With just a handful of regular season games remaining in the third season of EURO League, a torrid playoff race in the Northern Conference is overshadowing some other good stories.
Here’s what you have to squint to see in the glare of the four-team race for the North’s final playoff spot:
- SPAIN GAINS – The Madrid Royals, under coach Dan Bylsma and led by center Joe Pavelski, have been on fire. They have won 13 of their last 14 games and 17 of their last 19. Not too long ago, Madrid’s place in the post season was in serious doubt, but with two games to play, they could pass Bratislava and slide into fifth place in the Southern Conference. Coincidently, their only loss in the last 14 games was to Bratislava. Pavelski has 40 goals and 114 points to put him second in the EURO behind Paris’ Evgeny Malkin, who has 121 points. Pavelski’s linemates, Rick Nash and Gabriel Landeskog, both have at least 90 points.
- Magnifique – Malkin and his defending Cup champion Paris teammates have secured their second straight Southern Conference championship and have locked up their first President’s Trophy as the best team during the regular season. Malkin and Corey Perry are called upon to provide much of Les Rouges Eiffels’ offense, but the team’s balance is evident in their plus-minus ratings. Ossi Vaananen leads the league at plus 52, with his defense partner Travis Hamonic right behind him at plus 50. They have been dominant as the team’s No. 3 defense pairing. All of the top 6 plus-minus players in the league wear the bleu, blanc and rouge. Top defense partners Kris Letang (plus 43) and Alex Pietrangelo (40) and forwards Lee Stempniak (33) and Josef Vasicek (33) have been stellar and all finished the season with 82 games played.
- SOUTHERN DISCOMFORT – Frankfurt is on the outside, looking in at the playoff race, but still has a chance to make it. The Bern Bears can banish the Inferno to the golf course by gaining one point in either of their two remaining games against Geneva. If Geneva wins both games in regulation time, they, Frankfurt and Bern will all finish with 83 points. If that happens, Frankfurt will advance because they have the most wins.
But the biggest story of all is the head-spinning four-way race for the final playoff berth in the Northern Conference. Whoever wins will try to upset Copenhagen in the first round. The Belfast Giants have the tiniest of advantages as the four teams gallop to the finish line. They have 76 points with one game to play. Minsk and London also have one game to play, but they are a point behind Belfast. The Oslo Outlaws are also a point behind Belfast, but they have two games to play. Here’s a look at each team’s chances of finishing 8th and making the playoffs:
Belfast: Can knock out Minsk and London with a win in St. Petersburg on Wednesday. Then they would have to hope Oslo doesn’t manage two wins against Minsk and Dublin. If Belfast loses to St. Petersburg in regulation time, they will be out because either Minsk or Oslo will get 2 points from their game the same night. If Belfast loses in overtime, they can make it if Oslo beats Minsk and then loses to Dublin in regulation time, and if London loses its final game.
Minsk: Still playing without injured leading scorer Nicklas Backstrom, Minsk must beat Oslo Wednesday and hope Belfast loses in St. Petersburg. That would push them ahead of Belfast. But they won’t be safely in if they allow Oslo to gain a point on Wednesday; they would still need Dublin’s help against Oslo a few days later.
London: They have to beat the hottest team in the league (Madrid) on Wednesday and then hope all the best-possible results occur. Oslo would have to beat Minsk in regulation time and then lose to Dublin in regulation time, and Belfast would have to lose to Petrograd (regulation or OT). Then the Dons are in with 77 points because they have more wins than Belfast and Oslo. If Minsk beats Oslo or Belfast beats St. Petersburg, then the Dons are out.
Oslo: The Outlaws’ possibilities are the most confusing because they have two games to play and the other teams have just one. The easiest way to make the playoffs for Oslo would be to win both of their remaining games because then they would 79 points and it wouldn’t matter what the other teams did. The most Belfast can finish with is 78 points. The most Minsk or London can have is 77.
Obviously, if Oslo comes up with no points in their last two games, they can’t get any higher than their current spot of 9th place.
If Oslo loses to Minsk in regulation on Wednesday, then they can’t make the playoffs, because even if they win their last game against Dublin, the Outlaws and Hussars would both have 77 points and Minsk would have more wins.
The most complicated situation will occur if Oslo beats Minsk Wednesday and then loses to Dublin a few days later. If that happens, they could make the playoffs. But they could be eliminated. It would depend on what the other teams do.
Let’s assume Oslo beats Minsk and then loses to Dublin.
If that loss occurs in overtime, and if Belfast wins, then the Giants would advance.
If that loss to Dublin would occur in regulation, Oslo could still get in if both the Giants and London lost their games Wednesday. Unless Belfast got a point out of St. Petersburg, then Oslo would fail to make the playoffs.
It all shows how important a point in the standings can be. We wouldn’t be having this discussion if, in Belfast’s second game of the season, one more puck got past Roberto Luongo and into the Copenhagen net before 60 minutes expired. It is just one of many, many examples of how a single save or goal can cost a team a position in the standings … and possibly a playoff spot.