There are currently nine teams in the Western Conference that are separated by seven points (based on games played through Jan. 23).
Of these teams, none are leading their division, and the worst team is only four points (two games) out of the final playoff spot.
It's a safe bet to say that Detroit, Vancouver, and Dallas will make the playoffs, but how will the rest of the Western Conference shake out?
Which of these teams will excel down the stretch and which will falter? Bleacher Report takes a look at the teams on the bubble in the Western Conference.
The Predators are another team that benefits from outstanding coaching, although Barry Trotz has excelled under the radar for most of his tenure with Nashville. The team currently sits at fourth in the Western Conference with 60 points, and is turning on the heat at just the right time, winning eight of their last 10 games.
Expect: Nashville to push for a trip into the second or third round of the playoffs. Although the team has been bounced in the first round in five of the last six seasons (they failed to qualify for the 2009 playoffs), the players have gained valuable playoff experience, and with the core of the team from those series still intact (Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Steve Sullivan), one can expect the Predators to put up quite a fight to get out of the first round.
Surprise: Pekka Rinne missed a good chunk of the beginning of the season due to injury, and Anders Lindback filled in nicely as a replacement. However, Rinne has returned, and with the added rest from recovery, will become a force in net, carrying an already solid Nashville team on his back into the first round of the playoffs and beyond.
Prediction: Predators will finish as one of the hottest teams in the league, although they won’t be able to overtake the Red Wings. They’ll end up in the No. 4 seed, and finally break that first round jinx that has been haunting them.
The Ducks are three years removed from the first Stanley Cup win in their history, but the fans haven’t forgotten the magic of 2007. Although the team has lost a couple key components to that championship run, others have stepped up. Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan have ensured consistent scoring for years to come for these Ducks, and Jonas Hiller has proved to be an excellent man in net, even if he does have a strange-looking mask.
Expect: Anaheim to get hot under the warm California sun. Teemu Selanne in on pace for one of his better seasons in recent memory, but at 40 years old, he may lack the stamina to sustain that through the stretch run and into the playoffs. Hiller will continue to provide solid goal-tending, and the Ducks will again find themselves among the discussion about Stanley Cup contenders, especially if they can make it out of the first round.
Surprise: Defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky will continue to produce for his second Southern California team, and finish in the top three in defenseman scoring, behind Dustin Byfuglien and Nick Lidstrom. (He currently sits at fifth, three points behind Lidstrom.)
Prediction: The Ducks will surprise many with strong play to finish out the regular season. They currently sit in the seventh spot, but have played three more games than teams like Colorado, Minnesota, and Los Angeles, which are not far behind in the standings. Anaheim will stand firm, though, and cruise in to the playoffs sitting in the sixth seed.
The Coyotes find themselves enjoying above average success again this year, no doubt thanks to the adept coaching of Dave Tippet, winner of the Jack Adams award last year. Currently six points behind the Dallas Stars, this team looks to be the biggest threat to steal the Pacific Division from them, although it seems unlikely that Dallas’ play will fall off, especially given the resurgence of Brad Richards.
Expect: Phoenix to finish out the regular season with the same above average success. Given this team has a decent mix of young, energetic players and veterans, expect consistent output down the stretch, bolstered by the strong play of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov. The Coyotes will find themselves in the playoffs again this spring, and with a clever trade-deadline addition, could be the dark horse of this year’s contenders.
Surprise: Don Maloney will pull off a trade-deadline stunner, adding a legitimate scoring threat and the biggest name of the day. Who’s name that will be…only Maloney knows.
Prediction: The Coyotes will be able to hold on to a spot come season’s end, although they will slide a bit down to seventh. Their first round match will determine whether or not they advance—the chance to get revenge against the Red Wings, which have knocked them out one too many times, may be just the catalyst they need.
For starters, these guys are the defending Stanley Cup champions. The taste of the Cup does not wear off easily, and it’s likely that these Blackhawks are even hungrier for it, like after a vampire tastes blood for the first time.
Expect: The Blackhawks to ramp up their efforts as the regular season winds down. On paper, this team looks significantly different than the one that won the Cup last spring, but with a nucleus of players like Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith, combined with the resurgent Patrick Sharp and stalwart Brent Seabrook, this team will be one to reckon with come April.
Surprise: Not too much of a surprise given the last couple weeks, but Corey Crawford has wrestled the starting net-minder job from Marty Turco. He has some of the best stats this side of the Miss-TimThomas-issippi. He’ll remain hot through the regular season and into the playoffs. Having the best backup in the NHL will quell any questions about Chicago’s goal-tending.
Prediction: Toews, Kane, and Hossa will turn on the afterburners during the stretch run, vaulting the Blackhawks into the fifth spot in the Western Conference, landing them a date with the equally-as-hungry Nashville Predators.
