Photo credit:© Bob Frid-USA TODAY Sports
Why the hunt for first in Pacific between the Canucks, Kings, and Golden Knights is great for the NHL
2 months ago
Christmas is days away, and the Vancouver Canucks find themselves at the top of the NHL’s overall standings.
Perhaps more importantly, they find themselves at the top of the Pacific Division and the Western Conference standings. The Canucks got there thanks to picking up six of eight possible points on their most recent road trip, capped off with last night’s OT loss in Dallas that could have gone either way.
At the time of this writing, here’s how things look at the top of the Pacific and the Western Conference as a whole.
First, the Pacific, where we see a razor-thin three-horse race developing between the Canucks, Kings, and Golden Knights when you sort by points percentage:
The other important standings listing to look at is the Western Conference standings (also sorted by points percentage):
Now, while those two standings may look similar, they illustrate two different points. The first being that the top three spots in the Pacific Division are likely to be some combination of LA, Vegas, and Vancouver. Calgary, Edmonton, and Seattle will likely be battling for the wild card spots, as none of these teams have been able to find their footing with much consistency this season.
What both of these sets of standings help us understand is just how much of an advantage finishing first in the Pacific could turn out to be. With the Canucks’ likeliest outcome being finishing second or third in the Pacific, that also means they’re likely going to face LA or Vegas in round one of the playoffs, while the Pacific winner — who will also likely win the West — get the worse of the two wild card teams.
First in the Pacific is going to mean a far more easy matchup in the first round, and the margins between facing a team like Nashville, Arizona, St. Louis, or Calgary as opposed to a potential top three team in the West could be razor-thin.
That means for the final three and a half months of the season, all three of these top teams are going to be battling it out for first in the Pacific, with no clear leader having emerged as we head into 2024. And that’s really just the beginning of why this race is so good for the league.
Strength of schedule
According to tankathon.com, the Canucks have the 14th-hardest remaining schedule in the league, while Vegas has the 12th-easiest schedule. With multiple matchups against teams like the Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, and Anaheim Ducks, the LA Kings have the easiest remaining schedule of any team in the league according to tankathon.
Of course, that’s only taking into consideration the strength of the teams’ opponents based on their opponents’ current rankings in the NHL standings. It doesn’t take into consideration things like travel, back to backs, business of the overall schedule, or any of the other factors that go into making a team’s schedule difficult.
As has been well documented, the Canucks had a busy month of November that saw them slip to playing .500 hockey. That was arguably their busiest stretch of the season and featured plenty of travel. With a nice break to close out the month of December, the Canucks will face a similar stretch in January, when they embark on a seven game road trip where they will play seven games in 12 nights. On this trip, they’ll face the St. Louis Blues, the New Jersey Devils, the New York Rangers, and the New York Islanders, before closing out the trip in Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Columbus.
From there, the Canucks’ schedule gets much easier, with just one final stretch where they’ll play more than four games on the road in February. The team should be well rested for that trip though, as theywill be coming out of their bye week and will face the Red Wings, Capitals, and Blackhawks. Not exactly world-beaters.
Matchups against Vegas and LA will be must-watch
Somehow, the Canucks have only faced Vegas once so far this season, and have yet to face the Kings at all. That means before all is said and done, the almost-certainly playoff bound Kings and Canucks will play each other four times, with Vegas and Vancouver meeting three more times.
Couple that with the fact some combination of these teams is almost guaranteed to meet in round one of the playoffs, and the NHL might have a real rivalry on their hands.
In the case of the Canucks’ games against the Kings, all four games will come during the final stretch of the season, meaning they should have massive playoff implications. The games are set for February 29th and March 25th in Vancouver, and March 5th and April 6th in Los Angeles. Even better, the Canucks’ final three games against Vegas fit the same description, as they’re set to face off on March 7th, April 2nd, and April 8th.
The NHL regular season ends on April 18th.
It’s simple, really. You need playoff games to ignite a rivalry, but three or four preview games where the teams will be scratching and clawing for the very real advantage that is finishing first in the Pacific to add a little extra fuel onto that rivalry? Even better.
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