NHL Predictions: Who Will Win the Pacific Division?
The regular season is winding down and for many fans in the Western Conference, many things are still unknown. With the Western Conference being so ridiculously tight packed, the playoff picture is still a very fluid dynamic.
It's been tough for experts and fans alike to predict, but it's fair to project a number of 96 points to reach the playoffs. With around 16 games left, the pack will continue to move, compact and shift as it has since the New Year.
Even the top seeds are starting to feel some pressure, with the Sharks and Blackhawks nipping at their heels late.
The Canucks have alternated wins and losses over their last 12 games and made moves at the deadline to bolster their depth. The Red Wings have struggled at home recently 8-9-2 record at home recently and are only four points ahead of San Jose
A look at the Chicago Blackhawks can show you how difficult life can be in the West, with a jump from 12th to fourth in just two weeks.
The Pacific Division is clearly the class of the West, and here are the predictions for how the Pacific will shake out the rest of the season.
5th Place: Anaheim Ducks
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Anaheim Ducks : 35-26-5 – 75 points – 4-5-1 in the last 10
The Ducks have struggled through a season of inconsistency after limping out of the gates with a 4-8 record in October. While they are currently tied for ninth place in the tightly contested Western Conference at 75 points, they will finish fifth in the Pacific.
With All-Star Jonas Hiller out since the 4-0 shutout against Edmonton in early February, the Ducks traded for Dan Ellis with mixed results. For this team to make any kind of run, Hiller must return from his vertigo-like symptoms. Although he has skated as late as Saturday night, Hiller’s status has not changed, and his timetable for a return is still undetermined.
The Ducks recalled Ray Emery from the AHL's Syracuse Crunch, just two days after he was sent down by Anaheim. Emery is 4-1-0 with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage in the AHL.
The moves at the deadline have shored up their defense with the addition of Francois Beauchemin, who bumped Andreas Lilja to the third pairing. Lilja has struggled to do much of anything after being brought aboard as a free agent and is a consistent liability in his own zone.
The Ducks are near the bottom of the league in shots against, and their penalty kill is ranked 25th with a 79.8 percentage. Their team has traditionally been strong down the middle and in the faceoff circle but have suffered this year.
Operating at just a 47.5 percentage, ranking them 27th in the league does not bode well for the type of game the Ducks employ. The Ducks have been double-digit negatives in goal differential all year and currently sit at -11.
Still powered by the top line, the Ducks are big and physical and play a power game in the speed-based game of the Western Conference. The Ducks depth has been showing recently, which is an improvement but not enough to climb the Pacific ranks.
They have enjoyed some big contributions from their third line of Todd Marchant (C), Jarko Ruutu (LW) and Den Sexton (RW) of late, making Maxim Lapierre expendable at the deadline.
After two very big victories in which the Ducks overcame third-period deficits to win in overtime, the Ducks got blanked in a crucial showdown against the Canucks Sunday.
With eight of their 16 games remaining, the Ducks will have to treat every game as a must-win to make the playoffs in the West. The team has done well at home with a 20-11-2 record even with an overall lack of home ice advantage.
They face some serious challenges on the road for the remainder of March, with the Kings, Stars, Blackhawks and Flames ahead. All of which have been hot recently and figure to take every game as seriously as the Ducks will. With a 15-15-3 record on the road, the Ducks will have to get their house in order to make a run.
4th Place: Dallas Stars
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Dallas Stars : 36-23-7 – 79 points – 5-4-1 in the last 10
The Stars had sat atop the Pacific Division for most of the first half, a surprising showing from a team with some question marks entering this year. After 2-10-1 slide in January found the Stars outside the playoffs looking in, the team has rebounded with five wins in their last six games.
Kari Lehtonen is 5-1-0 in his last six games and is playing very well in his rejuvenation year, a far cry from his 19-win season in 2006-2007. Lehtonen has also shown a big-game capability, posting excellent save percentages against top-notch opposition during their push recently.
With 79 points, Dallas is fifth place and trailing the red-hot Chicago Blackhawks by just one point now. Jamie Benn has been on fire lately and been a big part of the Stars west coast road swing, including a late game winner in Phoenix.
The addition of Alex Goligoski at the deadline has helped the team's blue line depth and increased the offensive continuity. He's no Sergei Zubov, but he has completely transformed this team's transition game, and it's showing.
Brad Richards is also scheduled to make his return from a concussion sustained on February 13th.
Richards has 24 goals and 39 assists this year and will pay immediate dividends to the Stars' offense. Even though they are ranked near the bottom of the league in shots per game, the Stars have taken the most of their limited opportunities.
Loui Eriksson scored in the huge 3-2 road victory against the Pacific Division leading San Jose Sharks. Both he and Brendan Morrow stand to take the biggest leaps with Richards back in the lineup.
They are middle of the pack from a statistical perspective but have been good for most of the year and hot at the right time.
Joe Nieuwendyk has done an excellent job securing some younger players in the middle of an ownership whirlwind. Marc Crawford has the team responding and playing very well, and Richards' return could get this team places in the playoffs.
The Stars playoffs chances will be tested with a murder’s row of opponents in their upcoming seven-game home stretch. Their home record of 18-9-5 will be put to the test with the Flames, Kings, Sharks, Blackhawks and Flyers coming to town.
