When the NHL schedule for this shortened season was announced, many people bought tickets for tonight's contest between the Blackhawks and Blues hoping it might be a crucial game for either team to win the Central Division or even the number-one, home-ice advantage seed for the conference playoffs. Alas, tonight's marquee match-up will not have anything to do with a battle for first place and instead will determine if the Blues can win home ice advantage in the first round by finishing fourth, ahead of both the Kings and Sharks. Even though Chicago has nothing to gain by winning, they will nevertheless still want to win this game and finish with the best record possible. The Blues' fate is squarely in their own hands and may depend on goaltender Jaro Halak, who might be called upon to suit up after an extended injury and shake the rust off in preparation for the playoffs.
Both Chicago and St. Louis will be in the hunt for Lord Stanley's Cup, yet it is still undetermined what team each will face in the first round even though this is the last night of the regular season, excluding tomorrow's make-up game in Boston. Columbus and Detroit are in a fierce competition for the last playoff slot and the right to face the Blackhawks in the first round. Columbus trails Detroit by a single point and could take eighth if they defeat Nashville at home and Detroit loses in regulation at Dallas. If the Red Wings win or force the game to bonus-time, they would then take the eighth slot, winning the first tie-breaker against the Jackets. The Blues hold the fourth seed by one point over both the Kings and Sharks. If they defeat Chicago tonight, they finish fourth and face the winner of the Sharks/Kings game later tonight. If the Blues lose in bonus-time to Chicago, they would win the tie-breaker against San Jose, but not Los Angeles. If it is a regulation win in California, the Blues finish fifth and play the winner. And it's possible the Blues could finish sixth (and face Vancouver) if San Jose wins in bonus-time in Los Angeles. Whew, it sure is complicated, eh?
Chicago may have clinched the President's Trophy, yet that's no guarantee the Hawks will make it out of the first round of the playoffs, much less win the Stanley Cup. There have been many upsets in which the best team in the regular season was knocked out by an underdog. The most painful for Blues Nation was in 2000 when the San Jose Sharks knocked out the President Trophy winning Blues in seven games. More impressive was the eighth-seeded Sharks' (82 points) handling of the 1994 Red Wings, first in the Western Conference with 100 points. In 2003, the seventh place Anaheim Ducks swept the Red Wings, Central Division champs with 110 points, in four games. However, the most impressive modern-era upset occurred in the 1982 playoffs, when the Los Angeles Kings, who finished the regular season with only 63 points (17 games under .500) , knocked off the first place Edmonton Oilers, the number one seed with 111 points, 31 games over .500. For the math impaired, that is a NHL record 48 point differential. The Kings outscored the Gretzky/Messier-led Oilers 27 to 23 in the five game series. Yes, Grant Fuhr was the goaltender for Edmonton, who uncharacteristically had a 5.05 goals against average in that series.
Since 1920, only 39 teams have had the best regular season record in the league and gone on to win the Cup, 42% of the time. The first to do it was the Ottawa Senators in 1920, the last the 2008 Detroit Red Wings. The Montreal Canadiens have won both a Cup and regular season championship a record 13 times. Since the inception of the President's Trophy in 1985, only 7 teams have won both the Trophy and the Stanley Cup (26%). Since the turn of the century, only three teams have accomplished the feat, Detroit twice (2008, 2002) and Colorado (2001). The Blackhawks may think they are the best team in the league, yet the season realistically starts over with the playoffs and that Trophy will not help Chicago at all on the ice since it will not be playing. If anything, the Hawks might be thinking too much about the Trophy and not so much about the Cup. It wouldn't be difficult at all to root for Columbus to knock them out in the first round, just as it would not be too painful to hope Detroit could do it as well, depending who finishes eighth.
Chicago has a rich playoff heritage that stretches back to 1927, the first year the club played hockey in Chicago. (Previously, most of the members of that team had played in the Western Hockey League as the Portland Rosebuds the year before.) In 86 seasons, the Blackhawks have now qualified for the playoffs 50 times, a decent enough 58% success rate. With four Stanley Cups to celebrate, Chicago has also lost in the Finals seven times. In comparison, St. Louis has qualified for the playoffs 38 times in 46 seasons, an amazing 83% success rate, with a 25 year playoff qualification streak from 1979 to 2004. Although the Blues have not won the Stanley Cup (yet), they made it to the Finals three times, the first three years that the Blues existed and qualified for the playoffs, 1968 to 1970.
The Blues are peaking at the right time, winning 11 of 14 games so far this April, outscoring opponents 32 to 21. Brian Elliott has returned from hell and purgatory, Jaro Halak has been resurrected from his limbo and it is even possible, nay likely, that T.J. Oshie will be healed and ready for post season play. May these be signs the hockey gods have more good things in store for Blues Nation soon.