There’s still a month left in the NHL’s regular season, but Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan won’t be fooled by those semantics.
“It’s a playoff atmosphere,” he said after the Stars beat Calgary 3-2 in a shootout on Sunday for their sixth win in seven games.
Nowhere is that atmosphere more apparent than in the Pacific Division. One week ago, the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks were the only teams anybody outside Dallas and Los Angeles was talking about for the division crown.
But thanks to a two-game Coyotes slide on home ice and the Sharks’ 2-7-1 mark in their last 10 games, three points now separate the top four teams in the Pacific. Phoenix and Dallas are tied at 75 points, San Jose has 73 and L.A. has 72.
With Anaheim seemingly out of gas, one of those four teams will emerge with the division title and the coveted No. 3 playoff seed, which affords home-ice advantage in the first round. On the ominous flip side is the reality that one, maybe two of those teams will miss the postseason since the Central Division appears ready to lock up four of the West’s eight playoff spots while Vancouver has all but clinched the Northwest.
“There ain’t no weak sisters,” Kings coach Darryl Sutter said of the rugged Western Conference.
It’s impossible to handicap the Pacific race. Just when you think you have a handle on it, the sands shift. The Stars and Kings looked dead at one point. The Sharks appeared headed for another division crown before the Coyotes steamrolled through February with an 11-0-1 mark that had long-suffering fans envisioning their first playoff series win in the franchise’s 15-year history in the Valley.
Now, the Sharks are in the eighth and final playoff spot while the chronically slow-starting Coyotes are struggling for offense, struggling with their puck possession and facing a two-game trip against red-hot Pittsburgh and Columbus, a team that belies its NHL-worst record whenever it plays the Coyotes and won 5-2 Saturday at Jobing.com Arena.
“We’re not good enough,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said after Phoenix’s second loss to the Blue Jackets this season. “The emotional engagement that we can bring in for short periods — why don’t we have that the whole time? That’s puzzling for our group right now.
“We’ve got two hard road games here, back to back. If we go in and want to play loose, I don’t like our chances.”
Phoenix doesn’t play Los Angeles again this season, but the Coyotes have three games left with the Sharks and another date with Dallas. In addition to that Coyotes game, the Stars also play San Jose three more times. The Sharks get three games each with Phoenix, Dallas and L.A., while the Kings have just those three games left with the Sharks among their key intradivisional matchups. These blood feuds will likely be where the Pacific is won.
“We haven’t been in the playoffs for a couple years, so definitely, we need to step up here,” Dallas forward Loui Eriksson said. “We’ve been playing really well lately, but it’s so tight in the conference. Every game is huge for us. We need to win every one.” Fox Sports Southwest and FOX Sports West contributed to this report