Commentary

Northwest Division race a five-team sprint to finish

Updated: March 20, 2008, 1:07 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

CALGARY, Alberta -- If the NHL goes back to tradition-drenched conference names, it should call the Northwest the Eddie Shack Division.

It has been that crazy.

Going into Thursday night's games, Minnesota has a three-point lead in the division -- and in the context of the recent logjams, that seems huge. (Or in hockeyspeak, "yooge.")

[+] EnlargeRoberto Luongo
Michael Martin/NHLI/Getty ImagesRoberto Luongo and the Canucks are 5-4-1 over their last 10 games.

Vancouver, Calgary and Colorado all have 84 points, and based on tiebreakers, hold down the sixth through eighth Western Conference playoff spots, in that order.

For all the deserved grief the league has taken over the absurd post-lockout scheduling format that will be only slightly improved next season, one tweak implemented this season added to the usual stretch-run drama.

The final weeks are all intradivisional games.

If the goal is to emphasize rivalries and heighten familiarity and contempt, and if the league wants us all to buy into the concept that the division is the thing, this makes a little sense.

When the league goes to six games against divisional opponents next season, rather than eight, but still falls short of having every team visit every other arena, there's no reason this homestretch system can't remain in effect.

In the Northwest Division, the stretch-run games involve four teams -- or perhaps all five if Edmonton is granted a long shot's consideration -- fighting for four Western Conference playoff spots. Any one of the four -- Minnesota, Vancouver, Calgary and Colorado -- could win the Northwest and claim the West's No. 3 seed. Any one of the four could miss the playoffs altogether.

That could happen if one of the four teams skids while the Nashville Predators (now in the No. 9 conference spot, four points out of the last playoff spot) clean up in their remaining games against Central Division opponents. Or if Edmonton is the hottest team in the division and jumps into the top eight.

There certainly are other entertaining NHL divisional races. Only Detroit has a division title locked up. The emphasis on divisional games can make five-point leads -- i.e., the leads held by Carolina in the Southeast and San Jose in the Pacific -- less secure than they otherwise might be. So there still could be a lot of shuffling down the stretch, and not just in the Pacific.

But nowhere else is a division so tightly packed, whether through the first four or all five teams. It's post-lockout parity. "I prefer the term 'competitive balance,'" NHL commissioner Gary Bettman recently said.

Whatever you want to call the phenomenon, the possibilities in the Northwest are myriad.

After the Wild beat Colorado at home Monday in a showdown for the lead, veteran Minnesota center Brian Rolston mused that the entire division is playing under what amounts to playoff conditions down the stretch, and the good news is anyone from the division making the playoffs will be playoff-ready.

There's a potential downside to that, too, since a team girding for a prolonged playoff run can benefit from backing off a bit in the final week, whether that means resting a workhorse goalie, being more democratic with minutes than usual, or even taking deep breaths in other ways as the postseason looms.

Yet it does add to the entertainment quotient.

The Wild's shootout loss (and one point) at San Jose on Wednesday gave them the three-point lead in the division. That also highlights another scoreboard-watching protocol down the stretch: Especially once the schedule switches to all intradivisional games, the other teams involved in the race are hoping someone wins in regulation. They're not necessarily rooting against another team; they're rooting against three-point games.

Colorado went from first in the Northwest a week ago to fourth place and eighth in the conference (on tiebreakers) in roughly the time it takes Peter Forsberg to feel a twinge wherever it is that he's feeling a twinge nowadays.

"We can control our own destiny. We can be at the top or we can just get in," said Avalanche winger Ryan Smyth, who returned to the lineup last weekend after recovering from his latest injuries -- a minor concussion and a shoulder problem.

Calgary, the most schizophrenic team in the division, has made the season such a roller-coaster ride, the Flames should sell motion-sickness medication at their souvenir shops. They enter the all-divisional stretch run off a 1-3-0 road trip against likely nonplayoff teams, or six lost points.

"Now, with all the division games, it's do or die," Flames center Craig Conroy said after a Tuesday loss at Columbus. "Hopefully, we all realize that. … There's no more time [to say], 'Well, we lost one, or we did this, we did that.' No more excuses. It's just time to play and win."

Back in Calgary on Wednesday, captain Jarome Iginla told reporters, "It's exciting -- it's the playoffs before the playoffs. You could look at the schedule before the year, or halfway through, and say there's probably a good chance that these nine games will be pretty important. As a team, you look at it as a great challenge, a fun thing."

If Roberto Luongo goes into the shutdown mode, the Canucks could retake control. And if Vancouver can only hang around, it can take advantage of playing its final four at home.

And don't rule out the Oilers. Previously written off, they've won 10 of their past 12, with three of the victories coming in overtime, and three in shootouts. They're only one point behind the Predators.

This race does point out what is arguably a flaw in the NHL's playoff qualification system, and this is one time the league perhaps could consider emulating the NBA.

The Pacific Division could end up getting the short end of the stick.

It's entirely possible San Jose, Anaheim and Dallas all end up with more points than the Northwest winner. But because division winners are guaranteed one of the top three seeds, the Northwest champion will be the No. 3 seed. What's unfair about that? Well, it could lead to an Anaheim-Dallas matchup in the Western Conference's 4 vs. 5 first-round matchup. Nobody has a cakewalk in the first round, and that's where the league has it all over the NBA. Regardless of matchups, teams have to win four series to hoist the Cup, so quibbling with the bracket can be nitpicking. But I'll do it, anyway. Especially if Dave Tippett's job is on the line, that kind of first-round draw doesn't seem right.

The NBA has the same 30-team, six-division, two-conference setup as the NHL. Yet it guarantees the division winners only one of the top four seeds. Under that system, the Northwest winner most likely would be the No. 4 seed, matching it up against the third-place team from the Pacific (now Dallas) in that 4 vs. 5 matchup. The Pacific's runner-up (now Anaheim) most likely would be the conference's No. 3 seed and face a Northwest team in the first round.

With fewer intradivisional games next season, that format would make even more sense for the NHL.

In the meantime, the Northwest is a five-team sprint to the finish.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."