Big NHL Thursday: A Look at the Key Matchups in the Western Conference Tonight

Kyle NicolasContributor IMarch 24, 2011

To put it lightly, the Western Conference is a madhouse where absolutely nobody is safe, except for maybe the Vancouver Canucks.

But once you get beyond their 105-point standing at the top of the West, second place through tenth place is separated by just 10 points.

I've seen tight races before, but this is absolutely ridiculous. It's an absolute battle for gaining points, and teams are being forced to win night after night just to keep pace with the rest of the conference.

Tonight will be no different out West.

Here's my quick preview of three of the biggest contests in the Western playoff picture.


Anaheim Ducks at Nashville Predators 5 p.m. ET

Ducks: 73GP, 87pts (8th place)
Predators: 74GP, 88pts (7th place)

Both of these teams have won each of their last four games, and have shown some serious resolve to be playing hockey come the second week of April.

However, one of their streaks has to come to an end tonight, making it a huge victory for whoever comes out on top and a devastating loss to the one who comes up short.

The Ducks have become the drama kings of the NHL, having won each of their last three games in overtime.

Teemu Selanne has shown amazing poise in clutch situations, having scored the tying goal in each of their last two games within the final three minutes of regulationlast night doing it with 5.4 seconds left.

Not only that, but he's the only player in history to have scored four game-tying goals in the final three minutes of regulation in a season. Not bad for a guy who's 40-years-old.

However, the Ducks would not be able to show this refusal to lose hockey games were it not for the heroics of their top line of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, and Bobby Ryan.

Getzlaf, despite missing 14 games this year, has amassed a respectable 45 assists and 63 points. Ryan has 32 tallies this year, and Corey Perry's 40 goals is second only to Steven Stamkosa stat that is starting to get him national attention and nods for the Hart Trophy this season.

They will also get a huge boost from the return of Jonas Hiller, who was activated off Injured Reserve yesterday after a long bout with vertigo.

They'll be up against a Predators team that is equally as hot, but a very different style. The Preds don't have a single player with 20 goals yet (they're led by Patric Hornqvist's 19), but have 10 players with at least 10, meaning they're getting scoring from all throughout their lineup.

Once again, the big defenseman Shea Weber is the man to watch out for, as he has 16 goals on the year and is tied for the team lead in points with 45.

However, the big story out of Nashville is their goaltending duo of Pekka Rinne and Anders Lindback.

Rinne boasts a very respectable 2.07 goals against average (.01 behind league leader Tim Thomas) and a .930 save-percentage. Lindback is no slouch of a backup either with a 2.60 GAA and .915 SV%.

And on a team that's ranked 25th in goals-per game (2.53), it's obvious that if they're going to make the playoffs, it's these two guys who are going to get them there.

One thing I can say for certain: Calgary and Dallas will definitely be rooting for this one to end in regulation, as both of them sit within two points of Anaheim in 8th place as of this morning.


Columbus Blue Jackets at Phoenix Coyotes 10:00pmET

Blue Jackets: 73GP, 77pts (12th place)
Coyotes: 75GP, 91pts (4th place)

The Blue Jackets are not yet mathematically eliminated from this year's post season, but they're as good as done at this point.

Not only would they need to win every single game from here forward, but they would also need some of the teams above them to slip up and drop off in the standings if they were to jump in at the last second.

That being said, they are a team primed to play spoiler this year. They've got nothing to lose, and the guys in contract years have jobs to fight for, so this team will be far from a pushover tonight in the Arizona desert.

Of course, there's always the big threat to watch out for: Rick Nash has consistently led the Blue Jackets offensively, and this year is no different. It doesn't matter what night he's playing, he can absolutely burn you.

The Coyotes appear to be sitting pretty just a mere three points behind the San Jose Sharks for third place in the West and the division lead. However, they have played 75 games, more than any other team in the West to this point and one more than those Sharks who sit above them.

The Desert Dogs are led by their goaltender Ilyia Bryzgalov once again this season, and he's had a fantastic year once again. His 2.51 GAA, .920 SV%, and six shutouts have given the Coyotes another solid season, and the chance to make the playoffs back-to-back for the first time since the lockout.

Offensively, the Coyotes are much like the aforementioned Predators, in that they are led by a defenseman in Keith Yandle, who is making shockwaves in the talks for the Norris Trophy this season.

The Coyotes also do not have a single player with 20 goals yet. However, they have three players with 18 goals, and 11 players with at least 10.

If they plan on making a playoff run again this season, this scoring depth is going to be the key for them, as well as picking up points in these last few games of their regular season.


San Jose Sharks at Los Angeles Kings 10:30pmET

Sharks: 74GP, 94pts (3rd place)
Kings: 73GP, 88pts (6th place)

I think it's fairly safe to say that unless the Sharks falter and lose close to four in a row, they will safely run away with the Pacific Division title for the fourth straight season.

After a season that definitely was not as easy as they had hoped, the Sharks have finally risen to the task and are winning games like they have done for years past.

This heating-up is at exactly the right time too, as they'll go into the playoffs playing their best hockey of the year so far. That is, as long as they can stay healthy.

The Sharks are, however, limited in their scoring options slightly. They only have seven players to eclipse the 10-goal mark, but they have been getting big numbers out of their superstars.

Patrick Marleau leads them yet again with 31 goals, and big Joe Thornton's 62 points is once again top of the club.

Rookie Logan Couture has been an absolute stunner this year with 28 goals and has made a serious case for the Calder Trophy.

Perhaps the biggest question for the Sharks is their goaltending duo of Antti Niemi and Antero Nittymaki, which has at times been spectacular and at other times, terrible.

Neimi appears to be the starter down the stretch in San Jose. The Sharks, though, would love to see some consistently good play out of him as the playoffs approach.

The Los Angeles Kings have however had some woes lately, particularly offensively, where they've been held to just two goals in their last three games.

This is nothing new to L.A, however, as their true strength all year has been their defense and their goaltending.

The Kings give up a sixth-best 2.40 goals per game and a second-best 27.8 shots per game, providing very good support to a goaltending duo of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier.

Quick has had another spectacular year this season with a dazzling 2.20 GAA, and also has had the benefit of a few extra nights off this year, meaning he'll be much more rested for the playoffs.

The Kings offensively have five players who have reached the 20-goal marker, including captain Dustin Brown, who is having a career year with 23 goals and 48 points.

The Kings are led once again by Slovenia-native Anze Kopitar, who was selected for the NHL All-Star Game this season and whose quick hands, dazzling agility, and brute strength are a constant threat whenever he is on the ice.

Only four players, after those five have even reached 10, demonstrate a lack of scoring depthsomething the Kings are hoping will be filled by deadline acquisition Dustin Penner, who so far has six points in 10 games in LA.


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