into Pacific Division contention.
The Sharks’ big lead is almost gone as the Oilers and the Ducks sit just four points back of San Jose. Each of the two teams chasing the Sharks holds a game at hand heading into Wednesday. Besides Minnesota the Sharks have recent losses to Dallas, Anaheim, and St. Louis. San Jose will try to get back into the habit of putting points up in the standings on Friday when they go to Dallas to face the Stars. They do look like heavy favorites for that game as they will be idle on Wednesday and Thursday, giving them plenty of rest and time to put their losing streak behind them.
However, the big game before then in the Pacific Division is the one coming up on Wednesday night. The Edmonton Oilers have enjoyed a successful month of March and they will be in Anaheim to face the Ducks. That game will account for each game-at-hand that both teams have over San Jose. Additionally, the winner will be just two points back of the Sharks with each team then having just nine games left.
There are certainly other key head-to-heads in the Pacific before the end of the season. San Jose have a trio of games to play before they head to Alberta next week to face both Edmonton and Calgary. The road through the prairie province isn’t as bump free as it used to be. San Jose play the two teams on back-to-back nights, two games that may prove very significant when it comes to playoff seeding. The Sharks will also host both Calgary and Edmonton to conclude their regular-season schedule, games that will be played on April 6th and 8th.
Either of San Jose, Edmonton, Anaheim, or Calgary missing the playoffs is looking more and more unlikely now. The realistic doomsday scenario for one of these teams is missing a top-three Pacific Division finish and ending up as the 2nd Wild Card. That team looks like they’ll face the Chicago Blackhawks, the team to avoid at all costs in the west.
Edmonton are poised to end a terrible playoff drought in the weeks ahead, one that has seen them absent from the Stanley Cup playoffs since losing game seven of the 2006 Stanley Cup. However, the Oilers can also end some other droughts in the weeks ahead, ones that are much longer. They’ve never won the Pacific Division as it is right now, they never won the old-school Northwest Division, and they never won the former Pacific Division (1993-98). It’s been 30 years since Edmonton won a division title, dating all the way to the Wayne Gretzky era in 1986/87 and the old-old-old-school Smythe Division. Given how few teams there are in NHL divisions, that truly is a streak of futility, one that the Oilers can end in the next two-and-a-half weeks.
In winning the division, Edmonton could actually do something else they haven’t done in decades: host a playoff series. In 2006, NHL fans will remember, they were an 8-seed and, despite the conference title, they didn’t host a playoff series. The last time they did that was in the 1991 Campbell Conference finals, a series they lost to the Minnesota North Stars.