NASHVILLE, Tenn. Predators coach Barry Trotz signaled to his team on Monday that the top priority for the regular seasons final week was resting No. 1 goalie Pekka Rinne, rather than trying to secure home ice for the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Entering Wednesdays games, Nashville is fourth with 100 points, Detroit is fifth with 99 and Chicago is sixth with 98. Conceivably, all three Central Division teams could finish in any order from Nos. 4 through 6. Its mathematically impossible for any of them to finish higher or lower than those spots.
So with four days left before all of the games are complete, the jockeying is on. Some say that the most enviable seed is No. 6, as it guarantees facing the Pacific Division champion, which cannot finish with more points than any of the above three Central teams. (The NHL guarantees that a division champion can be seeded no lower than No. 3 in each of its conferences.)
Here is a breakdown of what could happen:
The Predators need only to win one of their final two games or a regulation loss by Chicago in one of its final two to guarantee that the Predators will finish higher than the Blackhawks. The Predators own the tiebreaker with Chicago.
On Thursday, Nashville hosts ninth-place Dallas, whose playoff chances are on life support. The Stars have 89 points, three less than eighth-place San Jose, with two games remaining.
On Saturday, Nashville finishes on the road against Colorado, which could be eliminated by then. If the Avs (88 points) do not beat Columbus on Thursday or through several combinations of San Jose and Phoenix gaining a point, the Avs will be eliminated.
As a result, Nashville probably has the easiest schedule remaining, especially as they do not have a rivalry game remaining, as the Red Wings and Blackhawks do in their season finale on Saturday.
The Red Wings control their destiny, as they have three games remaining, but they have the toughest schedule left. The play three games in 85 hours: on Wednesday at St. Louis, the Central Division champion, which still has a chance to win the Presidents Trophy for the leagues top regular season record; on Thursday they host New Jersey, owner of the leagues sixth-best record who still has a chance to improve seeding, and on Saturday at 1 p.m. Eastern they host Chicago.
The Red Wings also are stumbling to the finish. They are 3-5-2 in their last 10 and have lost seven in a row on the road. But they retain a core of players who have won Stanley Cups and competed in the final. They are a team never to be underestimated.
By one scenario, if Detroit goes 2-0-1 and Nashville wins its last two, the Predators would finish fourth. The Red Wings own the leagues best home record (31-6-2) and earlier this season set an NHL record for consecutive home wins (23).
Regardless, winning their final two home games will not be easy. Its plausible that the Red Wings will earn three or four points in their last three (1-1-1 or 2-1). If so, they open the door to Nashville to have home ice in the teams first-round series, which could be a big problem for them, considering their road woes lately.
The Blackhawks could conceivably catch the Red Wings by winning their last two, including a regulation win over Detroit in the finale. Chicago has not lost in regulation to Detroit this season (3-0-2) and with a win in regulation in the season finale and a win on Thursday at Minnesota could earn 102 points. If the Red Wings go 1-0-1 in their other two games, the Blackhawks would catch them for fifth, as the Blackhawks would own the tiebreaker (their ROWs would both be 40 but the Blackhawks would win have more points in the head-to-head competition).
If captain Jonathan Toews returns on Thursday after sitting out 20 straight games with a concussion Toews made the trip on Wednesday -- the Blackhawks could get a big lift on the road at Minnesota, which has been eliminated but is playing good hockey lately (3-0-1 in their last four, including an overtime win on Sunday over Chicago). Also, former Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Duncan Keith returns on Thursday after sitting out a five-game suspension.
Chicagos chances of finishing fourth are almost out of reach, as Nashville needs only one win or a regulation loss by Chicago to prevent the Blackhawks from finishing fourth.
However, Chicagos chances of catching Detroit for fifth could be a lot better, especially since they have a head-to-head game with the Red Wings, who could be tired in that season finale. If the Blackhawks who are going in the opposite direction of the Red Wings, having lost only once in regulation in their last 10 win that game in regulation, they could set themselves up for the No. 5 seed.
The big question is, do they want it, particularly if Nashville is the No. 4 seed. Even with a 5-4 victory at Nashville on Saturday, the Blackhawks have fared terribly against the Predators this season. Nashville earned nine of a possible 12 points and outscored Chicago 25-16 in the series. Even in the Blackhawks 2010 Stanley Cup run, perhaps their toughest series was in the opening round against the Predators (Chicago scored a shorthanded goal with its goalie pulled in the waning seconds of regulation to force overtime and win in Game 5 at home otherwise it would have trailed 3-2 going back to Nashville for Game 6).