Will it be 91 like last year? Or 92 based on the current projections? Or 95 like it was three years ago?
It's a question on everyone's mind these days. How many points will it take to make the playoffs in the NHL's Western Conference.
I dug into that question this morning and here are my findings along with a fearless prediction.
How Things Stand Today
The Flames keep on winning. They've won nine of their last 12 games. Yet separation, it seems, can be hard to come by because everyone else in the West keeps on winning also. With that, the projected cut line for making the playoffs in the West continues to creep higher and higher.
As of this morning, the second wild card team on a points-per-game basis is San Jose. It's Calgary if you were to go to NHL.com look at the standings, but factor in that the Flames are one point back of San Jose with two games in hand and that puts Calgary percentage points ahead of the Sharks.
As for the four teams on the outside looking in as of right now, the best of the rest and closing hard thanks to a 8-1-2 run are the Minnesota Wild.
Extrapolate that out and here's what you get:
- In - San Jose, on pace for 93.7 points
- Out - Minnesota, on pace for 91.3 points
Based on those projections, 92 points or a 14-13-1 finish would be enough to get Calgary into the playoffs.
Except, I don't believe it.
What History Says
Here's a quick look at what point total it's taken since the lockout season to make the playoffs in the West:
2013-14 - Dallas gets in with 91, Phoenix misses with 89
2012-13 - Minnesota gets in with 94*, Columbus misses with 94* (*Based on 82-game projection)
2011-12 - LA gets in with 95, Calgary misses with 90
2010-11 - Chicago gets in with 97, Dallas misses with 95
2009-10 - Colorado gets in with 95, St. Louis misses with 90
2008-09 - Anaheim gets in with 91, Minnesota misses with 89
2007-08 - Nashville gets in with 91, Edmonton misses with 88
2006-07 - Calgary gets in with 96, Colorado misses with 95
2005-06 - Edmonton gets in with 95, Vancouver misses with 92
The key thing to remember is starting last year, the West was only comprised of 14 teams. In theory, that should ever-so-slightly lower the point total required and to demonstrate why, I'll explain using two extreme examples:
- If the West had only nine teams, 88 percent of the teams would make the playoffs including the team in second-last. The point total for the team in 8th out of nine teams is going to end up being quite low.
- If the West had 40 teams, only 20 percent of the teams would make the playoffs. In this case, the point total of the team in 8th out of 40 teams is obviously going to be much higher.
The difference between 14 and 15 teams is considerably less than between 9 and 40 teams but the principles of the theory still apply.
So, look back at last year and sure enough, the 91 points that got the Stars into the Stanley Cup playoffs was lower compared to what it took in most of the previous years when there were 15 teams competing for those eight spots.
However, while theories are nice and over an extended period, it will lead to a trend. This may not be the case this season and here are three reasons why.
Factor 1 - Arizona and Edmonton are so Very, Very Bad
As part of the West, Edmonton and Arizona play an influential role and this season, it hasn't been a role you'd describe as a positive influence. Think quite the opposite as they have both been terrible against Western teams in particular.
Of the two, Arizona has been better but the Coyotes 12-20-4 record vs. Western opponents is deceiving as five of their 12 wins have come against Edmonton. Remove those results and here's what you get:
- Arizona vs. the West (excluding the Oilers): 7-20-4
- Edmonton vs. the West (excluding the Coyotes): 4-17-7
That combined 11-37-11 record is awful and it makes everyone else's record in the West that much better. With that, the point total required by that second wild card team is only going to increase compared to previous years.
Factor 2 - West vs. East
When west teams play west teams, one team is getting points at the expense of the other. The fact that sometimes three points are awarded instead of two is dumb, but that's a discussion for another day.
It's in those West-East games where if one conference has a significant edge, it can stockpile a bunch of extra points and once again, that can elevate the point totals teams will need to make the playoffs in that conference.
I looked at how the West and East have compared this year and in non-conference games as has been the trend in recent years, the West has been stronger once again this season.
Head-to-head, the West has gotten 339 points (154-114-31 record) compared to 322 points (145-122-32 record) for the East. It's not a big difference but it's a difference that could translate to an extra o of one or two points for a contending team.
However, dig deeper and remove Arizona and Edmonton results from the equation and the West-East divide grows even vaster -- 297 points compared to 275.
This is an area where Calgary is losing ground.
The Flames record of 7-12-2 against the East is the worst record of all 14 teams in the West and it's not even close. While most teams in the West are picking up a few extra points in non-conference games, Calgary is surrendering points.
Bottom Four Teams vs. the East (FYI - Edmonton and Arizona are 9th and 10th respectively):
11. Minnesota, 21 gm, 9-10-2, .476 pct
12. Los Angeles, 23 gm, 9-11-3, .457 pct
13. San Jose, 21 gm, 8-10-3, .452 pct
14. Calgary, 21 gm, 7-12-2, .381 pct
Interestingly, the Flames have a critical seven-game Eastern road trip coming up during the Brier. It's a long roadie where in one respect, there's wiggle room for losses as you're not giving away points to a Western team in the process. Yet at the same time, they're points Calgary needs to have.
Bottom line is the Flames need to fare a lot better in the Eastern time zone than they have so far.
Factor 3 - Three-Point Games
When close teams play each other, there are going to be more games that are going to be decided in overtime. That's natural.
Given how tightly bunched the teams in 5th through 12th are in the West -- eight teams within 11 points, there could be an even higher amount of three-point games this year as teams play not-to-lose in regulation instead of play to win.
Given that, expect another little bump up from the normal point totals one might see.
In Conclusion: 95 Points
While the point total should be less in the West given the 14 teams vs 16 teams, I see this season as an exception to the norm. The biggest factor is how extremely charitable the two cellar dwellers have been -- Arizona and Edmonton, who are light years away from 12th place Colorado.
Add in the West's edge over the East in non-Conference games and potentially a higher number of three-point games down the stretch and I predict this is a year in which you will need 95 points to make the playoffs in the Western Conference.
So adjust your scopes Flames fans, the record for Calgary to get to the post-season given their 30-21-3 mark today will likely need to be a finish of 15-11-2 over the season's final 28 games. It's doable, but it's going to be a very stiff challenge with no wiggle room at all for a long losing streak.
While finishing the season four games above .500 is not going to be easy, the one thing we know is it will also not be boring. Buckle up and enjoy the roller-coaster ride, which continues tonight in Los Angeles.
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