The NHL Pacific Division is proving to be the superior of the two Western Conference divisions in the league’s new alignment for this season. A format that locks in three playoff spots for each division and then floats the final two berths in the postseason bracket, would see the Pacific put the max of five teams into the playoff field.
Anaheim was the #2 seed in the West a year ago before suffering a first-round playoff disappointment against Detroit. The Los Angeles Kings are running a strong second, and the San Jose Sharks are third. This all looks pretty par for the course. The Ducks, Kings and Sharks are all steady teams and each legitimate challengers to defending champion Chicago, currently leading the NHL Central Division, when we get to spring.
Vancouver is a victim of the Pacific’s strength, and under the leadership of new coach John Tortorella, the Canucks have 50 points, enough to put them in the playoffs and keep them just three back of San Jose for an automatic top-three spot. Phoenix has hung in despite an injury to forward Shane Doan and would grab the final postseason berth.
The success of the Pacific Division has come in spite of significant injuries to its best teams. Anaheim goalie Viktor Fasth has been out since Thanksgiving, and the brilliant Los Angeles goaltender Jonathan Quick has missed three weeks. San Jose has been without the services of talented forward Raffi Torres all year. If these teams get healthy, the Western Conference playoffs might as well be summed up as Chicago vs. The Pacific Division.
Calgary and Edmonton are both well off the playoff pace. That’s no surprise with the Flames, but the Oilers are a big disappointment. With only 29 points, they’re 17 back of Phoenix and have all but buried themselves before we even get to New Year’s Day.
The NHL Central Division is home to the 2013 Stanley Cup champions, the Chicago Blackhawks. The champs of last spring are looking every bit the part of a team ready to make another run at glory. With 60 points in the bank, Chicago again has the best record in hockey and has a firm, though not infallible, grip on its division.
St. Louis has endured playoff frustration in recent years, but the Blues remain a well-coached team that’s fundamentally sound and that’s being demonstrated by their second-place showing. The third spot—a crucial benchmark since it’s the last guaranteed playoff berth under the new alignment—belongs to the improved Colorado Avalanche.
The Central Division is the weaker of the two in the West and if the regular season ended today, Chicago, St. Louis and Colorado would be the only three teams in the playoffs. The two floating wild-card spots would go to the Pacific Division. The current benchmark for the final postseason spot is 46 points.
Minnesota is in fourth in the Central and only one point off the playoff pace, while Dallas is also in hot pursuit with 44 points. Winnipeg and Nashville have more work to do, at 39 and 36 points respectively, but neither is hopelessly out of the picture.
The Predators are dealing with an injury to goaltender Pekka Rinne though. Rinne has been out since the first week of November with a bacterial infection and perhaps his anticipated return shortly after the New Year will give Nashville a lift.
Ultimately this division is about Chicago and the weakness of the competition make it likely the Blackhawks will at least maintain their first-place standing and probably hold off all comers out of the Pacific for the #1 seed at playoff time. The fact Chicago has played this well without goaltender Cory Crawford, who has been out since December 10, speaks volumes. Crawford will be back soon. And there’s no question the Blackhawks are back for more.
It’s been an up-and-down year for the San Jose Sharks—which is saying something, because the compressed schedule wouldn’t seem to lend itself to a lot of ups and downs. But with the season entering its final two weeks, the Sharks’ roller-coaster is at the top. They’re in fifth in the Western Conference, with a comfortable seven-point margin between them and the playoff borderline. For today’s NHL analysis, we’ll examine their strengths and weaknesses and see if this the San Jose team that can finally reach the Finals.
San Jose’s strength is in its defense, where they’re seventh-best in the NHL at goal prevention, but that’s really a roundabout way of saying that goalie Antti Niemi has been carrying them for a good chunk of the season. The ability to prevent shots has been lacking, and the defense team led by Dan Boyle and Brad Stuart has been subpar at limiting Niemi’s exposure. Fortunately for the Sharks, Niemi has bailed them out.
Offensively, the team is similarly one-dimensional, although in this case it’s much tougher for one player to save you. San Jose has good scorers in Patrick Marleu and Logan Couture, and another decent one in Joe Pavelski. But other than veteran center Joe Thornton, they do not a good job moving the puck. Indeed, Thornton is the only player on the team who ranks in the top 90 in the NHL for assists. That’s tough to fathom when you have players that can finish. Consequently, San Jose is better than only four other teams in hockey at lighting the lamp.
