The Chicago Blackhawks survived for an overtime road win over the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday, Nov. 18. The third straight victory gives the defending Stanley Cup champions the final wild card as in the current 2015-16 NHL season standings.
For a team that is getting healthy, the chance to defend Chicago’s dynasty has to be appealing. In the Central Division, getting its game back has come just in time.
The Colorado Avalanche look like they will not be a postseason contender, but the rest of the Central Division is. The Winnipeg Jets are just .500 but made their first trip to the Stanley Cup playoffs after the 2014-15 NHL season. The four teams ahead of the Blackhawks are among the top-five teams in the Western Conference and it seems unlikely more than one of them will be caught.
That also means the top wild card will be highly contested from within the Central Division. It should not be assumed that the Pacific Division will yield both spots again, either.
Early this 2015-16 NHL season, the topsy-turvy Pacific Division has the Vancouver Canucks and Arizona Coyotes near the top while the Anaheim Ducks and Calgary Flames struggled out of the gate. Overall there has been more bad than good, as the San Jose Sharks are solidly in second place just two points over .500.
Even though only the Los Angeles Kings have a better record within the Pacific Division, that is not going to last forever and there will be more than just Central Division teams contending for a wild card. Every point that Chicago has managed without a blue-line stud while the off-season attrition of talent forces young players to step up will be key in being inside the bubble.
However, the importance of the game in Edmonton goes beyond the points. It was the first in a six-game Pacific Division swing over 11 days that includes two back-to-back sets. The last three games are against the three California teams that all look like they are getting their games in order.
One young talent coming through for the Blackhawks is Artemi Panarin. His goal and two assists against the Oilers put him among leaders with seven and 14 respectively in 19 games this 2015-16 NHL season.
They will need more of that from more young players to truly defend their third Stanley Cup in six seasons, but that can develop if they qualify for the postseason. Every game they win on this Pacific Division road trip will put more points between them and a team that may compete with the Blackhawks for that final wild card at the end of the 2015-16 NHL season.