Benefits to Finishing in Sixth?
There are three games left and the Detroit Red Wings can do themselves a huge favour. They control their own destiny for fourth place if they finish 3-0. In the first round, they'd play a Central Division rival, Nashville or Chicago. Finishing anything other than 3-0 leaves far too much guess work as to who else they might play, especially if they finish sixth (one point separates fourth through sixth).
This is definitely unfamiliar territory for Red Wings fans, who might find this season unacceptable; even with all the injuries, and even considering the team has made the playoffs 21 years in a row. There is always talk about whether finishing in a higher seed isn’t always the best idea, since some lower seeded teams launch themselves into the playoffs on a late hot streak. Does the same go for the Red Wings?
To me - it’s an argument between finishing fourth or sixth. Finishing fifth is out of the question, since it provides the same opponent as fourth, but they'd lose home ice advantage. Is there an argument to be made for trading home ice in the first round for a weaker opponent from Pacific division? It's really a joke that Los Angeles, Phoenix, San Jose, or Dallas will be awarded the third seed, when they all have fewer points than Detroit, Nashville, and Chicago (but that's a completely different argument, #CBA). Let's take a look at three possible playoff outcomes, and see as to whether 'giving up' the fourth seed may be a good idea.
Red Wings Finish 4th; Face Nashville
This could easily be the scariest match-up for the Red Wings. Nashville could present even more of a problem than the first place Canucks (who are prone to choking) or the second place Blues (they're extremely young and inexperienced). The Predators are a fast skating team, with a great defense and terrific goaltending. They won their first ever playoff series last year, gave the Canucks a hard time in the second round, and made some good trades during the deadline. The Preds are like a thorn in the Red Wings' side, a thorn that the Red Wings have managed to dispose of in the playoffs before.
But this Nashville team is different than past teams. They have a veteran team with great team speed and an aggressive forecheck. They always bring their A Game against the Wings (just beat Detroit 4-1 last Friday). I don't think many Red Wings players would be jumping at the opportunity to play Nashville in the first round (even though they'd reveal who they would prefer to play).
Red Wings Finish 4th; Face Chicago
Again, Chicago is a team Detroit has beaten in the playoffs in the past. However, back in 2009, the Blackhawks were like the Red Wings' little brother, aspiring to be a talented puck possession team, only to be ousted in five games. Since then, they have won the Stanley Cup and Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane have single handily closed the gap between them and the Red Wings. One advantage to playing the Blackhawks is that Corey Crawford isn't a Vezina candidate like Pekka Rinne. Even though he has played well against the Wings, Crawford is an inexperienced goalie and surrender untimely goals (Alex Burrows, Overtime, Game 7, 2011 Playoffs).
Surely a clear advantage the Red Wings own over the Blackhawks is their depth in the bottom six forwards. You'd like to think the top two lines on both teams would cancel each other out, which stresses the importance of secondary scoring. Darren Helm, Drew Miller, Todd Bertuzzi, and Danny Cleary have proved they can contribute in the playoffs, while the Hawks depth lies in the likes of Bryan Bickell, Andrew Shaw, Brandon Bollig, Jamal Mayers, and Jimmy Hayes. History has shown having a great third line can help carry a team all the way to the Stanley Cup. If it comes down to depth, the Wings have the Hawks beat.
Red Wings Finish 6th; Face the Winner of the Pacific
This is where it gets really interesting. I can't remember a year when it seems as though finishing sixth could be advantageous, due to the lack of talent in the third seed. The candidates are LA, PHX, SJ, and DAL. Each of these teams has struggled quite often this season, and one of them won’t be in the post-season. Most Wings fans would agree that both LA and DAL would be overmatched. The main concern would be playing against a defense-first style of play, which means goals might be hard to come by. However, playing against teams who have tight defensive systems are only scary when those teams can also score goals. Dallas and Los Angeles are 19th and 29th in league scoring, respectively.
Playing against Phoenix is a different story, and the reason is more psychological than logical. If the Red Wings were in this matchup, they'd be facing a team they have beaten in the first round each of the past two post-seasons. Phoenix would be playing the Wings as if it were their Stanley Cup. They scratch and claw to avoid being embarrassed for the third consecutive year against the same opponent, and at the same time show potential owners they can generate revenue into the second round of the playoffs. It could be the difference between Quebec getting their team back sooner rather than later. This matchup might be the definition of 'playing with fire'. Vancouver got the monkey off their back last year, after getting a third chance of beating the Blackhawks in seven games. This series would have the exact same feeling, with potentially the exact same implications.
Speaking of similar feelings, the Wings themselves could be in Phoenix's position, playing against the San Jose Sharks. Even though the exact same burning desire to win would apply here to the Wings (a chance to exercise their demons after losing two straight years to the Sharks), I'm terrified of beginning the first round in the Shark Tank. Even though Detroit would play inspired like the Coyotes, the boost the Sharks would get from grabbing the third seed and home ice advantage, after barely keeping their heads above water would be insane. They'd be given a really good opportunity to face a somewhat struggling Red Wings team. Combine that with the unlikely event that both Vancouver and St. Louis get knocked off in the first round, San Jose would assume home ice for the rest of the playoffs in the West. In earlier blogs I've reiterated my lack of appetite for facing off against the Sharks in the playoffs. Although Detroit could prove themselves, it would be an extremely stressful, long, and tiring test (who really wants to start watching a game at 10:30 pm ET anyway?).
After considering possible scenarios, I wouldn't touch the Sharks with a 10 foot pole. Even if you consider the odds of them landing in the third seed is as equal as the other three teams, there is no chance I'm rolling that four sided dice. Although facing any of the other three teams in the Pacific would be better than SJ, I'd rather take home ice and face Nashville before risking another potential disappointment to the Sharks.
So I guess I'm playing it safe. I'll now wait for the "be careful what you wish for guy" to comment. Feel free.
Follow me on Twitter @RobDA13