The offensive problems are further accentuated by the fact Pavelski, Couture and Thornton all play center and consequently are not on the ice at the same time. A forward besides Marleu has to step up. Maybe Raffi Torres can show a little something. Otherwise, the Sharks are left hoping for a few random players just doing what people like Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner did for the Los Angeles Kings a year ago, and that’s suddenly and without warning, morph into offensive juggernauts in the playoffs. Stranger things happen every year in the NHL postseason, but that doesn’t mean you want to count on it.
San Jose burst out of the gate this season at 7-0-1, but then had a very tough February, losing 10 of 12 games. March wasn’t a lot better, with a 2-7 stretch that bottomed out on March 20 with a shutout loss at Minnesota. Since then, the Sharks have gotten it back in gear. They’ve won eight of ten games, and one of the losses was in a shootout, enabling the team to still pick up a point in the standings. And this strong play isn’t because of a break in the schedule—San Jose has beaten Anaheim twice, Detroit twice, plus Vancouver and Minnesota, all of whom would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.
The Sharks have been a consistently good franchise, having made the postseason 13 of the last 14 years. And they’ve done reasonably well in the playoffs, winning 11 series and making the conference finals three times. Most of those advances have taken place in recent years, with the team having won at least one round in six of the last eight years. The people of northern California have gotten used to extended runs of playoff hockey, just not championships.
But it’s championships—or close to it—that NoCal has gotten accustomed to in other sports—a World Series title, a trip to the Super Bowl and a Rose Bowl win. The nearby Golden State Warriors are going to the NBA playoffs. San Jose is looking to make sure hockey is a part of the equation. They have the goalie to do it and in the NHL that means you have to be taken seriously. But if the Sharks want to go beyond getting respect and into playing for the Cup, some offensive help has to step up, particularly when it comes to feeding the scorers.
The Minnesota Wild have had a less than stellar history since their founding prior to the 2001 season. The franchise has only made the playoffs three times, the last of which was five years ago. But the strike-shortened year of 2013 has been good to the Wild, and they’re tied for first in the Northwest Division—with powerhouse Vancouver no less—and in third in the Western Conference overall. Today’s NHL analysis will look at whether or not the Wild is the real deal, after an offseason where they splurged on free agents.
Minnesota went into the market last summer aggressively and signed defenseman Ryan Suter away from Nashville and forward Zach Parise from New Jersey. Suter was important to a team that rode its way into the top four of the West on the strength of defense, and Parise was one of the key players on a team that came two wins away from taking the Stanley Cup. Parise has scored 15 goals, putting him in the top 30 overall in the NHL and Suter’s 25 assists give him a similar status in that category. It looks like money well spent.
What the Wild don’t have is great depth of talent—make no mistake, center Mikko Koivu is a points-producer, thanks to his exceptional passing skill. Matt Cullen is a good passer at the forward spot, and both Devin Setoguchi and Dany Heatley can contribute when it comes to scoring. But for the most part, when you look at the numbers on the second, third, and fourth lines, you see a big drop off.
To that end, it’s easy to understand why Minnesota just traded a couple draft picks to Buffalo to get forward Jason Pominville at the trade deadline. Pominville is a decent scorer and can also move the puck well. On balance, I don’t find this an overwhelmingly talented offense. But it’s fair to say that it’s at least as good—if not better—than we would have perceived the Los Angeles Kings’ lineup at this point in the season last year before they suddenly came together in the postseason. And Minnesota has players with postseason experience.
A bigger concern is the goaltending question, and that’s where the comparison to last year’s Kings starts to diverge. Niklas Backstrom’s save percentage is 91.3%, but this isn’t free throw shooting—that’s not a very good percentage, ranking just 22nd in the NHL. We’re now entering the point of the season where dominance at this position is vital to success and Minnesota not only doesn’t have dominance, they’re dealing with subpar performance. The defense overall is above average, ranking 12th in the league at limiting shots, but Backstrom has to do a much better job stopping what’s thrown at him.
Ultimately, this just looks like a team that needs to come together. The individual talent may lack depth, but it does exist. Overall though, the Wild have no teamwide stats that really jump out at you. They’re roughly in the middle of the league in most everything—scoring, defense, shots taken, shots allowed, penalty killing and 5-on-5 play. The only standout is a negative and it’s a 21st ranking when they’re on the power play.
It’s tough to see Minnesota as being better than Vancouver and the Wild’s contention for the division title is likely a product of a shortened season. Minnesota is a legitimate playoff-caliber team though. The need for the individual pieces to mesh better will take care of itself with time and this team will be better next year than it is this year. Ultimately they need better goaltending if this is going to be more than just a playoff team. Although given the franchise’s record “just a playoff team” is likely more than enough for the good people of the Twin Cities this time around.
