The final week of the regular season is here, and that means the Chicago Blackhawks are battling for seeding in a crowded Western Conference. The team already clinched its playoff spot last week following a strong four-game stretch, but still sits third in the Central Division behind the St. Louis Blues and Nashville Predators.
The Hawks missed a crucial chance to upend the standings on Sunday night in a 2-1 loss to the Blues, and now those hopes of coming back to claim the division seem remote. That might be disappointing to some -- I mean, who doesn't want another banner in the rafters -- but looking at the matchups, I'm not so sure it matters.
Regardless of where the Hawks end up finishing in the standings, they're going to face another talented Central Division team in the first round. If the season ended now, Chicago would play Nashville in the first round, while the Blues would meet the Minnesota Wild.
What if the Hawks make a huge run to end the season while the Blues and Predators lose some games? The team probably faces Minnesota. What if the Hawks collapse in this final week and the Wild somehow catch up to them in the standings? The team gets to face St. Louis.
The common aspect of all these possible situations? You're talking about a rough first-round matchup against a very good team.
The Blues showed on Sunday night why they would be such a tough out in the first round. They have depth, size and improved goaltending with Jake Allen finding his form. Assuming Vladimir Tarasenko is back and healthy in time, this is a much more dangerous St. Louis team than the one Chicago ousted a year ago.
And then there are the Predators, proud owners of arguably the league's best defense, and the Wild, who have been the hottest team in the league over the past few weeks. Does either of those matchups sound way, way better than facing the Blues? Does anyone really want to see Pekka Rinne in a seven-game series?
Some teams out there might match up poorly against Chicago. You could've said that about the Wild a few months ago, before Devan Dubnyk showed up and started playing out of his mind. Now Dubnyk has better numbers than Rinne this season, somehow.
That's what the Patrick Kane-less Hawks are staring at. This isn't to say they can't win, or that they should be worried. Chicago is good enough to beat any team in the league, even after losing a Hart Trophy candidate, and while the road is challenging for the Hawks, the same can be said for every contender.
I'm just saying that the next few games will matter far more in terms of how the team looks than how the results stack up. Obviously getting wins over Minnesota, St. Louis and Colorado to end the season would be nice, but in terms of seeding, I'm not sure it matters much. We're talking about a challenging first-round matchup no matter what, with three prospective opponents loaded with talent and goaltending.
The final week of the season may be here, but the Hawks, it doesn't matter too much. Whether the team finishes with 48 or 51 wins, the playoffs are going to be brutal. If finishing on a high note still matters, it's not because of who the team might face in a couple weeks.