With the 2018-19 season winding down, we’re still not technically in the realm of “must-win” games, but we’re awfully close.
On Thursday, the Blue Jackets clobbered the Canadiens in a game with huge implications for the East playoff races. Friday is almost as pivotal in the West’s wild-card battles, and the Arizona Coyotes in particular face their most important weekend in ages.
To start, the Coyotes face the Avalanche in Colorado in an enormous game on Friday. Here’s how a regulation win or loss can swing the odds of making the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, at least by Money Puck’s metrics:
This isn’t the only bubble battle for the Coyotes this weekend, either. After Friday’s big game against the Avs, the Coyotes will host the Minnesota Wild on Sunday.
In the case of the East races, there are two most realistic scenarios: 1) Columbus and Montreal battles for the final wild-card or 2) Carolina, Columbus, and Montreal jockey for the two wild-card spots. (The Hurricanes losing on Thursday keeps things closer, as you can see in the Push for the Playoffs.)
With the Stars in a comfortable spot, the battles come down to the final wild card out West. As you can see, the Coyotes and Wild are the most realistic threats to the Avalanche maintaining their playoff berth, with Chicago and especially Edmonton being extreme long shots:
The Coyotes’ weekend matchups basically conclude the relevant head-to-head matches remaining in the bubble races, unless the Oilers beat the odds and remain relevant when they face the Avalanche in Colorado on April 2.
So, once we pass this weekend, there would be a lot of scoreboard watching if the standings remain tight.
There are any number of ways things could look different by Monday. The Avalanche could be way ahead of everyone else if they beat the Coyotes in regulation, and then Arizona beats the Wild in regulation on Sunday. The Coyotes could win both of their games in regulation, making scoreboard watching a less nervous experience.
It’s really something to consider the stakes. The Avalanche are hoping to grit out a second straight run to the postseason. Arizona hasn’t been there since 2011-12, when they were the Phoenix Coyotes. The Wild, meanwhile, haven’t missed the playoffs since 2012. The Blackhawks aren’t far removed from winning the 2015 Stanley Cup, yet they’re teetering on the edge of missing the playoffs for the second year in a row. And the Oilers, well … they’re the Oilers. That’s a whole other book.
Considering all the injuries the Coyotes have dealt with, it’s remarkable that they’re this close, and the attention Rick Tocchet receives is warranted. Such strong efforts will feel only like moral victories if Arizona falls short, however, and this weekend is probably the biggest one the Coyotes has faced in ages. Maybe decades?
If you want to soak in a near-playoff atmosphere on Friday after absorbing it by watching the scene in Columbus on Thursday, chances are, you’ll find it in Colorado between the Avs and the Coyotes. One game (and for the Coyotes, one weekend) doesn’t get much bigger in a sport with an 82-game regular season.
James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.