I’ll start tonight by giving my predictions on who will make the NHL playoffs from the Western Conference. Then, over the next few days I will do the same for the Eastern Conference, as well as tell you just how far I think each team will go in this year’s playoffs. Tonight, I am going to rank the teams in the order that I think they will finish in the Western Conference. Keep in mind that the winners of the 3 three divisions in each conference automatically get a top 3 seed. Therefore, it is possible for a bottom 5 seed to finish with more points than the number 2 or 3 seed.
1. Vancouver Canucks
They finished with the number 1 seed in the West a year ago, and are also the defending Western Conference champions. This team is better than they were last year, believe it or not. Their offensive depth is greater than just about any team in the entire NHL, and their defense is as strong as any other in the Western Conference. Add in the experience that they gained by making it to the Cup Finals last year, and this team just about has it all. My only concern with the Canucks heading into the playoffs is their goaltending. It wasn’t good enough to win the Cup last year, and they will be heading into this year’s playoffs with the same goalies.
2. Detroit Red Wings
They are currently 4 points behind the Blues in the Central Division, but I think the Wings will make a late push and get to the top spot in the Central before the season is over. If there is one team that can match the Canucks’ offensive and defensive depth in the Western Conference, it’s Detroit. This team has a handful of players that have been to and won the Stanley Cup before, including their 7-time Norris Trophy-winning defenseman, Nicklas Lidstrom. The Wings know what it takes to be the best team in the NHL, and they will prove that heading into the home-stretch of the regular season.
3. Dallas Stars
If this team wasn’t leading their division, they would be tied with Chicago for the number 6 seed in the conference. However, considering that the Pacific Division is by no means a very strong division this year, Dallas will end up walking away as division champions. They currently have a 3-point lead over Phoenix, and with the way Kari Lehtonen has been playing in net lately, I don’t see them losing the top spot in their division.
4. St. Louis Blues
It was tough for me to put Detroit ahead of these guys, but the Blues just aren’t as good as the Wings when it comes to overall team-depth. Because of that reason, and the fact that St. Louis has hardly any playoff/late-season pressure experience, I have them finishing 4th in the West. This is going to be a dangerous team come playoff time, largely in part because of their team defense and goaltending. The question of, “Which goalie should the Blues start in the playoffs?” has been a reoccurring one lately. When you look at the stats, Brian Elliot makes the most sense. However, since Halak started the season 0-6, he has arguably been the better goalie of the 2. He ranks second in the NHL (behind Elliot) in Goals Against Average, and has more playoff experience. He was the starting goalie for the Canadiens in the 2010 playoffs when they lost to the Flyers in the Eastern Conference Finals. Because of the fact that both Elliot and Halak have such similar stats, and because Halak has more playoff experience, he should be in net to start the playoffs.
5. Nashville Predators
If there is one spot in the West that looks to be pretty well locked up, it is the number 5 seed. The Predators are 4 points out of the number 4 spot, and 6 points ahead of the number 6 spot. Nashville greatly increased their chances of making a deep playoff run at the trade deadline this year by acquiring Hal Gill, Andrei Kostitsyn, and Paul Gaustad. Also, they have Pekka Rinne,who should be a Vezina Trophy finalist, as their starting goaltender, and possible Norris Trophy finalists, Shea Weber and Ryan Suter on defense. This is a very strong defensive team that can shut down the best offensive teams in the league. It is their offense that has me questioning just how far they can make it in the playoffs.
6. Chicago Blackhawks
They desperately need Jonathan Toews back if they are going to do any damage come playoff time. Lately, even without Toews in the lineup, the Hawks have been playing fairly decent while getting wins over St. Louis, Detroit (twice), and the New York Rangers. If they can keep winning most of their games until Toews comes back, they should be a lock to finish as the number 6 seed once Toews does come back. Ray Emery has started 4 straight games for the Hawks, going 3-1 over that stretch. If he can continue to turn in solid performances and essentially lock himself up as the Blackhawks’ starting goalie for the playoffs, this could be an extremely dangerous team heading into the postseason.
7. Phoenix Coyotes
Somehow, I don’t know how, this team keeps making the playoffs. Lately, their wins have been coming via great goaltending by Mike Smith. I hate to put all the focus on one guy, but whether or not the Coyotes do end up making the playoffs lies in the hands of Smith. He needs to continue to be great in net. Being just good isn’t going to be enough for this team.
8. San Jose Sharks
Currently, the Sharks are 9th in the West. They trail the Avalanche for 8th place by just 1 point, and the Sharks have played 3 fewer games than the Avs. San Jose has shown in recent years that they are a good team. Now that they are currently sitting in a non-playoff spot in the conference, expect these guys to wake up, and really step up their game. They could definitely end the season as even the number 7 seed in the West. It just comes down to how bad they want it.