Injuries to Key Players Turning NHL Western Conference Playoff Race on Its Head

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Injuries to Key Players Turning NHL Western Conference Playoff Race on Its Head
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Are you one of the better players in the NHL? Do you play for a team in the Western Conference? Does that team have a reasonably good chance of reaching the postseason or consider itself a contender for the Stanley Cup?

A piece of free advice: Consider encasing yourself in bubble wrap before your next game, because you could be the next important player to suffer an injury that greatly affects the playoff scene in the West.

According to the Canadian Press (h/t TSN.ca), Colorado Avalanche leading scorer and driver of possession Matt Duchene will miss the rest of the regular season and at least a portion of the first round of the playoffs after colliding with teammate Jamie McGinn on Saturday.

It's a devastating loss for the Avalanche, who rank in the bottom five in the NHL in Fenwick percentage and can't afford to be without Duchene in what will likely be a first-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks.

However, Duchene's knee injury is just tip of the infirmary iceberg.

The Phoenix Coyotes, desperately clinging to the final wild-card berth in the West, lost goaltender Mike Smith for possibly the remainder of the regular season on March 24. 

The Blackhawks have been trying to secure second place in the Central Division and home-ice advantage against the Avalanche without Patrick Kane, who is out for the rest of the regular season with a lower-body injury suffered on March 19.

On Sunday, captain Jonathan Toews was the victim of a devastating hit from Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik and is listed as day-to-day.

Wait, there's more!

Cam Fowler, the No. 1 defenseman of the Anaheim Ducks, was giving a prognosis of three-to-five weeks of recovery for a knee injury he suffered on March 14. It's very likely he won't be back until the playoffs, but there's no guarantee of that.

St. Louis Blues forward Vladimir Tarasenko had 21 goals in 64 games before hand surgery on March 19 and won't be available to the team until after the first round of the playoffs.

And those are just the big names.

Other players that don't rise to the level of "big names" but have gone down recently include Minnesota Wild goaltender Darcy Kuemper, Avalanche right wing Pierre-Alexandre Parenteau, Blackhawks left wing Bryan Bickell and San Jose Sharks left wing Raffi Torres.

It's hockey. It's a collision sport. Injuries will happen. With that said, the valuable players missing extended periods of time in March and April are transforming playoff fortunes on a semi-daily basis.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Without Duchene, some believe the Avalanche are sitting ducks against the Blackhawks, who could have Kane and Toews for the start of their very likely playoff series in two weeks.

Justin Bourne of The Score believes the Avalanche will get "smoked" while Sean Gentille at Sporting News described the Avalanche as "toast," which can be quite delicious with butter and cinnamon sugar, but that probably wasn't his point.

Are the Avs in trouble against the Blackhawks without Duchene? You bet. Is the series guaranteed to be a cakewalk for the Blackhawks? Not a shot.

The Blackhawks haven't won three straight games since December, despite quality possession numbers over that time. The Avalanche took four of five from the Blackhawks in the season series and, despite losing Duchene, have the inside track on home-ice advantage, which could be massive.

Jeff Roberson

At home, the Blackhawks are 24-7-7. Away from Chicago, they are an unimpressive 18-12-8. 

But where the Avalanche could have a series-shifting edge is in net: Semyon Varlamov is third in the NHL in even-strength save percentage at .935 while the Blackhawks' Corey Crawford is ninth at .928. 

When you're shooting against Crawford for two weeks, there's always hope.

If the Blackhawks have Toews and Kane at full strength, it probably won't matter if the Avalanche have home-ice advantage. If Toews and Kane are absent, however, there's no reason to write off the Avalanche so quickly.

The Coyotes, on the other hand...

Although Smith is out at least a week, the Coyotes have one of the better backups in the league in Thomas Greiss. Nevertheless, the Coyotes have a one-point lead on the Dallas Stars, who have a game in hand, making the loss of Smith the likely difference between a wild-card berth and a disappointing ninth-place finish. 

Since Greiss took over for Smith during the third period of the Coyotes' 4-3 overtime loss to the New York Rangers, he has a .912 save percentage, which is slightly below the league average.

But it's the bad goal he allowed to Jared Spurgeon in a crushing loss the Wild on Saturday that shows the difference between an elite goaltender and another masquerading as one.

The Stars play four of their next five games against non-playoff teams. They are healthy and have an easier road to the playoffs than the Coyotesthat will make all the difference.

When Fowler went down two weeks ago, it looked like it could be the difference between the Ducks winning the Pacific Division and falling behind the Sharks, which meant a first-round date with the Los Angeles Kings.

Instead, the Ducks have gone 4-0-1 in their past five games while the Sharks are 1-2-2 in their past five.

The Ducks are three points up on the Sharks with a game in hand and one point behind the Blues for the best record in the West. Since Tarasenko hurt his hand, the Blues are 4-3-0 and suddenly vulnerable to the hard-charging Ducks.

Bones are breaking and ligaments are stretching at an inordinate rate in the West of late, and it's making things interesting and confusing as we hit the home stretch.

Just to be safe, it's probably wise to keep Ryan Miller and Joe Thornton in a safe house between now and the postseason to avoid a season-ending injury caused by an air conditioner landing on their heads.

 

Advanced statistics courtesy of ExtraSkater.com.

Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo

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