As I sit here, pondering over the NHL standings, Anaheim sits in fifth place in the Western Conference with 61 points. With Niedermayer and Selanne back in the fold, and the additions of Schneider, Weight and Bertuzzi making up for the loss of Penner and McDonald, a lot of people are picking this team to repeat. They have a good argument.
But here’s some scary numbers, if you’re a fan of either the Ducks or a division-winning Western Conference team. Unless they play fantastic hockey for the remainder of the season and get some help, Anaheim will probably not overtake Dallas (6 points ahead) or San Jose (4 points ahead with 4 games in hand) in their own division. Besides Dallas, which has also played 56 games, every team in the conference has at least two games in hand on the Ducks.
And while, technically, Anaheim sits in fifth place, look at this: Calgary is 1 point back with 4 games in hand. Colorado is 1 point back with 3 games in hand. Nashville is 2 points back with 3 games in hand. Vancouver is 3 points back with 3 in hand. Phoenix is 4 back with 4 in hand. St. Louis is 5 back with 5 in hand.
With that many teams that close with that many extra games to play, the hold of fifth place is tenuous at best. Even if Anaheim plays relatively well for the rest of the season, matching or even besting the play of the teams behind them, there’s a decent chance that the Ducks will fall a few spots in the standings by the end of the season. I don’t think they’ll miss the playoffs entirely, but unless they play ridiculously well and some teams above them start to tank, I don’t see them finishing better than fifth or sixth (I’m predicting that they finish in sixth). A seventh or eighth place finish, though, would be unsurprising.
As a Red Wings fan, an eight-place finish for Anaheim would be, unquestionably, the worst thing that could ever possibly happen. How would you like it if your “reward” for running away with the Presidents’ Trophy was playing the Stanley Cup favorite in the first round? Even if the Ducks do go on a roll and finish fifth or sixth, chances are good that they would face the Wings in the second round.
And of course, I’m sure the Ducks would have no desire to face Detroit in the first round; even if they win that series, they still need to beat the best remaining team for the remainder of the playoffs.
Of course, this could all be just fretting over nothing; the Ducks, on paper, look like the elite team that dominated the playoffs last spring, and if they play like that they can still gain ground, maybe even overtaking one of their divisional opponents. But those with keen memories will recall that, for large periods of last year, Anaheim looked painfully average, riding their scorching start to a second-place finish. If the Ducks don’t play like champions, it’ll be a fight just to stay where they are. If their current slump, or another, becomes too prolonged, they could be looking at one of Detroit, Dallas or San Jose in the first round—or looking in, from the outside.