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NHL Playoff Watch: West Race is Tight, But is Parity Good For the League?

Sophie Pustil |
March 31, 2011 | 12:09 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

Corey Perry and the Ducks are closing in on the fourth spot in the West. (Creative Commons/bridgetds)
Corey Perry and the Ducks are closing in on the fourth spot in the West. (Creative Commons/bridgetds)
As it stands Wednesday, a total of eight points separate the No. 2 seed from the No. 8 in the NHL’s Western Conference.

In a league that awards two points for a win and a single point (for reasons beyond my comprehension) for an overtime or shootout loss, the only team in the West with a guaranteed playoff spot is the Vancouver Canucks, who sit comfortably in the league lead by a margin of nine points and sit atop their conference by 13 points.

That means that, with less than two weeks left in the season, seven of the top eight teams in the West are not sure-fire playoff teams and there’s no indication of how the seeding will pan out.

Suddenly every night matters for each team, regardless of whether or not they are actually playing. The Ducks’ win over Calgary Wednesday moved them from seventh place to sixth, and they’re only two points out of fourth. Meanwhile, Detroit’s loss to St. Louis left them vulnerable in the No. 2-spot, with San Jose trailing by just a point with a game in hand.

Without a doubt, the month of March has been intense – any given night a team can play itself into or out of the playoff race.

As a hockey fan, there’s something to be said for the thrill that comes with checking the standings obsessively and knowing that as the scores come in everything can change.

This is, I suppose, what the league had in mind when it fought to implement a salary cap: complete parity.

By putting a limit on how much a team can spend on its players, the NHL ensured that teams as stacked as last year’s Chicago Blackhawks team can’t enjoy a dynasty by stockpiling talent the way teams in the 80s were able to. Every year is an entirely new dynamic, as evidenced by the ‘Hawks’ position in the eighth and final playoff spot in the West, just three points ahead of Dallas and Calgary – Chicago is 4-4-2 in its last 10 games.

The thing is, those dynasties of the 70s and 80s are the ones a sports fan lives for.

Personally, I want to see a perfect team with the players I love get everything they deserve, rather than see them broken up just as they start to gel due to salary cap restraints.

That’s the problem with parity. It becomes necessary for a successful team with players making big money to move every piece that is not nailed down to accommodate the key players’ contracts. Maybe I’m sentimental, but I just don’t believe that’s the way to build a team that truly cares about the logo on their chest and the players in their room.

Last year’s Stanley Cup Finals was fantastic. Despite not having much personal investment in the teams, I watched every single game on the edge of my seat. Why? Because that’s how awesome it was to watch the Blackhawks.

The team clicked in the postseason in a way they hadn’t even managed to in a regular season in which they finished second in the Western Conference. Their depth was unbeatable. Their top players showed up in ways that even I, a hardcore Jonathan Toews fan, couldn’t have anticipated.

On top of that, in what was one of the most badass displays in hockey in ages, Blackhawks defenseman Duncan Keith blocked a puck with his mouth, lost seven teeth and missed just seven minutes of ice time. In fact, Keith logged more minutes in that game than any other player.

If you’re looking for a team with heart, look no further than the 2009-10 Blackhawks. It was never a question of “if” they would win the Stanley Cup, but “when.”

But Chicago had a firesale over the summer in a desperate effort to make it under cap, and now they’re in eighth place, having shed most of the depth that made them so strong last year.

Suddenly the team isn’t nearly as much fun to watch. So who is it that really loses?

The teams in the West are all so close right now not because they are good, but rather because, with the exception of the Canucks, they are all pretty average. The teams lack the consistency necessary to pull away from the pack and make a case for themselves as the team to beat.

So, yes, there is something fun about such a tight race this close to the playoffs. I’m just not convinced that it’s going to make for the most exciting postseason.

Unless, of course, someone knocks the Canucks out – ideally in the second round.

I’m all about upsets.

To reach Sophie Pustil, click here. To read more of her thoughts on the NHL, check out her blog, Gary Roberts: Baby Eater.



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