The NHL Playoffs Without a Canadian team????

For the first time since 1969-70 we may be seeing an NHL playoff season without a Canadian team. That’s the harsh reality that faces the seven Canadian teams as we look at the standings on February 10.

Since the current format of two points for a win and one point for a loss in overtime or the shootout was added for the 2005-06 season, only four teams have reached 95 points and failed to qualify for the post-season. The 2006-07 Colorado Avalanche had 95 points and the Calgary Flames claimed the eighth and final spot in the Western Conference with 96 points. The 2010-11 Dallas Stars had 95 points and the last playoff spot went to the Chicago Blackhawks with 97 points. Just last year, we saw it happen twice as the Los Angeles Kings reached 95 points only to the see the Flames claim the final berth with 97 points and in the Eastern Conference the Boston Bruins ‘ 96 points left them two short of the eight place Pittsburgh Penguins.

So a decade of history tells us that the magic number is generally 95 points if a team wants to pretty much guarantee itself a post season berth. Can any of the Canadian teams get to 95 points? Mathematically yes, all seven teams have enough points “still on the table” to reach 95 points, but realistically it isn’t going to happen. All seven teams are going to have to pick up their paces significantly compared to the percentage of points they have obtained from their games to date. As an example, Edmonton has played at a .427 pace to date and to reach 95 points they would have to play at a .889 pace over the remaining games to reach 95 points. Toronto would have to play at a .800 pace (compared to .452), Winnipeg would have to play .759 hockey (compared to .481), Calgary would have to step up to a .733 pace (compared to .490 to date), Ottawa would need to pick up points at a .722 pace (compared to .509 to date), Vancouver would have to play .696 hockey (compared to .519 so far) and Montreal would have to show the least improvement, playing .685 hockey from here on out (compared to .527 to date). Add to that the fact that Toronto and Edmonton currently sit last in their respective conferences and Calgary and Winnipeg sit third last and second last respectively in the Western Conference, all four of those teams have the added burden of having to catch and pass a number of teams to reach eighth place. Given the hole the Oilers, Leafs, Flames and Jets have dug for themselves it would appear that if they are not already planning for “next year”, then they should be.

That leaves us with three interesting possibilities for one or more Canadian participants in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Let’s look at each one individually.

Montreal Canadiens: The Canadiens started quickly (19-4-3) and for a long time were in first place in the Eastern Conference. Triggered by an injury to star goaltender Carey Price they have continued to slump (5-20-1 from Dec 3 through Feb 3) and have now fallen to 10th place in the East, three points behind the eighth place Pittsburgh Penguins. Their problem since Price’s injury hasn’t really been goaltending (Mike Condon has been respectable), it’s been lack of scoring, but of course in this era of low scoring games it does help if you have the league’s best goaltender between the pipes. The Canadiens have 27 games left in which to get the 37 points they need to take them to 95 and they are within nine points of all of the teams ahead of them except Washington and Florida, so they have a good chance, providing they can get back to playing good hockey and avoid any further slumps. If Price could get healthy, he may be the wild card. Better than any trade deadline addition and well rested to boot.

Ottawa Senators: The Senators showed this week that they are a “now” team, by obtaining Toronto defenseman Dion Phaneuf as they gear up for a playoff drive. Phaneuf was the key player in a nine player trade with the Maple Leafs and will add depth to the Senators blue line. He will no longer be expected to log top pairing minutes (Erik Karlsson and Marc Methot will handle those responsibilities), but the mere fact that the Senators were willing to trade with their Provincial arch enemy shows how keen they are to get this turned around1Ottawa-Toronto trades are as rare as Red Sox-Yankee trades in baseball, the rivalry is so intense. Not only is there playoff revenue to keep in mind, but the team is making noises about wanting a new arena, and non-playoff teams are not usually a good advert for attracting financial support for a new building, whatever the sport. The Senators are currently twelfth in the Eastern Conference five points out of a playoff spot and like the Canadiens they have 27 games remaining. It will take a good streak, similar to the route they took last season to get to the post season if they are to reach 95 points. But to do so, they need to catch and pass at least four of the teams ahead of them in the standings, but they are only two points behind Montreal so the possibility of playoff hockey in the Nation’s Capital this spring still exists.

Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks are a bit unique. They have shown signs of being in a rebuild mode, have had bad stretches and lost some key games so far this season. However, they are only two points behind Colorado, who currently hold the eighth and final playoff spot in the west. The Canucks biggest advantage is that they play in the relatively weak Pacific Division, where the first three teams automatically qualify for the post season. Los Angeles, San Jose and Anaheim are ahead of them in their division (67, 60 and 59 points respectively) and the Canucks are fourth with 56 points. The Kings appear to be a lock for the division title. San Jose has been a much better road team this year than at home (18-8-2 on the road vs. 10-12-2 at home) and 18 of the Sharks remaining 32 games are at home, which leaves the Canucks with an opportunity if the Sharks continue to struggle in San Jose. The Ducks started out very slowly, not scoring goals and languished in the bottom three in the conference for much of the season, but are playing their best hockey of the year right now. The Canucks should likely target San Jose as the team to catch, but while doing so they can’t forget about the Arizona Coyotes who are only two points behind and with a game in hand and maybe even Calgary if the Flames can go on a run. The Flames are only five points behind Vancouver and have played two less games than the Canucks.

With three point games in the mix, sometimes even a loss picks up a point for a team, so nothing is out of the question, but we certainly won’t see five Canadian teams in the post season like we did last year.

Forty six years ago, in 1969-70 the then twelve team league comprised two divisions. The only Canadian teams in the league at that point were Montréal and Toronto, with both in the Eastern Division. The Canadiens had 92 points and the Leafs 71 points good enough for fifth and sixth respectively in their division. Could it happen again? It certainly could if someone doesn’t go on a run very soon.

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1. Ottawa-Toronto trades are as rare as Red Sox-Yankee trades in baseball, the rivalry is so intense