ST. LOUIS Before any NHL games were played Monday, only 17 points separated the top nine teams in the Western Conference.
That’s not just a playoff race, it’s a wild-west finish to what has been a season of unpredictable highs and lows, winning streaks and losing streaks, key injuries and red-hot flourishes.
“You saw Nashville get off to that great start and it didn’t seem like anyone was going to slow them down, Anaheim as well,” Blues defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said Monday. “There’s ebbs and flows to every season and every team hit their rough patches, it’s all kind of evened it way out.”
But while each season comes with its own close finish with some playoff berths or seeds not decided until the final day, this season has proven exceptionally tight. The Blues know they will be in the playoffs, but with six games remaining after Monday there were still a lot of options at their disposal including everything from winning the Central Division, finishing first overall in the NHL or finishing third or fourth in their own division.
“That’s the Western Conference to a ‘T,’ it’s been like that for the last four or five years that I’ve been playing,” Shattenkirk said. “It really is anyone’s game when it gets to playoffs and home-ice advantage is important, but past that it doesn’t mean you’re going to have a cake walk even if you get it.
“With the way the new format is, it’s tough to work all season and then you’ve got to play a rival. It’s mentally draining to have to do that for two rounds and then get to the other side. It’s a tough road no matter how you slice it.”
Even a veteran playoff observer like Blues coach Ken Hitchcock admits there’s far too much at stake to start worrying about potential first-round playoff opponents. It puts a much tighter focus on each game, each period and each shift.
“It’s a very difficult race to handicap and I think the thing that’s going to come into play here in a big way is going to be injuries,” Hitchcock said. “The team that’s healthy is going to have a big advantage leading up to the playoffs. There’s not much difference in at least a dozen teams from every conference right now.”
Hitchcock said there could be several high-quality teams that find themselves out of the playoffs because of the high point totals and miniscule difference in records.
“There’s team that are out of the playoffs right now that they’ve got to think they had a chance at the start of the year or halfway through to win the conference — and they’re not going to make the playoffs,” he said. “This is the(salary) cap world that we’re going to live in for a long time.”
As a result, this high-stakes poker game can take its toll on players, coaches, general managers and especially, fans.
“If you talked honestly to a lot of coaches, the regular season is as stressful as anything and we’re all looking forward to getting into the pressure part (the playoffs),” Hitchcock said. “When you’re looking at the standings four or five times a day, when you’re watching games that normally you don’t watch ... that’s stressful.
“This is going to be the life that we live now, you’re going to have to get used to working in that atmosphere. When you get into playoffs you’ve got one opponent and that’s your focus. It’s going to be fun because you’re not sitting there watching 10 other teams play every night. You just worry about one opponent.”