It’s not a situation the Detroit Red Wings are accustomed to being in.
Detroit is the clear underachiever in the group, while the Stars and Blue Jackets are making a playoff push few could have foreseen.
Assuming the top seven seeds remain the same, which team will secure the eighth and final spot in the West—the Red Wings, Stars or Blue Jackets?
Columbus Blue Jackets
Although the Blue Jackets currently hold the eighth seed, the odds aren't in their favor. Columbus has already played 45 games, more than both Detroit and Dallas.
Their next game is against the San Jose Sharks, who are tied for fourth in the West. They will then travel to Dallas for a crucial game against the Stars, before finishing the season at home against the dreadful Nashville Predators.
With that said, Columbus has played well of late, winning five consecutive games prior to a 2-1 loss to the Los Angeles Kings on Thursday. Ranked 27th in the NHL in goals for, Columbus managed to rack up 18 goals over their five-game winning streak.
If they can score three or more against both the Sharks and Stars, Vezina Trophy candidate Sergei Bobrovsky should give the Blue Jackets an opportunity to win each of their remaining three games.
However, winning out might not be enough to put Columbus in the postseason. The Blue Jackets have just 16 regulation and overtime wins, the fewest of the three teams.
During the course of the season the Stars have traded away Michael Ryder, captain Brenden Morrow, Derek Roy and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr.
And yet, a suddenly young Dallas team has persevered.
Since losing to the Anaheim Ducks on trade deadline day, the Stars have gone 6-2 to put themselves in a tie for ninth, although they've played one more game than Detroit. They will also face a tough set of opponents in their final four games.
Dallas will be on the road for its last two divisional matchups versus the Kings and Sharks, before heading home to host the two teams they're battling for the eighth seed. In a sense, the Stars have a great opportunity to perhaps control their own destiny should they get by the Kings and Sharks.
Unlike Columbus, Dallas hasn't had a problem putting the puck in the net. It’s their defensive play that hasn't been up to par. Perhaps the return of Kari Lehtonen will make a difference in the coming games.
Also, the Stars currently have the most regulation and overtime wins of the three clubs (20), which could be crucial factor heading into their final two games.
Detroit Red Wings
For Red Wings fans there is plenty of blame to go around. Some point the finger at management, others at the checking lines, not to mention certain defensemen, goaltending and a little thing called injuries.
They certainly weren't going to be among the NHL’s elite this season, but they weren't expected to be as low as 10th in the West with a few games to go either.
Regardless, the Red Wings have an opportunity to extend their playoff streak. In fact, at this point they may have the best chance to qualify of the three teams.
Detroit has more games left (five) than the Stars and Jackets, three of which are at home. They will take on the Canucks in Vancouver Saturday, a team they've already beaten twice by a combined score of 13-5. Next up is a three-game home stand against the Coyotes, Kings and Predators, before a final showdown with the Stars.
With that in mind, the Red Wings have struggled of late, going 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. If they’re going to secure a playoff spot they need to start scoring.
Detroit hasn’t scored more than three goals in a game since beating the Ducks 5-1 on March 22, a span of 12 games. On top of that, Detroit ranks 23rd in the league in goals for this season, after finishing seventh in 2012 and second in 2011.
And, with 18 regulation and overtime wins the Red Wings trail the Stars by two, meaning they must avoid shootouts.
With all this considered, it’s very possible the playoff race could come down to a final date in Dallas, next Saturday—a game the Red Wings should be expected to win.
Should they miss out on the playoffs it would in many ways mark the end of a remarkable era—an era which included 21 consecutive playoff appearances, six President's trophies and four Stanley Cups.