As an avid Colorado Avalanche fan, I have never seen such a competitive playoff race as the one taking place in the NHL's Northwest Division.
Over the past two weeks, first place in the division has changed hands three times between three different teams. And only seven points separates first place Calgary and fifth place Edmonton.
It seems like on a nightly basis I find myself cheering for a different division rival to win over another division rival, and its absolute chaos. Down the stretch run all five teams finish off the season with games against one another which will most certainly determine the order of finish in the western conference playoff race.
I personally believe that this is the most competitive division in hockey and ironically enough each of the five teams play a very different style of hockey. However, every team comes out hard to play every night making for very exciting hockey.
The Northwest consists of tremendous goaltending from the likes of Roberto Luongo in Vancouver and Mikka Kiprusoff in Calgary. A very sound defensive style coming from out in Minnesota under the helm of Jacques Lemaire. A very quick run and gun style from the youthful and speedy Edmonton Oilers squad. Finally, a solid physical and hard working game from the Colorado Avalanche.
Down the stretch I believe the Northwest division will be the most exciting to watch and will come down to which teams play the best hockey at the right time. Each team will be looking at its key players to step up and help make one last push towards the playoffs.
Let the scoreboard watching and the cheering for rivals begin!
Below I have listed the remaining schedule for each team in the northwest, key players and strategies for success, as well as my prediction for final position in the standings:
Calgary Flames (five games remaining, sit at 90 pts)
Schedule remaining: Edmonton, Vancouver, Edmonton, Minnesota, and Vancouver
Key Players: Kristen Huselius, Mikka Kiprusoff, Dion Phaneuf, Jerome Iginla, Owen Nolan
Keys to Success: The Flames will need Kipper to be at his best and to play sound defensive hockey. More secondary scoring from guys like Huselius and Alex Tanguay is a must. This team will also need veteran leadership down the stretch from captain Jerome Iginila and grinder Owen Nolan.
Prediction: Calgary will win the Northwest Division and claim the 3rd seed in the West.
Minnesota Wild (five games remaining, sit at 89 points)
Schedule remaining: Edmonton, Vancouver, Colorado, Calgary, Colorado
Key Players: Marian Gaborik, Brent Burns, Josh Harding, Niklas Backstrom, Pavol Demitra, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, and Brian Rolston
Keys to Success: The Wild will need to have consistent goaltending from the tandem of Harding and Backstrom on a nightly basis. Minnesota will also be leaning heavily on Gaborik to continue his breakout season in which he's finally been able to avoid injury. Minnesota's defensive style would also be greatly complimented by great secondary scoring from the likes of Pierre Marc Bouchard. Lastly great leadership from both Demitra and Rolston could lead the Wild to the division crown.
Prediction: second in the Northwest, sixth place in the West
Colorado Avalanche (five games remaining, at 86 points)
Schedule Remaining: Vancouver, Edmonton, Minnesota, Vancouver, Minnesota
Key Players: Jose Theodore, Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Ryan Smyth, John Micheal Liles, Adam Foote
Keys to Success: The primary key for the Avs down the stretch is to remain healthy enough to put the best possible line up on the ice every night. It will also be a must for Jose Theodore to continue shutting the door between the pipes and keep opposing scorers at Bay. The Avs will be looking to their long time veterans in Sakic, Foote Liles, Smyth and Forsberg for experience and leadership to lead them to the promise land. One final key will be contribution on the scoresheet from the back end to support high scoring forwards.
Prediction: third in the Northwest, seventh place in the West
Edmonton Oilers (five games remaining, sit at 83 points)
Schedule Remaining: Minnesota, Colorado, Calgary, Calgary, Vancouver
Key Players: Dwayne Roloson, Ales Hemsky, Dustin Penner, Sam Gagner, Andrew Cogliano
Keys to Success: The Oilers will very much be looking to outscore opponents down the stretch rather than to shut them down. The Oilers will need Ales Hemsky to continue to put the puck in the net, as well as Dustin Penner to keep playing like he deserved his big off-season contract. Edmonton will also need both Gagner and Cogliano to play like veterans despite only being in their first NHL campaign. In order to get into the playoffs, Dwayne Roloson will need to be the stopper that he proved he was in the 2006 Oilers playoff run.
Prediction: The Oilers will claim fourth in the Northwest and the eighth and final western conference playoff spot.
Vancouver Canucks (six games remaining, sit at 86 points)
Schedule remaining: Colorado, Minnesota, Calgary, Colorado, and Edmonton
Key Players: Roberto Luongo, Markus Naslund, The Sedin Twins, Mattius Ohlund, Willie Mitchell, Ryan Kesler
Keys to Success: The Canucks will need to play very responsible defensive hockey as the season winds down. They will need timely scoring and leadership from Captain Markus Naslund and scoring leaders Daniel and Henrik Sedin. Vancouver will also need players like Ryan Kesler, and Willie Mitchell to shut down opposing superstars and keep them off the scoresheet as they have been able to do for much of the season. Lastly, the Canucks will need Roberto Luongo to once again show why he is among the Elite goaltenders in the League and steal a few games for the low scoring Vancouver squad.
Prediction: fifth place in the Northwest and 10th place in the Western Conference