When Losing is Winning… NHL’s Final Day

We have made it to the final day of the NHL’s regular season, and there’s only one game on the menu that means anything.  Unless it turns out a certain way, and then we’ll have one more game that means everything, but we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

I’ll quickly recap Saturday’s action by saying that the eastern conference playoffs are all set up, with the following first round matchups:

#1 Washington vs. #8 N.Y. Rangers
#2 Philadelphia vs. #7 Buffalo
#3 Boston vs. #6 Montreal
#4 Pittsburgh vs. #5 Tampa Bay

Saturday also solidified much of the order in the western conference, but the bottom half of the seedings are still dependent upon today’s outcome of the Detroit @ Chicago game.  That game starts at 12:30 and is on NBC.

I want to talk about that game, and why we could possibly expect a less than hard fought win for the home team.  There are a few things that shout at me as to why Dallas’ dreams will be crushed before they take the ice tonight in Minnesota, which of course is to say that I think Chicago seems to be a good bet today.

First, the Blackhawks need to win.  Yes, it is true that needing to win does not always guarantee it (see Carolina last night), but in many cases late in any sports season, the team teetering on elimination usually plays with its hair on fire and rises to the level of the situation.  Just as Carolina did not last night, the Rangers actually did in the first place.  And just as Chicago has or has not, Dallas has completed 75% of its “win out over the final four games” scenario laid upon it just a week ago.  On top of that, Detroit became locked into the 3 seed late last night when San Jose took two points in their final game against Phoenix, and put themselves three points clear of the Red Wings.  Throw on top of that the recent injury to center/winger/probably-emergency-goalie Henrik Zetterberg, and most logical observers would agree that the level of intensity and desperation should be higher on the Hawks’ bench than the Wings’.

But of course, necessity isn’t everything, and sometimes a team is presented with a “win and you’re in” scenario and they just… gasp… lose!  So why won’t the Red Wings win today’s game?  Well, I believe there is another, probably bigger reason that nobody ever truly wants to talk about.  The reason is this: by winning today’s game, Detroit would be forcing itself into a matchup with a team that it would rather not play.  Simply put, if Detroit loses this game, it allows Chicago to jump to the #5 seed and thus push Nashville down to #6 and into a matchup with the Wings.  If Detroit beats Chicago today though, be it in regulation, overtime or shootout, the result would be the top 6 spots remaining as they are right now, and the dreaded matchup with the ultra-physical Phoenix Coyotes.  Now at this point you may be laughing, and saying that I’m an idiot for insinuating that the Detroit Red Wings franchise would ever be afraid to play the Phoenix Coyotes.  But I’m not interested in bravado, I’m interested in facts.  Fact: the last three times these franchises have played in the playoffs, it’s been in the first round and gone at least six games. Fact: of the four games this year between the two teams, the only one decided in 60 minutes was the Coyotes’ early season 4-2 win at Joe Louis Arena.  Fact: last year the Red Wings barely escaped with their skins, needing a Game 7 win on the road over this talented team that was a whole year younger back then.  Suffice it to say that I don’t think the best matchup for an aging team with suspect defending statistics is a team with offensive skill and speed at every position and a lockdown goaltender that is playing for an extra million dollars or two (per season) come July 1.

Now, there are obvious counterpoints to my argument that Detroit is much better off playing Nashville than Phoenix.  First, Detroit went only 2-4 against Nashville this year, with the latest victory coming in overtime.  Yes, but that latest victory was the one where Mike Babcock called a timeout trailing 3-0, and the Red Wings went on to steal that game 4-3 to clinch their playoff spot a week ago.  So, maybe that’s worth a game and a half?  Mental edge…?  The second obvious counterpoint is that one shouldn’t openly fear Ilya Bryzgalov while dismissing a matchup with Vezina contender Pekka Rinne.  I admit Rinne is fantastic, and deserves to be in Vegas when Tim Thomas edges him out for the Vezina, but it’s more about what I don’t see from Nashville’s forwards that makes the decision to lose today easy.

Had Nashville not finally given in to the most obvious logistical trade of the season and acquired the talented / physical cross-bred center Mike Fisher from Ottawa, I don’t think there would be a single forward on the team that would strike fear in any defender’s heart.  They have guys that are good on their best nights, guys like Erat, Hornqvist and the like, but the consistency has not been there, and it shows on the scoresheet.  Nashville’s 219 goals are tied with the anemic Kings for lowest in the western conference among playoff teams.  And as far as Detroit’s poor defense this season (most goals allowed of any western playoff team), what’s the best way to hide this deficiency?  Well, to go against a team that cannot exploit it, of course.  And of the two options that Detroit has in the first round, Nashville is less likely to be able to exploit Detroit’s poor defense than Phoenix is on a seven game basis.  The Predators simply turn in too many off nights offensively, and this should lead to probably two wins for the Red Wings that they might not have had otherwise.  This is invaluable in an NHL playoff series, and don’t think for one second that Babcock and the rest of the Red Wings, from brass to fourth liners, aren’t aware of the implications today.

With all of that said, as a Red Wings fan I would love nothing more than to see them knock Chicago out of the playoffs with a win today.  If Detroit does win in regulation today, then Dallas will lace them up at Minnesota at 6 p.m. with the very same “win and you’re in” scenario that Carolina and Chicago will have let slip away.  I think that game will probably be very tricky for Dallas, since there’s no way they’ll be able to go the afternoon without keeping their eyes on the scoreboard (or blatantly on NBC).  They should know by about 3:00 if they are eliminated or not, and we’ll assume they won’t be for these purposes.  I mean I really don’t want to break down a scenario where both teams in a game are eliminated going into the game; it would just be a waste of time.  So assuming 3:00 rolls around and Dallas gets word that their game at the Xcel Center is for all the marbles, they would have to fight off that innate human urge to start checking each other through the walls of the locker room and search for the nearest liquor shop.  So many times when we are presented with this ultimate situation of one more game to realize our goals, we start envisioning the accomplishment, and not the actual way that it will be accomplished.  Jarome Iginla said that was his mistake entering Game 6 of the 2004 Finals that got away.  Just last week Matt Howard, the senior forward for Butler’s incredible basketball team, told his teammates in the hallway just seconds prior to taking the floor in the final game, “Don’t think about the national championship. This is the last time we will play together.”  While that statement was true because they were a college team, and there’s no reason to think the October 2011 sun won’t rise for the Dallas Stars, there is a sense of this maybe being the last time they get to play with their best player, center Brad Richards.  And what’s more important is that the Stars follow Howard’s sentiment to not think about the playoffs, but instead to think about dismantling the Wild.  I’ll go on record as saying that if Chicago does drop today’s game in regulation, I do believe that Dallas will be able to get their minds straight and complete their week-long mission and win their fifth in a row to close out the 8th seed.  But I’ll also go on record and say that I don’t think it will come to that, and I expect Chicago to take not just one, but two points from today’s game against the Red Wings.

Either way, it makes for an interesting final day of hockey, and sets up the most exciting time of the year for hockey fans worldwide.

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