Nobody would have blamed you if you looked at the divisional alignment for the 2020-21 season and penciled three teams at the top of the West Division standings: Colorado, Vegas, and St. Louis. Those three rosters looked to be the best on paper, have been the most successful over the past couple of years, and just seemed like locks to make the playoffs.
That would have meant the fourth spot was going to come down to one of the other flawed or rebuilding rosters in the division, with Minnesota appearing to have the inside track.
The season has not exactly played out that way.
Entering Saturday it is actually Minnesota that has jumped to the top of the standings alongside Vegas and Colorado, while the Blues find themselves in a surprising three-team race for the fourth spot with Arizona and San Jose.
After Friday’s results, where the Coyotes were 7-4 losers to Vegas and the Blues and Sharks were winners, the standings look like this:
Minnesota has a solid cushion in the third spot with games in hand on both Arizona and St. Louis, so the 4-5-6 spots are obviously the ones to watch right now.
Their current point paces are as follows:
St. Louis: 58.8
San Jose: 57.4
It is really difficult to get much closer than that.
Schedule matters, and Arizona has the edge
The fastest way to make up ground in a playoff race is always going to be in head-to-head matchups. A regulation win against a team you are chasing is a four-point swing in the standings, and if you can win a couple of those games you make up a lot ground in a very short period of time.
This is going to be the problem for the Blues.
They only have ONE game remaining against Arizona and San Jose (a single game against Arizona), while the bulk of their remaining schedule is against the top-three teams in the division. They are 4-7-1 in games against those teams so far this season.
The breakdown of their remaining 16 games is as follows:
- Six games against Minnesota
- Four games against Colorado
- Two games against Vegas
- Two games against Anaheim
- One game against Arizona
- One game against Los Angeles
They have what is BY FAR the toughest remaining schedule of the three teams.
Arizona and San Jose are going to play each other four more times (Arizona has won three of the first four games so far this season) while the Coyotes have the slightly easier schedule in their other remaining games. The Sharks play Vegas, Colorado, and Minnesota 10 times over their remaining 17 games, while Arizona only plays the top-three teams seven times in 15 games.
If the Blues are going to win this race, they are really going to have to earn it.
Other factors to watch for
• When healthy the Blues have the best overall roster among these three teams. Their biggest issue this season is they have not consistently been healthy, and that has been one of the biggest factors in their regression. But if they have another flaw behind injuries it is most definitely…
• The goaltending factor.
Under normal situations the Coyotes would have a significant edge here with Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta, but both goalies are currently sidelined which has left the crease in the hands of Adin Hill. He has been passable, but he is a significant drop from what Kuemper and Raanta can do when they are healthy and form one of the league’s best goalie duos. If those two were healthy, that, combined with the remaining schedules, might be enough to make Arizona is a strong bet for that fourth spot. But it is not yet known when either will return to the lineup.
But even with that the Sharks and Blues still have goaltending questions of their own as both sit near the bottom of the league in 5-on-5 save percentage and all situations save percentage.
Jordan Binnington has been hit-and-miss for the Blues this season, but they have no reliable option behind him unless they make a trade.
Goaltending has been the Sharks’ Achilles heel for three years now.
• Overall it is really difficult to give any of these teams a significant edge over the other. The Blues have the best roster, but the schedule not going to do them any favors. They have zero margin for error against three outstanding teams almost every night. The Sharks need to take advantage of those four remaining games against Arizona and hope the top-three teams beat up on St. Louis. Arizona needs to beat the teams it is supposed to beat and at least split against the Sharks.
Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.