With one day left in the 2010-11 NHL regular season, the playoff picture is clearing up for the Western Conference. It is also clearing up for the Detroit Red Wings, which now have only two possible opponents for the first round of the 2011 NHL playoffs: the Nashville Predators and the Phoenix Coyotes.
With the San Jose Sharks winning on Saturday night, they now have 105 points. The Red Wings have 102 points, meaning they are locked into the third seed. Their opponent in the first round will be the sixth seed, which could be either the Predators or Coyotes. It all comes down to what happens in Sunday's Red Wings/Blackhawks game.
Should the Red Wings lose to the Blackhawks, they would play the Predators in the first round. The Blackhawks would move up to fifth place in the West, moving Nashville down to sixth. A Red Wings victory, on the other hand, would keep the standings as they are right now, meaning Nashville would finish fifth and Phoenix sixth, making Detroit's opponent the Coyotes.
There are pros and cons to both possible matchups. On the one hand, the Red Wings were 2-2 against the Coyotes during the regular season, and Phoenix is less physical than Nashville and not as good defensively. Also, it would be much easier for Red Wings fans to take over the Coyotes' arena for the second year in a row.
The flip side is that playing Nashville would allow the Red Wings to travel less. They wouldn't face the prospect of going out west until the second round, which would be nice. Then again, Detroit went 2-4 against the Predators this season, and as mentioned, Nashville is a very good team defensively. Their scoring isn't great, but they could present problems for the Wings' offense. Of course, making it to the second round is no guarantee no matter who the opponent is, but Nashville certainly seems like a tougher matchup for the Wings.
Whatever happens, the Red Wings will either face the Predators in the first round of the playoffs for the first time since 2008, when they went on to win the Stanley Cup, or they will match up against the Coyotes for the second year in a row.