Handicapping the NHL Western Conference Playoff Race
by Trevor Whenham - 4/6/2015
Teams in the NHL's Western Conference have between two and four games left. That's it. It's a real surprise, then, just how little we know. Nashville, Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim will be in the playoffs for sure. Anaheim will win the Pacific Division. That's all we know for sure. Everything else is uncertain. The Predators, Blues or Blackhawks could win the Central Division. Vancouver, Calgary and Los Angeles could all host a series in the opening round of the playoffs - or miss the postseason entirely. Minnesota and Winnipeg could be wild card teams, or they could be out in the cold. It's crazy. Here's how it all shapes up (odds to win the Western Conference are from Bovada):
Anaheim has the Pacific Division wrapped up and has a very good shot at winning the conference and having home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs - or at least until the Stanley Cup finals if the Rangers win the President's Trophy and win the East. They have not clinched the conference yet, but with only two games against soft opponents remaining and a two-point lead over St. Louis with a game in hand and the tiebreaker in their corner they are in very good position to do so.
Behind the Ducks things get messy. Nashville (+500 to win the Western Conference), St. Louis (+400) and Chicago (+220) are in a three-way death match in the Central Division. St. Louis took over the lead for the first time on Sunday night with a win over Chicago. They are now a point ahead of Nashville and three ahead of Chicago. All three teams have three games remaining. It's a crucial fight. Not only will it decide who wins the division but also the playoff fates of the teams. The second- and third-place team will wind up playing each other in the first round, with the second-place team having home-ice advantage. The first-place team avoids those other two, and gets home-ice advantage, but could very likely wind up playing wild card Minnesota (+500), which is hardly a gift as they are one of the hottest teams in hockey. Importantly, though, the first-place team would have home-ice advantage not only in the first round but also in the second round against the winner of the showdown between the second-and third-place teams as well.
Each team has three games remaining. Nashville has reasonably easy games against Colorado and Dallas, but both are on the road. Their toughest opponent is Minnesota at home. St. Louis finishes at home against Winnipeg, Chicago and Minnesota - three desperate, tough teams. Chicago finishes with Minnesota at home then at St. Louis and Colorado. None of those schedules is easy, but Nashville has the slight edge.
The bottom of the race is messier than the top.
We'll start with the Pacific Division. Vancouver (+2500) is in second with 95 points. Calgary (+2500) is a game back at 93, with the Kings (ridiculously short of value at +700) one game behind the Flames but with a game in hand. The top team between those three winds up hosting the playoff series against the team that finishes second among this group, so it is a crucial situation. Of note, Vancouver has the edge in a potential tiebreaker over the Flames, and the Kings are in trouble on that front and can't really afford to tie either team in the standings. Vancouver should be in command, but they have dropped four of their last six. They have a huge game against the Kings on Monday then finish off with laughers at home against Arizona and Edmonton. The race is Vancouver's to lose given that schedule. The Flames also get a gift against the Coyotes but then close with two huge games - at home to the Kings and then at Winnipeg - a team that factors heavily into the wild card race as we will soon see. The Kings face Vancouver and Calgary but also get easier games against the Sharks and Oilers. It's all really too close to call, and the significance of that Calgary-L.A. game could be just enormous.
The loser of that three-team race could still make it in. With 96 points and four games left, Minnesota is very well-positioned to take one wild card spot. The other, though, is a big race between Calgary, L.A. and Winnipeg. Like L.A., the Jets (+3000) have 92 points and four games left. They have an absolutely brutal schedule, though - at Minnesota, St. Louis, Colorado and then hosting the Flames. Having playoff hockey in Winnipeg would be very exciting, but it's hard to believe that it's going to happen given what they face. Still, the wild card race, like the Pacific race, is very likely to come down to the last day of the season next Saturday.
Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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