Welcome then to the Western Conference. How appropriate that the Western Conference would remind me of the "Wild Wild West"! Wild indeed, when with just under 30 games to go, only 10 points separate places 4 through 14! It is the Wild, Wild West and there's going to be a shootout or two before all is said and done.
1) Vancouver Canucks - Clearly the elite of the NHL through their first 55 games. The Sedin twins continue to be scoring machines, Roberto Luongo remains one of the best netminders in the NHL. One quirk about the 'Nucks though - come playoff time they are anything but elite. In fact, the last time they went past the second round was their appearance in the finals in 1994 when the New York Rangers bested them in a thrilling seven game series. It's one thing to get to the dance, it's a completely different thing to know all the steps.
2) Detroit Red Wings - I'll call the Wings the "Anti-Canucks". Not only do they play through injuries of all sorts, not only do they always find a way to win, in this era they are the benchmark of hockey success. In fact, since Vancouver's appearance in the 1994 finals, these "Anti-Canucks" have won the Stanley Cup four times and been to the finals on two other occasions. Not only will the Wings win the Central Division, expect them to be playing long into the late spring.
3) San Jose Sharks - The Sharks have been one of the more successful post 1990 expansion teams. Talented on the ice and in the front office, the Sharks are currently 8-1-1 in their last ten. The only blemish being Friday night's 2-1 defeat at the hands of the New Jersey Devils. The Sharks roster is starting to resemble a "Who's Who" in hockey. Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and joined this year by rookie Logan Couture, the Sharks will prevail and win the Pacific Division.
4) Dallas Stars - The worst thing going for the Stars is that they are stuck in the division with San Jose. The Stars, like most of the Western Conference, have plenty of offense in Brad Richards, Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro. Their defense, although unheralded, gets the job done effectively. Kari Lehtonen guards the nets for the Stars, and although his numbers aren't spectacular (23 wins, 14 losses, 2.65 GAA, .914 save percentage) they are good enough to backstop the Stars to a four seed in the conference.
5) Nashville Predators - I expect the Preds to prevail in this logjam to end up with the five spot. Led by Pekka Rinne in goal, it seems every time I see a Nashville game, they look dominant in all aspects of the game. The Preds, looking to kickstart their offense, obtained
Mr. Carrie Underwood Mike Fisher from the going-nowhere Ottawa Senators.
6) Anaheim Ducks - Last season the Ducks missed the playoffs for the first time since the lockout of 2004-05. The Ducks, mirroring much of the west, have a lineup that boasts of established talent, youth and solid goaltending in Jonas Hiller (is that mask supposed to be Darth Vader?). All Star Corey Perry currently is the Ducks leading scorer (28G-31A-59 pts.)
7) Chicago Blackhawks - That the defending Stanley Cup champions are even mentioned in playoff talk is amazing. Management put the club through a fire sale of sorts last summer, promptly moving about a third of the championship roster. Former Springfield Indians coach Joel Quenneville enters his third season behind the Chicago bench, perhaps with his greatest challenge yet. Currently floundering with a 28-22-5 mark, the difference between the Blackhawks and the other clubs who are looking at the seven and eight spots, there is still a nucleus of players who learned to win last season. My biggest question mark for the 'Hawks is past-his-prime, Marty Turco.
8) Phoenix Coyotes - Sorry Jackets fans. I wish I could place the Jackets higher, but the Coyotes get my pick for the eighth and final playoff spot in the west. Continuing turbulence with ownership issues appear to be past them. Now they can get back to the business of winning.
As I write this, a mere five points separate places five through eleven. Something to keep in mind, is that any team that gets hot and can break off a five or six game winning streak can not only vault from out of the picture altogether to a 4, 5, or 6 seed.
9) Los Angeles Kings - This is where the "victims of numbers" begins. Fifteen teams in the conference, only eight make the postseason. There is nothing significantly worse about the Kings than any other team in the West.
10) Calgary Flames - Despite the early season drama, the Flames have finally found their game. At this point, I see it as too little, too late however.
11) Minnesota Wild - The Wild are another club that could vault right back into the hunt. Currently 8-2-0 in their last ten games, if the season ended right now, the Wild are on the outside by just one point. Led by former Springfield Indian (Calder Cup Champion in 1991), Todd Richards, the Wild will remain strong down the stretch.
12) Columbus Blue Jackets - Sorry Cannon Nation. The Jackets have picked up their game since the All Star break. Despite recent heroics by Rick Nash and R.J. Umberger, Columbus seems to be one legitimate scoring threat away from playoff hockey. There are guys on the roster now who will absolutely not be with the club next season. In the present though, I think 12th is about right.
13) St. Louis Blues - The Blues are another "what happened?" team. Off to a good start, the Blues have had their share of struggles in the middle portion of the season. Jaroslav Halak, despite moments of brilliance, needs to take this team further to prove that last year's playoff run with Montreal was not a fluke.
14) Colorado Avalanche - The Peter Forsberg sideshow aside, the Avs have hit the wall. At a time when any of the teams on the bubble need a six game winning streak, Colorado has dropped six straight.
15) Edmonton Oilers - This is bittersweet for me. Unabashedly, I hate the Oilers front office for how poorly they treated the Springfield Falcons over the last two seasons of their partnership. On the other hand, I feel badly for and hope that this is simply a learning experience for the likes of Devan Dubnyk, Theo Peckham, Liam Reddox, Jordan Eberle and the other guys who toiled here in the "City of Homes" in the recent past.
If you're still with me, that means I foresee the following first round matchups in the Western Conference playoffs:
Vancouver Canucks vs. Phoenix Coyotes
Detroit Red Wings vs. Chicago Blackhawks
San Jose Sharks vs. Anaheim Ducks
Dallas Stars vs. Nashville Predators
Agree? Disagree? Please leave a comment and thanks for reading!