The Sharks are probably the most difficult to predict out of this bunch. Perennial contenders through the regular season for the past few years, the Sharks have never quite lived up to expectations, failing to ever make it to the Stanley Cup finals. Missing are the familiar faces of Rob Blake and Evgeni Nabokov, but newcomers like rookie Logan Couture and Stanley Cup-winner Antti Niemi have maintained the excitement level for this team.
Expect: The Sharks’ star players to have a mediocre end to the regular season, hampered down by years of unmet expectations and inability to produce when it mattered. Sharks GM Doug Wilson is scrambling to find some chemistry for this team, adding forwards Ben Eager from Atlanta and Kyle Wellwood last week. But trying to force chemistry this late in the season is like trying to eat an ice cream cone in Death Valley —it just gets messy.
Surprise: Joe Thornton will finish with less than 20 goals for the first time in over a decade, and Dany Heatley will finish the season will less than 30 goals for the first time since 2003-2004.
Prediction: Wilson's band-aid signings will not pan out the way he hoped, and the goal-tending situation will not improve the way the coaching staff needs. Inconsistent play will land the Sharks in the ninth spot and on the outside looking in—far removed from last year’s first place finish.
How much can you say about Matt Duchene? The kid is going to be a superstar in this league. Duchene has shown no symptoms of the dreaded “sophomore slump”, and currently leads the Avalanche with 44 points (19-25). Last year was a miracle year for these Avs under first-year coach Joe Sacco, a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, but this year has not been as easy, as teams expect more when they come out to play. Nonetheless, the Avalanche is among the league leaders in goals per game.
Expect: A taste of the playoffs last year to fuel second year players like Matt Duchene, Ryan O’Reilly, and TJ Galiardi. Unlike last year’s bonus trip to the playoffs, this team knows it can produce, and it will be expecting to. New faces like Daniel Winnik, Ryan O’Byrne, and possibly Peter Forsberg will provide key elements to this team’s success.
Surprise! Peter Forsberg!
Prediction: The youth and speed of this team will help it to continue to produce at high levels and contract year performance by Craig Anderson in net will provide the much needed consistency to make a push up the standings. The Avalanche will finish the regular season strong enough to round out the top eight, with their sights set on the upset they couldn't pull off last year.
Another team that has not lived up to expectations. While the Wild have never been mentioned among the NHL’s elite, one would expect a team from the “State of Hockey” to have a little more success over their 10 year existence. Despite the absence of a perennial scoring machine (see: Marian Gaborik), the Wild have used a “team first” mentality to produce consistently over the last couple years.
Expect: The lack of a high-profile forward to hurt the team down the stretch. Martin Havlat is the closest thing they have to a star scorer, but with only 11 goals so far this season, that argument can be debunked rather easily.
Surprise: Niklas Backstrom is as solid as goaltenders come, but it’s possible that his recent injuries could linger through the rest of the season, giving Jose “Rogaine” Theodore a resurgent stretch between the pipes.
Prediction: Goal-tending will be the strength of this team down the stretch, but a lack of scorers will cause the team to play around .500 hockey, putting them in the 10th spot in the West.
The Blues made one of the biggest moves of the offseason, acquiring goaltender Jaroslav Halak from the Montreal Canadians. The move has paid off well for St. Louis, as Halak enters the second half of the season with a winning record, and a decent 2.58 goals against average. Led by first time All-Star David Backes, the Blues have a bright future ahead of them.
Expect: that future to come to fruition next year. Players like Erik Johnson and Matt D’Agostini are just too young and inexperienced to make a significant push for the playoffs this year. Combined with a lack of significant veteran presence, these Blues will flounder in the weeks ahead.
Surprise: No surprises here. Backes is a good player, but he has a way to go to become a star. Halak needs to up his game to make it into the playoffs—he’s not going to sneak in every year like he did last year with Montreal.
Prediction: The end of the 2010-11 season will be ugly for the Blues. St. Louis won’t be able to keep up in an ultra-competitive Western Conference, and will leave players and fans with the familiar mantra that “there’s always next year”.
What was supposed to be an offseason worthy of a Hollywood starlet turned out to be more of a B-grade movie. The Kings were well-known suitors to Ilya Kovalchuk, hoping to land him on a line with star Anze Kopitar, but it was not meant to be. Alas, Kings management and fans alike are probably thanking their lucky stars they didn't “win” that horse race. Los Angeles started the season with a bang, winning 12 of the first 15 games. That success has tapered off of late, though, and the Kings find themselves sitting 12th in the Western Conference, while losing seven of their last 10 games.
Expect: the strong play of Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick, and Drew Doughty to continue. Justin Williams, an ample replacement for former center (and recently waived) Patrick O’Sullivan, will provide ample secondary scoring, and the Kings will force themselves up the standings.
Surprise: Mentioned above, 29-year-old Justin Williams has found a nice home in LA, and will reward GM Dean Lombardi’s faith in him by hitting the 30-goal mark for the first time since 2006-07.
Prediction: Leaning on its young stars, this Kings team will make some noise down the stretch, but don’t expect them to finish higher than 11th. At least their third jerseys look awesome.