The Campbell Trophy goes to the Western Conference champion
With the trade deadline in the rear-view mirror, the final five-plus weeks of the NHL season comes a little bit more into focus.
There were 15 trades in the final hours—almost a record-low, but still more than any other sport usually has. There were also 15 more in the previous two weeks.
Predicting anything before knowing where the final chips will fall is a fool's errand. With tight divisional races in the Pacific and Central Divisions and fewer than three games separating six teams fighting for the final seed before the deadline, knowing which teams made what moves is essential to an accurate forecast.
Now the only variables in the makeup of teams come from injuries. We know the Vancouver Canucks and Nashville Predators helped themselves most in the final two weeks. We know that the big shopping sprees expected from the disappointing San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks did not happen.
So knowing what we know, who will match up against whom; which teams will advance and how far?
The Dallas Stars are hot right now, just a game behind the Chicago Blackhawks for the seventh seed. But they have 10 of their final 19 games on the road and face 11 teams currently fighting to win their divisions.
They will cool off just enough for the more talented Hawks to keep them at bay, but not enough for any of the five teams currently chasing them to catch up.
Minnesota and Anaheim are practically eliminated already. But the other three will fight them until the end.
They will beat the L.A. Kings, who rely on overtime losses and shootout wins for a larger percentage of their points than any Western Conference team but Minnesota, on the primary tiebreak. The Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames play each other and Vancouver twice down the stretch and thus will miss by a point and two, respectively.
Meanwhile, Vancouver not only has the best record now, but improved at the deadline and has the softest schedule remaining: 13 of their final 18 games are at home and only six total games are against projected playoff teams.
They will earn the President's Trophy for the second season in a row, but it will not come easy. The New York Rangers, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and maybe even Nashville Predators will be breathing down their necks until at least Good Friday, keeping them with a competitive edge.
This does not bode well for Dallas in the first round. The Canucks are better in net, on the blue line and among their forwards. The superior heart of the Stars gets them a single win.
The Chicago Blackhawks have the third-worst goals against average in the Western Conference. Their penalty kill is terrible and they are ice cold over the last six weeks.
Yet the only trade deadline move they made was for Johnny Oduya. However, they have been banged up and will be getting Niklas Hjalmarsson back, so they will turn it around just enough to hold onto the seventh seed.
With elite top-six forwards and two world-class defencemen, they are a dangerous opponent for any team. The Detroit Red Wings are the oldest team in the league, something that has been exposed in two straight playoff losses to the San Jose Sharks. Division rivalry series also tend to level the ice a bit between the favourite and underdog.
But the Hawks are not the Wings. Detroit has a better goalie and is deeper. Joe Louis Arena offers one of the best home-ice advantages in a league in which the rink often does not matter in early rounds.
And this is Detroit's last chance to win a Cup. They will not bow out in the first round.
If you want to know who is going to win the division and why between the Phoenix Coyotes and San Jose Sharks, I thoroughly explain this in my NHL Pacific column for The Hockey Beat. But the team that wins it is certain to be the third seed and the team that fails likely to be the sixth.
In other words, the teams are on a collision course in the first round.
Coyotes fans will be happy not to see the Detroit Red Wings in what is likely to be their last season in the desert. But the results will look an awful lot the same.
Even as a higher seed in 2010, the Coyotes lost to Detroit because they were not a better team. This year, at least a dozen teams in the conference are actually better than the Coyotes. But only the Nashville Predators (lowest payroll in the league before the trade deadline) do more with less.
The Coyotes fight harder on every shift than their opponents and overachieve. But come playoff time, everyone else's desire and effort draws even with Phoenix and they cannot match the other team's talent.
That will be the case in April. Perhaps no Western Conference team does less with more than the Sharks, but from top to bottom, they are the obviously superior team. They have the playoff success (two consecutive conference finals) Phoenix lacks to believe they will get things done in the early rounds.
But Phoenix will not go down without a fight. They will steal one game from the Sharks from desire and another because the divisional matchup levels the ice. At least three of their losses will be nail-biters.
The St. Louis Blues are built for the playoffs.
They adhere to the system of a Stanley Cup-winning coach. They block passing and shooting lanes and simply choke opposing offences. They have veterans who have been there and done that.
You know how they say if you have two goalies (or quarterbacks), you really have none? Absolute bunk: The Minnesota Wild went to the Western Conference Finals in 2003 rotating their goalies. It will not be a bad thing having both Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot in net, even if they cannot settle on one as primary.
But many of this team's players have not been in the playoffs. The Nashville Predators learned how to win in the postseason last year and were almost the equal of the conference champions in the second round.
They have the outstanding goalie, arguably the best pair in the league on the blue line and bolstered their mediocre forward lines at the trade deadline. They may even catch the Blues in the standings despite being 2.5 games back with just 19 to play.
This series should go the distance because of the teams' familiarity with each other. (It may still have fewer goals scored than any of the other, shorter series out west.) But St. Louis has trouble away from their rink. You need to be able to win on the road at this time of year.