Is the Sixth Seed Detroit's Best Hope?
It may be difficult for some fans to acknowledge but Detroit is faltering in the late stages of the season and are looking less and less like a true playoff contender. Detroit is 2-6-2 in its last 10 games and has not regained its form since the return of Lidstrom, Datsyuk, Franzen and Howard.
The Nashville Predators beat Detroit easily 4-1 Friday night thanks to the strong play of Pekka Rinne and production from their recent additions. The Red Wings quickly lost their outside chance to catch the St. Louis Blues and take the Central Division title for themselves and are now one point behind Nashville and tied with Chicago, however the Wings do have a game in hand. Detroit is 2-3 against Chicago with one more game left to play and 2-4 against the Predators.
I think Detroit's hopes of making a long playoff run are best served by them ending the season as the sixth seed and not the fourth or fifth seed. If the Red Wings are the 4th or 5th seed they will end up matched up against either Nashville or the surging Blackhawks (7-1-2 in their last 10). If Detroit is 6th, they will face the Pacific Division winner which is still a toss-up between Los Angeles, Phoenix, Dallas and San Jose.
The Red Wings will be required to travel much farther if they are the sixth seed but they've handled this well the past two years, beating Phoenix in the first round both times. Detroit has been much more successful against the teams vying for the Pacific crown besides San Jose. They are 3-1 against LA and Phoenix, 1-3 versus San Jose and are undefeated against Dallas.
The best options are Phoenix or Dallas given Detroit's recent domination of them and lack of a goalie as formidable as LA's Jonathan Quick. If Detroit did end up as the sixth seed and the only bottom-4 seed to win in the first round they would end up playing the top seed which will either be Vancouver or St. Louis.
Detroit has a better record against either of these teams than against Nashville and Chicago. They're 2-2 against Vancouver and 3-2 in their season series with St. Louis, with one game remaining. In this scenario with the current standings, Detroit would matchup against Vancouver and St. Louis would face off against the winner of the Nashville-Chicago series.
The Wings would benefit from St. Louis reclaiming the first seed to help cut down on traveling to the West Coast two series in a row. Although St. Louis has had a tremendous series, I think Detroit would have an easier time with them than Vancouver, Nashville or Chicago.
In summary, the Red Wings have been better against the Pacific Division than their Central rivals Nashville and Chicago. Given the recent strong play of Nashville and Chicago it might be best to avoid them in round 1 and take on a weaker 3rd seed such as Dallas, Phoenix or LA. The Pacific title might not be determined until the final day of the season with San Jose, Phoenix, LA and Dallas within 2 points of each other and all have 3 games left. Although dropping to the sixth seed would require more losses, they better not lose to Florida today since I'll be in attendance.
A.K. Bennett, @MrAdrianKeith