by Trevor Whenham - 03/23/2006
The end of the NHL regular season is less than a month away - April 17. That means that we are right in the middle of the fierce battle for playoff spots. Like most years in the Western Conference, the race is incredibly tight. Three teams - Detroit, Dallas and, surprisingly, Nashville, have virtually guaranteed a playoff berth. That leaves seven teams fighting for the last five postseason spots and only 6 points separate them. Here's a quick look at the contenders and how they are looking:
The Sure Things
Detroit Red Wings - Ho hum, the Red Wings are the best team in the West again. That has been the steady story for the last several seasons. They are experienced, solid and deep. You could argue that they are a bit old, or that Manny Legace isn't the most inspiring goaltender in the league, but they have managed to compile the best record in the league as they are and they will be a strong force going into the playoffs again. The Red Wings are always hard to bet against.
Dallas Stars - The Stars are dangerous right now. They are on fire defensively and Marty Turco has found his groove in net. Perhaps more than any other team, this is the Western Conference team you don't want to face right now. One cause for concern, if you need one, is the strength of this team in the shootout. Led by Jussi Jokinen, this team has been almost unbeatable in the shootout. The problem is that there is no shootout in the playoffs, so the team will have to finish the games that they have been tying in the regular season. The team's veteran depth, with people like Mike Modano and Bill Guerin, is a huge strength.
Nashville Predators - Nashville may not be a natural hockey hotbed, but the team is playing great and the fans are flocking to games. Paul Kariya has had several off years, but he has rediscovered his touch in Nashville and has set a franchise scoring record. Excellent goaltending from Thomas Vokoun and a great trade for Mike Sillinger from St. Louis have this team ready for the playoffs. No team will want to finish fifth, because that will earn them a first round match-up against the Predators.
The Rising Contenders
Anaheim Mighty Ducks - If you just looked at the trades this team has made this year, you would guess that they have given up. They traded away some very good talent - Sergei Federov, Sandis Ozolinzh and Petr Sykora. Yet somehow the subtraction of talent has made them better. They were out of contention a month ago, but they have lost just once in the last 10 and are right in the middle of the race. Teemu Selanne has been completely reborn and is playing fantastic hockey. A playoff berth seems likely.
San Jose Sharks - The Sharks made by far the best trade of the year when they got Joe Thornton from the Boston Bruins in November. They were looking awful then, but Thornton turned on the offense and they are looking like they could be headed to the post season. Jonathan Cheechoo has been a very pleasant surprise. He was expected to score 20 or 25 goals, but he already has 43. The team has no No. 1 goalie, but they have enough to get to the playoffs. They are two points out of the last spot, so they have some work to do but they are riding momentum and have games in hand, so they could manage it.
The Struggling Contenders
The Northwest conference is incredibly tight, with four teams separated by 5 points. Unfortunately, none of them are playing really well right now.
Calgary Flames - Fans in Calgary are feeling very uneasy about their team. I know because I am one and I don't like it. The Flames have been unable to score all year, but strong defense and the best goaltender in the conference, Miikka Kiprusoff, have kept them in first place. Lately, however, the defense has disappeared and they still can't score. Almost unbelievably, they have allowed more than 120 shots in the last three games. They are helped by a weak schedule down the stretch, but they will have to starting playing D again, and Jarome Iginla will have to start playing up to his potential, or it will be a very short playoff run.
Colorado Avalanche - The Avalanche have as much veteran depth as any team - Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Alex Tanguay. They are dangerous offensively, but they are full of holes. Marek Svatos was only a rookie, but he was also the teams leading goal scorer. He's lost for the season with an injury and that hurts. That combined with suspect goaltending after the mystifying trade of David Aebischer for the injured Jose Theodore, means that the team is vulnerable. Depth and experience should get them into the playoffs, but right now you have to doubt how much of an impact they will make once they get there.
Edmonton Oilers - The Oilers made a huge splash at the trading deadline picking up a starting goalie, Dwayne Roloson, and a scorer in Sergei Samsonov. It hasn't paid off yet. They've only won four of the last 10 and are just clinging to the last spot. Strangely, the Oilers are one of the few teams that are better on the road than at home. They have to get the ship turned around and string together a bunch of wins, or they will be on the outside looking in.
Vancouver Canucks - The Canucks are in a death spiral. They have dropped three of their last 10 and their top line of Markus Naslund, Brendan Morrison and the controversial Todd Bertuzzi have forgotten how to score. Coach Marc Crawford is likely packing his bags because he looks to have lost the team. They have the talent, including several defensemen added at the trade deadline, to make it work. They just have to play together. I don't like their chances, but it could happen. If they do turn it around by the playoffs, they will be a rough team to face in the first round.
Los Angeles Kings - Firing coach Andy Murray this week when the team was right in the playoff race was one of the oddest moves in recent memory. Clearly things weren't working, which isn't surprising with strong personalities like Jeremy Roenick and Sean Avery in the dressing room. Their goaltending is disastrous and everything obviously isn't running smoothly, so they are likely to end up out of the playoffs, though they are only one point out now.
Who's going to make it? Good question. It is truly wide open. If I were betting, I would say that San Jose will move up, Los Angeles will fall back and be joined on the golf course by Vancouver or Edmonton.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Doc's NHL picks service.