Chicago Blackhawks, As Wild-Card Team, Must Capture First Slot

LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 24: Ryan Hartman
LAS VEGAS, NV - OCTOBER 24: Ryan Hartman /

If the Chicago Blackhawks are going to compete for a Western Conference wild-card slot this season — versus a divisional playoff berth — then it is imperative they capture the first position

Not all sports matchups are created equal, and that is certainly true when the NHL playoffs roll around. That was always clear in the old Southwest Division, which typically churned out underperforming champions that would get high seeding and be eaten alive early in the postseason.

The Chicago Blackhawks are in danger of learning this lesson the hard way in 2017-18. It certainly appears the Blackhawks are a Western Conference wild card contender. No one is saying they can’t compete for a Central Division top-three spot, but the first quarter of the season suggests the team may need to earn a wild-card bid to make the postseason.

With that in mind, how important is it for the Blackhawks to take the first wild card instead of the second? Well, given the lay of the land in the Central and Pacific divisions, I’d say it’s absolutely critical to avoiding a third straight first-round exit.

Central proving superior

The Central Division appeared on shaky legs entering this season. The thought among some was the Nashville Predators would run away with the crown, leaving the Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and maybe Winnipeg Jets to fight for the scraps.

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Fast-forward to the present and the Blues are two points ahead of Winnipeg and Nashville, with Dallas and Chicago sitting in the wild cards five points back the Jets and Preds. It’s all topsy-turvy.

Dallas and Chicago, for a point of comparison, would be just one point out of the Pacific Division’s third slot. It’s a competitive division, no doubt, but just not quite up to snuff with the Central.

Vegas and Los Angeles, two major surprises (albeit for different reasons) lead the show out West with 31 points apiece. Up-and-down San Jose sits at 28 points, while underwhelming Calgary, Anaheim and Edmonton are fighting to stay afloat.

Only Minnesota could be called “underwhelming” in the Central as of now, and I think that’d be unfair. Heck, Colorado is ahead of three Pacific teams at this moment. I thought the Avs would be a contender for worst team in the league.

Relating back to the postseason

So what does this have to do with the Blackhawks chasing a wild-card spot? Everything, actually.

If they gain the first spot, they would take on the Pacific champion. Sure, the Ducks could get healthy and rally, or the Flames and Oilers could start playing to their potential. But right now, the three most likely matchups between the top wild card and Pacific champion offer the Blackhawks a nice chance to win a series.

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Meanwhile, if the Blackhawks get saddled with the No. 2 wild card, a bout with St. Louis, Winnipeg or Nashville awaits — without home ice. The Blackhawks looked decent against the Preds last night, but have previously looked pretty bad against both them and the Blues. And the Jets are playing a style that does not work well with what the Blackhawks want to do.

In short, a matchup against one of these three teams, out of the second wild card, is just not appealing in any way. Beyond all three exhausting themselves trying to win the division (while the Blackhawks could be exhausting themselves chasing a wild card), there’s few opportunities for Chicago advantages against the three.

Meanwhile, Vegas is an expansion team with overperforming stars, a top-heavy roster and no cohesive playoff experience. The Kings are still slow and also overperforming. And the Sharks are pretty much relying on Martin Jones to steer the ship (sound familiar?).

A matchup against Calgary, Anaheim or Edmonton would not have been appealing to start this season. But the way things are shaking out, that’s becoming less likely. The Blackhawks, should they be a wild-card team, may have caught a major break with the Pacific flipping on its head this season.

Meanwhile, the top three Central teams and second wild card can bash each other around, creating a hopefully softer second-round setup for the Blackhawks. And when you get to the postseason, anything can happen anyway.

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I’m not suggesting the Blackhawks intentionally gun for the first wild card spot. If they want to go on an insane run and take the Central, I won’t complain. But the way they look compared to the way teams around them look, it could be the best avenue to some postseason success.