After taking a look at the East, now I get to pull out my crystal ball to see if I can figure out just what may happen in the Western Conference...as usual, feel free to tell me why I'm completely insane in the comments!
1) Vancouver Canucks - What's that old saw about the Rich just getting Richer? The Canucks are on fire this year, and despite losing Sami Salo, Alexander Edler, and Kevin Bieksa on the blue line for various lengths of time, they just keep rolling through the NHL, currently on pace to sieze the President's Trophy with a whopping +54 goal differential. While it's hard to say what will happen in the playoffs once they start, the Canucks look like a team on a mission to bring the Cup back to Canada.
2) Nashville Predators - While many thought the Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks would be the teams vying for control of the Central Division, the Predators have pulled it off again behind Barry Trotz and David Poille, taking a group who many thought would underachieve or struggle, and just keep finding ways to defy the experts. Despite losing Matthew Lombardi, perhaps their biggest offseason acquisition, to a concussion, unexpected heroes like Sergei Kostitsyn have shouldered the load and have kept the Preds on a strong pace - including an amazing 12-4-6 record at home...and 19 of their remaining 29 games are on home ice. If the Preds can keep dominating within Bridgestone Arena, I think they'll pass Detroit for the division crown.
3) Dallas Stars - Where did these guys come from? With Kari Lehtonen finally playing like the franchise goalie Atlanta thought he would be, the Stars have been one of the hottest teams in the West all season. Despite going through a bit of a post all star game slump, I think they'll continue to keep up their strong play to hold off San Jose and Anaheim for the Pacific title.
4) Detroit Red Wings - Even though I do believe Nashville will pass them for the division crown, the Red Wings are still...well, the Red Wings. The road to the Stanley Cup is going to pass through Joe Louis Arena in the first round, just as it has every season since the lockout, particularly once guys like Pavel Datsyuk, Mike Modano, and Dan Tomas Holmstrom get back into the lineup. If I see Detroit making any moves, it's to try and shore up their goaltending again. The move to snag Nabokov failed, but perhaps another try at someone like Tomas Vokoun, or even Ray Emery?
5) San Jose Sharks - Despite starting the year on the wrong foot after returning from Sweden, and at one point looking to fall to the bottom of the West, the Sharks are back on their feet and swimming aggressively through the Western Conference. Much like Nashville, the majority of their remaining games will be at the Shark Tank, and that's a difficult building for teams to go into and pull out a win under the best of circumstances. Despite a strong offense and a +6 goal differential, I wouldn't be shocked to see them look for some scoring help at the deadline.
6) Los Angeles Kings - It's a good year to be in the Pacific division - as we speak, all 5 clubs are in playoff position, but with as tight as the West is, I don't see Anaheim and Phoenix being able to keep up in the stretch. LA, on the other hand, has a +21 goal differential and seem to be getting hot and healthy at the right time. Everyone keeps saying that Dean Lombardi has to make a move at the deadline, but what if he doesn't? I could still see this Kings squad making an impact.
7) Calgary Flames - I am as surprised by this pick as you are, but I can't deny that after starting the year in the basement, the Flames been on a mission. "Interim" GM Jay Feaster will probably look to add a bit of depth (or perhaps youth) at the deadline if the Flames keep rocking, but right now, believe it or not, I think they'll find a way.
8) Columbus Blue Jackets - Do you believe in miracles? Perhaps I do. Something in the way this team played leading up to the All Star Break, and in how they've responded to Scott Arniel of late, makes me a believer. One notable point - the team's schedule stretches out a bit between games after a fairly compressed Dec. and January. One of the things that has been brought up is the team seems to play better in games after they've had a few days of practice time. It might just be the difference between success and failure, particularly Scott Howson can make a move to add a blueliner that fits into Arniel's system. It also doesn't hurt that Columbus has 7 games against the East during the stretch...and the Jackets have been very, very good vs. the Eastern Conference this year.
9) Minnesota Wild - Another team that has overcome a bad start, but I think the hole is just a little too deep for the Wild, though I have to admit that Brent Burns and Niklas Backstrom might be able to push this team farther than I think they can.
10) Anaheim Ducks - Despite how well they've played without Ryan Getzlaf, the Ducks just don't feel like a playoff team to me. They're too close to the rest of the pack, and they've gone into a couple nasty slumps already this season. Jonas Hiller is an outstanding goaltender, but he's already starting to go out of the lineup due to "fatigue". I just don't think they'll be able to ride him hard enough to make it into the postseason.
11) Chicago Blackhawks - Another one of those teams that keeps running with the pack, but keeps slipping back out of the picture, particularly with their play at home - the Hawks have lost more games at the UC already than they did all of last year. They're still a dangerous team, and they know how to score, but they're human now, and I just don't see Marty Turco and Corey Crawford being stable enough in net to give them the edge. (Not to mention the Hawks are also going to be on the road for much of the end of the season...)
12) Phoenix Coyotes - While the Coyotes have been solid this year, they're still a team that relies on Ilya Bryzgalov to win games for them. I like the Yotes, but I don't seem them being able to keep things going, especially with several teams chasing them keeping a couple of games in hand.
13) Colorado Avalanche - The big news around the Avs is that they've signed Peter Forsberg. Again. Injuries have taken a huge toll on this club, and the addition of another fragile, though talented, player doesn't really excite me very much about their chances.
14) St. Louis Blues - After coming out of the gate like world beaters, injuries and inexperience have taken a hard toll on the Blues. Sadly for their fellow teams in the Central Division, I'd expect them to only get better with time, particularly as Jaroslav Halak adjusts to being the full time starter.
15) Edmonton Oilers - The rebuild continues in Oil Country, and with it, another lottery pick. If they're lucky, maybe they'll find themselves with that first overall selection again to continue stocking up their young core...and perhaps eventually they'll find an NHL caliber defense to go with them. I wouldn't be shocked at all to see trade bait flying out the door in Edmonton sooner than later.
First Round Predictions:
Vancouver v. Columbus
Nashville v. Calgary
Dallas v. LA
Detroit v. San Jose
Despite the fact that I do think Nashville will win the Central, I really wonder if they'll be able to get out of the first round - that's the one hurdle they just don't seem to be able to clear. But, these are the days of Miracle and Wonder, so who knows...?
As usual, these predictions and $5 will get you a cup of coffee, but it'll be an exciting race to see how the playoffs shake out, to say the least!