With just one game remaining in the NHL regular season, the Stanley Cup playoffs still have yet to be decided. All 16 teams have clinched their berths, but the seeding is anything but locked. Let's review how the Chicago Blackhawks have fared against their potential Western Conference playoff opponents throughout the season.
If the playoffs started today, the Blackhawks sit in the sixth seed and will face the winner of the Pacific Division, currently the Phoenix Coyotes.
Season vs Coyotes: 1-2-1.
Special teams: Power play - 2/12 (16.67%). Penalty kill - 7/7 (100%).
During the four-game set against Phoenix, the Blackhawks were outscored 12-8 and failed to win a game on home ice; they earned one point at home during a shootout loss. The Coyotes have surged back into the division race on the back of their goaltender, Mike Smith. Smith recorded 234 consecutive minutes of shutout play during their current four-game win steak. Phoenix has a top-10 penalty kill unit and they have successfully killed off the last 20 power plays faced; they would hold a huge advantage over Chicago's poor power play unit. The teams riding high on a wave of momentum into the playoffs tend to be very dangerous.
Phoenix will try to lock up the Pacific Division on Saturday when they travel to Minnesota. Should they fail to earn a point, the winner of the Pacific will be decided by the LA Kings at San Jose Sharks game. Let's see how the Blackhawks have matched up against the LA Kings.
Season vs Kings: 1-2-1.
Special teams: Power play - 0/14 (0%). Penalty kill - 9/11 (81.8%).
Out of all of their potential playoff opponents, the Blackhawks had had the hardest time scoring against the Kings; LA has outscore the 'Hawks 9-4. Goaltender Jonathan Quick has been the backbone of the defensive-minded Kings and they're allowing just 2.1 goals per game, good for second best in the NHL. Chicago will find themselves at another disadvantage on special teams because LA boasts the fourth best PK unit in the league. The only chance the Blackhawks would have in beating the Kings, would be behind solid defense and goaltending. LA isn't going to light up the scoreboard, only scoring 2.3 goals per game (29th in NHL). Newly acquired Jeff Carter has only scored nine points (6G, 3A) since being acquired and is currently nursing a lower body injury that has caused him to miss the Kings' last four games.
The dark horse candidate to win the Pacific, only if they beat the Kings and Phoenix doesn't record a point at Minnesota, is the San Jose Sharks.
Season vs Sharks: 2-2-0.
Special teams: Power play - 0/11 (0%). Penalty kill - 11/15 (73.3%).
The Blackhawks have seen their best results (out of potential playoff foes) this season against the Sharks. Following a common trend against the the Pacific Division teams, the 'Hawks were outscored 11-10 by San Jose and they failed to beat the Sharks in San Jose. If there's one X-factor to this series, it would be former Blackhawk and Stanley Cup winning goaltender Antti Niemi. He has appeared in a whopping 67 games this season including the Sharks' last 20 games consecutively. You'd have to imagine that fatigue will soon become a factor for Niemi. He has, however, played very well against the Blackhawks during his tenure as Sharks netminder. It will be interesting to see how he fares against his former mates during the playoffs.
The previous three scenarios are all possibilities if the Blackhawks finish with the sixth seed in the Western Conference; they can finish no lower than that. However, they can still pull into the fifth seed should they beat the Detroit Red Wings in regulation on Saturday (a loss or overtime game will lock them into sixth). Awaiting their opponent and sitting with home ice during the first round is the fourth seeded Nashville Predators.
Season vs Predators: 2-4-0.
Special teams: Power play - 3/25 (12%). Penalty kill - 11/17 (64.7%).
The Blackhawks and Predators have a budding rivalry and it appears as though Nashville is primed to make a deep run in this year's Stanley Cup playoffs. Before the trade deadline, it was speculated that the Predators might be sellers and looking to trade defensemen Shea Weber or Ryan Suter. As it turns out, they are quite the contenders. The Preds are a very well-balanced team, averaging in the top-10 in the NHL for goals scored, goals allowed, power play and penalty kill. Similarly to San Jose, Nashville has relied heavily on goaltender Pekka Rinne. He's appeared in 72 of their 81 games and has shown no signs of wearing down.
Of these four possible matchups, a first round series against the Predators could mean an early exit for the Blackhawks, who are still without Captain Jonathan Toews and hope to have him back for game one.
There's no easy path to the Stanley Cup and the 'Hawks will undoubtedly be the underdog against whomever they face. They've been playing well as of late, but have squandered the lead in a few games. They will need improvement in all areas if they want to advance past the first round.
It's time to write history; Lord Stanley's Cup awaits.
Which team would you prefer to see the Blackhawks face in the first round and why? Comment below!
Steve Peters is a staff writer for NHLfanchat.com. Follow on twitter: @stevepeters_ @nhlfanchat