CALGARY, Alberta — The Western Conference’s playoff bubble teams are actually collectively playing only .500 hockey recently.
But there are a lot of them. And the limping Blackhawks are playing significantly below-.500 hockey.
So it feels like all the competitors are actually on fire.
“[I’m always] checking what’s going on,” Hawks captain Jonathan Toews said this week. “[It] comes to be expected when you see that all the teams you don’t want to win are getting points, so it’s just you pretty much have to win every game.”
Toews’ constant checking of the scores around the NHL — watching games “here and there” on off nights, loading the app to see what he missed after his own games — is a habit throughout the locker room.
As the season closes in on its final quarter, that score-checking is only intensifying.
“Of course you look at the standings a little bit, try to figure out what we have to do,” Erik Gustafsson said. “If you win a game or lose a game, you bump up or are going down pretty far. It’s a tight standings, so every point is very important for us.”
One true thing is that the playoff bubbles in both conferences are incredibly convoluted.
In the Eastern Conference (as of Thursday), only 12 points separated the fifth-place Islanders (72 points) and 12th-place Rangers (60 points), and those bubble teams had gone a combined 31-19-6 since the end of their bye weeks.
In the West, despite the worse records across the board, the situation is equally compact. Only the Blues, Avalanche and Stars are virtual playoff locks; only the Sharks, Ducks and Kings are realistically eliminated.
Only nine points divided the fourth-place Canucks (67 points) and 12th-place Blackhawks (58 points), although the Pacific Division teams do have an advantage given the divisional imbalance. Excluding the Hawks, those bubble teams have gone a combined 28-21-7 since the end of their bye weeks; the Hawks, meanwhile, have gone 1-3-2.
Still, Patrick Kane foresees this reality changing after the trade deadline passes, when many teams will be forced to decide whether they’re sellers or buyers.
“About 10-12 games from now, some teams fall out a bit and you know what teams are going to be competing for the last couple playoff spots,” Kane said. “But it’s always tight and seems even more tight in the East this year.”
Kane is as hockey obsessed as they come and follows the entire league, not just the Hawks, very closely year-round.
But he admits his interest in such games around the continent has nonetheless increased as of late.
“It started with a couple games ago, starting to watch other teams—see what their scores are during the game,” he said. “It might be a little early, but I’m still interested to see what happens. Every night, a team you don’t want to win wins, so that’s just the way it is. We’ve got to take care of our business in here, but it’s still fun to watch to see what’s going on.”
And the same applies to Jeremy Colliton.
Even as he tries to navigate the Hawks out of their current five-game losing streak, the coach — like his players — is keeping one eye focused on the rest of the league.
“You watch as much as you can,” Colliton said. “We’re capturing it on video too, so there’s never a doubt that you’re going to see the team you’re playing against — you’re going to see them enough.”
“But when you’re in a race like this, obviously you care a little more and you’re excited about the games that are on a given night.”