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The Road To The Playoffs Takes A Turn

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While the web-surfing hockey fan can find reams of analysis as to which teams did or did not help themselves on the NHL's Trade Deadline Day this week, there's another question worth answering when one considers how tight the playoff races remain. To what extent has the remaining schedule for various teams gotten tougher or easier, depending on what their upcoming opponents have done to their rosters? Since the 5th-9th spots in the West are separated by a mere 4 points, and 6th-11th by just 6 in the East, strength of schedule will play a critical role in determining who makes the post-season and who's playing golf in early April.

All season long I've used a custom spreadsheet made freely available on the web to provide some detail behind the NHL schedule; it includes information such as how many days have elapsed for each team between games, how far they had to travel, their opponents' vital competitive statistics, etc. In light of Tuesday's frenetic trading, I opted to take a different look at the final portion of the NHL regular season, and categorize teams as having either Upgraded or Downgraded their present talent, and then checked to see which teams are playing teams that beefed up for the playoffs, and which teams can look forward to opponents who sold off today for (presumably) a better tomorrow.

In this view, for example, the Detroit Red Wings have seen the biggest easing in their schedule. They still have eleven games against teams which traded down (such as Columbus and St. Louis), against only two against teams which upgraded themselves (like San Jose). On the opposite end, the New York Rangers has only two games against a weaker opponent, but nine against those who stocked up.

In terms of impact on the playoff races, this would seem to indicate that Carolina and Washington's roads have become somewhat easier, while the Islanders and Rangers are facing a steeper climb. In the West, San Jose should pull comfortably ahead of their competition, while Calgary benefits from a schedule that includes Columbus (twice), Chicago, St. Louis and Atlanta, perhaps the easiest path to the playoffs among their Northwest Division foes.