3rd Place: Phoenix Coyotes
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Phoenix Coyotes : 34-23-10 – 78 points – 5-4-1 in the last 10
The Coyotes have endured a roller coaster of a season and are fighting for their playoff lives after briefly leading in the Pacific. After posting some huge wins against Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia they dropped five straight games, sliding down the standings.
And in the Western Conference this year, that kind of slide can be the death knell to playoff hopes at this juncture of the season.
Radim Vrbata would snap the losing streak with the huge victory over the Detroit Red Wings, for Ilya Bryzgalov's 28th win of the season.
The Russian netminder has been playing relatively well again this season, but like every year, Ilya is taking on a huge workload. He's shown some signs of decline in the recent losing streak, but like many other teams, they cannot afford to rest him. Bryzgalov is now 1-3-1 with a 3.10 GAA in his last five starts after winning his previous eight.
He rebounded against Detroit after a very shaky start to the game allowing a 60-foot floater from Drew Miller just 2:04 in.
Head coach Dave Tippett has employed the line of Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker and Brett MacLean with very positive results. Captain Shane Doan is a huge part of this team's success, breaking Teppo Numminen's record for franchise games played (1,099) this year.
This team has a very young and dynamic element to its game with promising players such as Turris, Yandle and Rozsival.
With the return of veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski from an orbital bone injury, the Coyotes will be ready to make a run.
Near the bottom of the league in shots allowed (32.2), the Coyotes need Bryzgalov to continue being the difference down the stretch. With a 18-12-5 road record, they will have to play well with five of their next seven on the road.
They face the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary flames twice in two weeks, so the Coyotes will have their work cut out for them.
2nd Place: Los Angeles Kings
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Los Angeles Kings : 36-25-5 – 77 points – 5-3-2 in the last 10
The Kings have been the toast of the Western Conference but had to make a comeback surge after going through a midseason slump. After a tough stretch of a 10-game road games, the Kings returned home with a 17-9-1 record but could only muster a 3-3 through six games.
A missed call on Daniel Sedin on a clear interference call provided the losing tally against the Vancouver Canucks. A Drew Doughty turnover high in the attacking zone allowed a late goal against the Stars in the following loss.
The Kings power play has disappeared once again after briefly recovering in early February. Including a minute-long 5-on-3 in the first period and a key penalty late in the third against Vancouver. Going 0-11 on the man advantage over the past two games, the Kings need the offense to start stepping up.
In the eighth seed, the Kings still enjoy a two-point lead on the Minnesota Wild with 77 points, with 16 games remaining and a huge five-game homestand awaiting in mid-March.
With the trade deadline acquisition of Dustin Penner, the Kings have what it takes for a deep playoff run on paper. Lombardi gave up prospect Colten Teubert, a 2011 first-round pick and a conditional second-round pick for Penner.
Dustin had 21 goals and 39 points on the Western Conference's worst team and is not known for his consistency.
With the big man with a terrific scoring touch, the Kings are banking on Penner clicking with the Kings unique mix of youth and veteran players.
Kyle Clifford and Justin Williams have been huge keys to the late season push, and the duo of Bernier and Quick in net have the Kings humming along.
The Kings are playing exceptionally well on the penalty kill and defense, among league leaders in multiple statistical areas. Playing excellent five-on-five defense, the team sports an excellent plus-20 goal differential and is second in the league in shots allowed.
1st Place: San Jose Sharks
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San Jose Sharks : 38-22-6 – 82 points – 8-2-0 in the last 10
It's been a season of surprise for the San Jose Sharks, who have owned the Pacific Division for a while now. Behind the stellar goaltending of Antti Niemi, the Sharks have surged to the top of the division behind his play. Enough cannot be said about Niemi's play and how it's anchored the Sharks to their second-half surge.
Bouncing back from last place in the Pacific, the Sharks surged ahead to a six-point lead before dropping their last game against the Stars.
Rookie Logan Couture is building on his performance and experience of a year ago, and Jason Demers is starting to take some positive steps in his game.
Devin Setoguchi, Ryane Clowe and Joe Pavelski all had a terrific February, and the Sharks' depth is starting to really come through. Newcomers Ben Eager and Kyle Wellwood have paid off for GM Doug Wilson, and Ian White has improved the blueline depth and puck moving ability.
With Dan Boyle out from a late hit suffered against Pittsburgh, his return is crucial to the Sharks power play and breakout. The Sharks have been a bit too cavalier on the power play of late, giving up several short-handed chances and going 1-12 with the man advantage.
AHL call-up Justin Braun has taken significant strides from his earlier call-up in the year and just might be ready to contribute come playoff time.
Among league leaders in shots on goal, the Sharks also boast the third best power play and are second in the league in faceoff percentage.
The defensive focus and attention to detail has the Sharks playing the best hockey of the season; their penchant for pulling out the close wins are also a big sign. With a 17-11-3 record at home and a very favorable March schedule, the Sharks control their own destiny at home.
Their stars are starting to heat up and continue to play a dedicated defensive game and buying into the system. With a plus-18 goal differential thus far, the Sharks will go as Niemi does behind a defensive corps that still has some questions.
The Sharks still have some big games ahead with a road record of 21-11-3; they will face Blackhawks, Stars and Kings in their next three road games.
Some questions about Niemi's workload still remain, and with backup Antero Niittymaki close to returning, the Sharks need to get healthy.