Sunday, April 1, 2012

NHL's Western Conference Race will Come Down to the Wire

The race for the #3, #7 and #8 seeds in the Western Conference will come down to the last week of the NHL season. Currently Los Angeles holds the Pacific Division lead and so they are in third place in the Western Conference. Dallas, San Jose, Phoenix and Colorado are all fighting to get in the playoffs. Only three points separate the teams.

Having watched all of these teams in the last few weeks I would say the Kings are playing the best hockey. LA picked up 15 points out of the last 20 and pushed past the pack. Jonathan Quick is playing amazing in the net and providing the Kings the confidence they need to play a solid game. They don't have to worry about making mistakes because they know Quick will be there to stop the puck. Trustworthy goaltending is crucial to the confidence of a team and right now LA has to be feeling great about their chances every night.

The rest of the teams in this pack have been scrapping along winning around 50% of their games. Getting in to the playoffs for two of these teams will require them to win at least two more games out of their last three (or two for Colorado). What makes this interesting is that these teams are playing each other.

Who will be the difference makers down the stretch? For sure the goaltenders. Mike Smith pitched a shutout for Phoenix last night as did Antti Niemi for San Jose (against Dallas). Kari Lehtonen of Dallas, who has been playing great for most of the season, let in a goal 58 seconds into the game to send the Sharks off to a good start. The goaltender that can go in to "shutdown" mode will get his team in the playoffs. If one of them becomes "leaky" it will be the end of the season.

Besides the goalies, I would say that Joe Pavelski of the San Jose Sharks has been huge. He had 2 goals in the win over Dallas last night to help his team hop over Dallas in to eighth place. The question has to be for San Jose "How will the play on the road?" With two of their last three on the road in Dallas and Los Angeles, the Sharks must perform better than they have recently. The Sharks have struggled to score goals on the road including being shut out twice in March by Phoenix.

Unlike San Jose,  Phoenix has been playing from ahead in the standings for most of March. It has been a rough March for the Coyotes, including losing their first five games of the month, but they have rebounded with two straight must-wins. Phoenix plays both Minnesota and Columbus which would normally lead me to write that they have the best remaining schedule, but Columbus just beat another playoff team last night. I still suspect that Phoenix will get in.

Colorado, in contrast, is running out of games. With only two games left, and the last one on the road against Nashville which is hungry to get home ice in the first round, it will be a tough assignment for the Avs to get all four points. Goaltender Semyon Varlamov will be have to be lights out to get the Avs in the playoffs.

That leaves us with Dallas. The Stars get another crack at the Sharks Tuesday night, and then the Preds and Blues. Dallas has the worst record over the last 10 games of the teams trying to get in (except Calgary which it is safe to assume are out). The Stars will need to get on a roll to finish the season. Fortunately for them San Jose and LA play twice, and they have San Jose on home ice. If they can acquire five points and hope that the Sharks and Kings do not play the dreaded three-point game they can get in.

All of these teams have been playing playoff intensity hockey for at least a month. No matter who gets in it will serve them well. Frequently lower seeds perform well in the first round because they do not have to amp up the intensity. They have been playing that way for some time and can catch a team that cruises into the playoffs off guard.

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