Fifteen days are left in the NHL regular season entering play Tuesday and it could be an incredible stretch run for the West Division title as only four points separate the first place Vegas Golden Knights and the third place Minnesota Wild.
Minnesota scored two times in 26 seconds to beat Vegas 6-5 Monday night, giving the Wild 70 points with five games to go. Vegas has 74 points with five games remaining, and tucked between the two are the Colorado Avalanche, who have 72 points with six games left on their schedule.
If the playoffs started today, the Wild would face Colorado in the first round and Vegas would be matched up in a series with the St. Louis Blues, who sit in fourth place in the West Division with 55 points – five points ahead Arizona (and with three games in hand).
The final five games aren't too tough for Minnesota. They get Vegas at home Wednesday night (they haven't lost at home to Vegas this season), followed by a pair against the lowly Anaheim Ducks and then two games in St. Louis.
Vegas' next four – Minnesota, two with the Blues and at Colorado – is really tough before they close with a cupcake against San Jose. Colorado has a game in hand and has it very easy outside of a date with Vegas as they still have one to go against San Jose and four against the Kings.
Getting home ice is within reach
What's key for Minnesota over the final 15 days is finding a way to jump into at least second place in the division. Finishing first or second would net the Wild the home ice advantage in the first round, but if they stay in third they'll be on the road against Vegas or Colorado. The Wild have been terrific on home ice, going 19-5-1 at the X.
Minnesota went 2-2 at home against the Avs but lost three of four at Ball Arena in Colorado. Against Vegas, the Wild are 2-2 in Sin City and 3-0 in St. Paul, with one more to go at Xcel Energy Center on Wednesday night.
The only way Minnesota would face the Blues is by winning the West Division, which is entirely possible. Though, one could argue that facing St. Louis isn't a great matchup for the Wild, as they've beaten the Blues in only two of six meetings this year.
Wild will still be an underdog
Vegas and Colorado are at the top of the NHL mountain this season, and it's likely that Colorado will be the favorite to win the Stanley Cup regardless of where they finish in the West Division. But that isn't to say Minnesota isn't considered one of the most dangerous teams in the playoffs this season.
"There’s just something about this Wild team that makes you want to pay attention and even though they’d be prohibitive underdogs against the Avs or the Golden Knights, scouts and analysts we’ve spoken to are universal in their belief the Wild are going to be a difficult out," writes Scott Burnside, of The Athletic.
There's no doubt that this isn't the same old Wild that don't have the firepower to get past the second round. This year's team is fueled by three solid pairs on the blue line, good goaltending with Cam Talbot and Kappo Kahkonen, and the likes of Kirill Kaprizov and Kevin Fiala leading an offense that is eighth in the NHL in goals per game
The results so far this season say Vegas is a better matchup, but one way or another Minnesota will still have a very difficult first round opponent.