Three important things happened on Monday night.
Firstly, the Vancouver Canucks beat the Dallas Stars in regulation, closing out a “must-win” game in decisive fashion.
Secondly, the Vegas Golden Knights lost in regulation to the New Jersey Devils, missing out on a golden opportunity for two key points against a lowly opponent.
Thirdly, and as a direct consequence of the first two occurrences, the path to the third seed in the Pacific Division opened right up, and put the Canucks in firm control of their own playoff destiny for the first time since the 2021/22 season got off the ground.
To show how it all breaks down, let’s start with the aforementioned Golden Knights. With their Sunday loss and the Canucks’ win, Vegas fell effectively behind Vancouver in the playoff race. Now, the Canucks hold the higher point percentage at .566 with a 38-28-10 record, compared to the Golden Knights’ .565 and 41-31-5 record.
The Canucks have six games remaining. The Golden Knights have five. So long as the Canucks secure two more points than the Golden Knights over that span, they’ll stay ahead.
But staying ahead of Vegas is only part of the playoff puzzle. To figure out the rest, we turn to the Los Angeles Kings, who did not play on Sunday.
As of this writing, the Kings hold a .584 point percentage and a record of 40-27-10. That puts them four points ahead of the Canucks, with five games remaining and Vancouver holding a single game in hand.
But here’s where a so-called “four-point” game becomes vital. The Canucks and Kings meet in the second-to-last game of the regular season on April 28, 2022. If the Canucks can just match the record of the Kings between now and then, they’ll head into that matchup with a chance to move functionally ahead in the standings.
By matching Los Angeles otherwise and then beating them in regulation, the Canucks would move into a tie with the Kings and take over the lead in regulation wins, which is the NHL’s first tiebreaker.
Then it’s one final game against the Edmonton Oilers — Vancouver’s presumed first-round opponent — to secure that spot, and the Canucks are in.
At this point, no one can take that possibility away from them but themselves.
Run the table for the rest of the season and they are guaranteed to make it.
Just win one more game over the final stretch than the Golden Knights and Kings do, and they’re in.
How many losses can Vancouver afford from here on out? That’s easy. The answer is exactly as many losses as the Golden Knights take, and exactly one fewer than the Kings (so long as the Canucks stay ahead in the tiebreaker, too.) It really is that simple.
The door is open. The Canucks just have to step through it.
There will, of course, be obstacles. The Ottawa Senators and Seattle Kraken represent two “gimme” opponents that the Canucks can’t afford not to beat. The Minnesota Wild, Calgary Flames, and Oilers will be far more of a challenge.
Los Angeles’ remaining games are a bit of a cake-walk; they play Anaheim twice, Chicago once, and Seattle once. That makes that game against the Canucks — LA’s last of the year — all the more crucial.
The Golden Knights play Washington, San Jose, Dallas, Chicago, and St. Louis. That’s three playoff teams, the same number that the Canucks will have to contend with.
It won’t be easy. It won’t be a slam-dunk. But the end result is now entirely within the Canucks’ control, and that’s a remarkable victory in and of itself for a team that was last in the Pacific Division two months into the season.
It’s worth noting that, as the Pacific path to the playoffs has opened up, the Canucks’ other potential door to the playoffs is closing rapidly.
The Nashville Predators and Dallas Stars hold down the two Wild Card spots in the Western Conference right now with identical 43-28-5 records, each good for 91 points. To catch either of them, the Canucks would need to make up a difference of five points over the six remaining games that each team has, meaning the Canucks would need to go something like 4-1-1 while either the Preds or the Stars go 2-4-0.
That’s not impossible, but it’s definitely improbable. As soon as either Nashville or Dallas hits three more wins on the year, they move effectively out of reach.
And so, the focus in Vancouver really should be on that third Pacific Division seed. That’s the playoff position that they’ve put themselves in a position to take over, and that’s the best possible outcome for a 2021/22 season that really, really looked like it was going to be a lost one.
Alternatively, the Canucks’ focus should just be on the next game on their schedule, which is tonight’s matchup against the Ottawa Senators. Win that one, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next, and the Canucks are in.
That’s the kind of simple math that anyone can get behind.