The Campbell Trophy goes to the Western Conference champion
The NHL trade deadline has passed and the season is heading into its last quarter. Because rosters are set and there are only about a dozen games left for most teams, the picture for the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs is coming more into focus.
The Eastern Conference has three serious contenders to reach the finals, three teams in contention to be yet another undeserved Southeast Division winner "earning" a third seed as the worst team in the Stanley Cup playoffs and five other teams vying for the other four berths.
Despite no longer appearing unbeatable, the Chicago Blackhawks and Anaheim Ducks built up enough of a lead to win their divisions. Either could finish first or second in the Western Conference. But the rest of the pack is too competitive to call.
A regulation win by the San Jose Sharks over the Minnesota Wild Wednesday, April 3, left three teams with 44 points in 36 games and a fourth one point behind them. Just two games separate the five teams behind them. Only the Colorado Avalanche and Calgary Flames are truly out of the playoff hunt.
Of course, that only makes predictions more interesting, like those in the preseason when there are far more possibilities. My own early-season predictions landed seven of the eight teams I still see making it in, but in drastically different order than I now see each postseason round playing out.
The good news is the Detroit Red Wings will be able to absorb a changing of the guard while maintaining the longest active streak of Stanley Cup playoff appearances going (currently 21).
The bad news is they are the least talented team still in the Western Conference playoff picture, especially after the St. Louis Blues made upgrades at the NHL trade deadline. They have almost no chance of moving past the seventh seed, pitting them against one of the two strongest teams out west.
The good news is that by losing out to St. Louis for the seventh spot, they will not end up making the longer travel to the Pacific coast. The bad news is they will not get to enjoy its weather, but remain stuck in the Midwest in early May when it can be 40 degrees and raining or 90 degrees and humid.
The good news is they will know their opponent, the Chicago Blackhawks. Being a division rival is worth an extra win for the underdog in a seven-game series.
The bad news is that opponent is the best team in the Western Conference and has only lost three times to Detroit in the last two years. The above-referenced extra win might be the only one they get, but Corey Crawford is a less-than-established playoff goalie who might fumble one more game away
Chicago in six
After trading for Jordan Leopold, the St. Louis Blues further upgraded an already skilled blue line by essentially replacing Wade Redden with Jay Bouwmeester. They now have one of the three most elite units in the NHL.
Unfortunately, they are struggling in net in 2013. The tremendous and playoff-tested tandem of last season, Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott, haven't always been healthy this year and haven't always played well when they are in goal.
The prospects of beating a team with deep scoring are slim without good goaltending. The one thing they have going for them is that the Anaheim Ducks also may choose between a rookie or a veteran with health issues to lean on.
The blue line for the Ducks is very good, though not as strong as that of the Blues. But Anaheim is probably stronger at forward and a little more reliable in net. Add home-ice advantage, and they should be able to squeak through the first round.
Anaheim in seven
The Vancouver Canucks and Minnesota Wild will be in a battle to win the Northwest Division until the end of the season. They should be able to renew their rivalry in the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, with the familiarity and level competition all but guaranteeing a seven-game series.
The Canucks have all the advantages except the tie-break. They have alreaydbattled injuries and should get healthier, while the Wild just lost Dany Heatley (h/t the Star Tribune), have less depth in net and a tougher schedule down the road.
Vancouver wins the battle, but not the war. Minnesota landed more trade deadline assets, has a stronger starter in net and will be better at forward if Heatley returns for the first round. That should be enough to enable them to win a Game 7 on the road.
Minnesota in seven
The San Jose Sharks have only one regulation loss at home this season, as well as two five-game winning streaks in HP Pavilion. The last of those accounts for almost their entire current six-game winning streak that could be disrupted with the addition of Raffi Torres, long-time villain of the team.
The Los Angeles Kings have more home games remaining and are deeper everywhere but the blue line thanks to some injuries. That should enable them to make up the current one-point deficit, especially because they are almost certain to have the tie-break.
Even though the Kings are world champions, they still have not beaten the Sharks when it mattered. Last season, all they needed was one win in a home-and-home series to end the season to finish ahead of their Northern California rivals. They also lost the one playoff series the season before.
But ultimately, the way the Sharks play at home and on the road makes it hard to believe they would be able to play the "I'm still your big brother" card far enough to overcome having to play one more away from the Shark Tank.
Kings in seven
In full seasons, teams with new major pieces rarely win championships in sports. For the Minnesota Wild to do it in a season that gave them less time than most to gel would be unprecedented.
They are still pedestrian beyond Ryan Suter on the back end, something the deep forward talent of the Chicago Blackhawks can exploit. Minnesota can use its own forward depth to get their shots through a very good defense at an unproven playoff goalie, but it will not be enough.
Chicago in six
Potential retirements aside, the Anaheim Ducks made their push to the 2013 Stanley Cup by opting to re-sign both of their best forwards. They have great depth among their skaters and should be able to get good play in net from one of their capable goalies.
The Los Angeles Kings' current goaltending is no more sure and they lack as much blue line depth because of injuries. But they are a little better on that all-important second line, and have been to the mountaintop more recently. They also do not rely on two 40-year-old forwards in a condensed schedule.
Los Angeles in seven
In a battle of recent Stanley Cup champions that should draw back some of the fans the NHL lockout lost, the Chicago Blackhawks are just the better team.
They are deeper and faster at forward and on the blue line. They have gotten better play in net than the Kings have all season.
They will have home-ice advantage and have had two fewer games played in May. Teams just do not win three consecutive seven-game series in a normal year, much less a condensed one. It is hard to believe Chicago would not be able to win at least three games to force a game seven at home.
Chicago in seven, but they will not have enough to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins more than twice even with home ice.