Two seasons ago, Anaheim Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau captured the altered mood of the NHL’s other three divisions when discussing the annual three-game game road trip through California.
“It used to be a vacation,” Boudreau told Philly.com. “Back in the day, when San Jose was young and Anaheim was young, teams couldn’t wait to go to California. I don’t think they’re feeling that much right now.”
The Pacific Division’s California triangle wasn’t claiming many victims earlier this season when Anaheim was struggling to score and San Jose was languishing near the .500 mark. Since the New Year dawned, however, the Hotel California is starting to resemble the Bates Motel once again.
Since Jan. 1, the Ducks are 12-4-2 overall and 7-3 at home. Since dropping the first two games of the New Year at the Shark Tank, San Jose is 11-2-3 overall and 6-0-3 at home. The Kings have only put up modest numbers, but with a comfortable cushion atop the division and its postseason berth all but assured, Los Angeles appears to be pacing itself for another deep playoff run.
California’s teams claimed the top three (and automatic playoff) spots in the Pacific in the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. Last season, the Flames and Canucks stunned the NHL world when they made the postseason, leaving the Sharks and the defending champion Kings out in the cold.
Entering Sunday’s games, however, San Jose was in second place and third-place Anaheim held a comfortable six-point cushion and a game in hand on Arizona (fourth) and Vancouver (fifth) as the season entered its final eight weeks.
Both teams have notched impressive wins this month. Both won at Chicago, which has the most points on home ice this season with a 21-7-2 record. Anaheim also has wins over the Blues, Stars, Red Wings, Bruins, Sharks and Kings. Aside from the win at United Center, San Jose also has wins over the Stars, Avalanche and Blues.
“Those teams have been playing well and we’ve been struggling a little bit so we’ve put ourselves in a tough position,” said Coyotes captain Shane Doan, whose team dropped a 4-1 decision Saturday in San Jose and has also lost to the Kings, Ducks and Canucks this month after a red-hot start in Pacific Division play. “We’ve got to find a way to win games; string some together and get back in this.”
Arizona and the Pacific’s three Canadian teams (Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver) haven’t given up the ghost on catching the California trio. With anywhere between 25 and 28 games left for each club, there is still time and there is no way to predict future calamities such as injuries.
With all three California teams playing so well, however, the four Pacific teams currently out of the playoff picture are eyeing another possibility.
“Very few teams can say they are dead and buried,” said Flames GM Brad Treliving, whose team was nine points behind Anaheim entering Sunday’s games. “The first few months, you thought the Central (Division) was going to get five playoff teams which would limit the Pacific’s chances but a couple of those teams have come back to earth.
“You have to look at all the possibilities and I think those two wild card spots are still in play if you can get on a little bit of a roll.”
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