Monday, January 17, 2011

The Final Countdown

27 games remain; 27 games left for this team to determine its fate. Will they earn a playoff spot or will they sit on the sidelines for the second straight season come late March? Isn't it better to have something to play for this time of the season? Should be an exciting final two months.

For that matter there are seven other teams in the Western Conference who are asking themselves the same question. Some of those teams have fewer than 27 games left, some have more but we are now roughly 2/3rds of the way through the season and while the top three teams (Portland, Spokane and Tri-City) have separated from the pack, the other seven are in a dogfight for five postseason spots.

I was surprised that, outside of Vancouver, no B.C. Division team made any moves, let alone a significant deal, at the trade deadline. But then again, the price for the top available talent was most likely cost-prohibitive. Still, winning the B.C. Division not only gets you a playoff spot but most likely the only home ice advantage of the postseason for any B.C. Division team.

It's really difficult to handicap the race for the postseason over the final 1/3rd of the season. When teams are so close in the standings, injury to a key player, a small slump or a flu bug running through the locker room could cost a club a couple of valuable points. That makes Vancouver's win Sunday over the T-Birds more impressive. They already traded away their best player in Craig Cunningham and were without team captain James Henry among others. In fact the Giants have lost over 230 man games this season to injury. Yet they battled through their third game in three nights and picked up the two points that propelled them to the top of their division.

I think difficulty of schedule will also play a part in determining the last five playoff spots, which may work against the T-Birds and Everett since they both have so many games left against the Big Three; the Winterhawks, Chiefs and Americans. For instance, Seattle still has six games left against Portland. The good news is they are 4-1-0-1 so far this season against the 'Hawks. Everett too has a bevy of games left against Portland (5)and still have four games head-to-head against Tri-City, all on the road. Fortunately the 'Birds have only two games left head-to-head against the Ams, a team that has had their number this season (Seattle is 0-5-0-2 vs. Tri-City). Both the T-Birds and Silvertips face Spokane four more times (2 at home and 2 on the road).
What B.C. Division team or teams might the T-Birds (and for that matter Everett) be fighting with down the stretch for a playoff spot? My guess would be Kamloops and Chilliwack. For one, both those teams are currently right behind Seattle in the standings and secondly the T-Birds have two games left on the schedule against both teams (beginning Tuesday night at home vs. the Blazers). Additionally the other three teams in the B.C. Division are currently at least 3 games above .500. Chilliwack is only a game above .500 and Kamloops is 4 games below. Of the four games left against those two teams, three of those games will be played at the ShoWare Center. The 'Birds have already played twice in Chilliwack (1-0-1-0 with 3 pts earned) and once in Kamloops (0-0-1-0). A win Tuesday would mean a split against the Blazers on home ice (Kamloops beat the T-Birds at the ShoWare Center back on January 18th) with one final meeting with the Blazers in Kamloops on February 9th. The Bruins must travel to Kent twice. At the moment Seattle has a game in hand on Kamloops while Chilliwack has 3 games in hand on the T-Birds.

I mentioned that the 'Birds (and 'Tips) may have the rougher schedule remaining when compared to B.C. Division teams but for Chilliwack, of their remaining 30 games, 12 will be against the U.S. Division. They play in Kent twice and host Everett once. the other nine games will be against Portland (3), Spokane (3) and Tri-City (3). And while Kamloops, with 16 games left, is pretty much done playing the U.S. Division this season (one game left against the T-Birds after Tuesday's game, one left against Everett and three against Tri-City), they finish February with a five-game road trip against the top five teams in the very tough Central Division. Furthermore, the Blazers and Bruins still face each other five more times, much like Seattle and Everett still have five games head-to-head left on their schedules.

At the moment Seattle occupies 7th place in the Western Conference. If they can hold that spot they would be in the postseason. The T-Birds have gone 3-8-1-0 since the break. They sit a game below .500 for the first time since September 26th (1-2). They have 17 home games left and 10 on the road. They play their U.S. Division opponents 17 more times, the B.C. division 9 more and one against the Edmonton Oil Kings of the Central Division. believe they will have to play better than .500 on home ice the rest of the way and steal some road points, even if its an overtime or shootout point, to garner a postseason berth. I believe it won't be easy but it's doable. It has to start Tuesday night at the Sho against Kamloops.

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