WESTERN CONFERENCE PLAYOFF PICTURE
Chicago continues to be atop the conference, but Anaheim is only two points back, with both teams having separated themselves from the pack. Then you have the Minnesota/Vancouver joust for the 3-seed, and the runner-up is battling with San Jose and Los Angeles for the 4-spot and home ice advantage in the first round. Although given the history of the NHL playoffs, home ice probably means more in terms of revenue for the host team than it does for fans just interested in who’s going to advance.
Detroit is in seventh and is the most notable of several playoff teams from last year that are in trouble. At least the Red Wings are in the field of eight if the season ended today. The same can’t be said for St. Louis, Nashville and Phoenix—not only did all three make the playoffs last year, but they all won first-round series. The fall of last year’s leaders has opened the door, not just for Minnesota, but for surprising Edmonton, who’s holding a narrow edge for the final playoff berth. Maybe this year’s Oiler team can recapture some of the magic of 2006.
The Chicago Blackhawks are all the rage in the NHL in this shortened season. Don’t look now tough, but the Anaheim Mighty Ducks are lurking in second place in the Western Conference. Anaheim’s only four points behind Chicago and has played one fewer game. Are the Ducks the real deal, or are they a pretender in the West? That’s the question TheSportsNotebook’s NHL analysis will try and answer today.
In Anaheim’s favor is a stellar showing in 5-on-5 play (when there’s no power play in effect either way). They are the second-best in the NHL when the teams are at full strength. And when they get the man advantage no one has been better at cashing it in. The Ducks are balanced offensively and defensively, ranking in the top five for both goals scored and goals against. Viktor Fasth is giving them stellar play in goal, with his 92.9 save percentage ranking him fourth in the league.
Furthermore, Anaheim has quality talent in its regular five. It starts with Corey Perry, who won the MVP in 2011. Perry is on a brief suspension right now, but he’s having a good year with nine goals and fifteen assists. Even better, Perry’s track record suggests he can give much more. Both of those stats put him in the top 60 of NHL players, making him, on average, the second-best player on a team if talent were equally distributed. But Perry is more than capable of elevating to the top 15.
Thus we have a team that does almost everything well, and has a star player not quite playing at peak levels. All of these argue for Anaheim’s staying power.
Before you get set for a Ducks-Blackhawks conference final though, there are some negatives. It starts with shots. Put simply, Anaheim allows a lot of shots and doesn’t get very many of its own. They rank just below the league average at shot prevention. Fasth has bailed them out, but the team defense simply has to pick up. And on the offensive side, Anaheim is 26th at pressuring the opposing goaltender. Is it really realistic to produce a top five offense over the long haul while ranking in the bottom five in shots? Or does the statistical disparity suggest some luck as it work here?
We can also pick nits with Anaheim’s penalty kill team, one of the five worst in the NHL, but that’s almost inconsequential when measured against the question of shots. The issue would be whether Anaheim has the kind of team that can produce goals at a significantly higher rate than the shots they take and do it as a matter of course, rather than coincidence.
There are some positives here. The teams whose goals outpace their shots usually have a signature offensive player, one whom tends to cash in his own shots and create better opportunities for his teammates. Perry certainly qualifies. Center Ryan Getzlaff is having a top 30 offensive year, scoring 10 goals and dishing 21 assists, a total that ties him for fifth in the NHL. Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne are nice offensive options on the wing.
But the negatives outweigh the positives. If the statistical disparity were relatively small—let’s say Anaheim ranked 10th in shots while being 3rd in goals, you could say that the quality of a player like Perry makes that sustainable. A gap between 26th and 3rd is positively monstrous and unless Corey Perry is ready to make Wayne Gretzky look like a bumbling stiff, there’s no way Anaheim can sustain this.
Therefore you have to put me the category of skeptic when it comes to Anaheim. They are a good team, genuinely playoff-caliber, and they have an offensive talent that can potentially transform a game. But the fact they’re running this close to Chicago is more a fluke than anything else. The guess here is by season’s end, Anaheim will be on the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff standings and open the postseason on the road.
The NHL’s regular season only has two weeks left, ending on Saturday April 7, and the Pacific Division is nowhere closer to being settled, with four teams stacked within two points of each other, and current playoff standings allowing only three of them to survive. The Pacific Division race is just the biggest highlight, as TheSportsNotebook seeks to make sure readers don’t lose sight of hockey amidst the Madness that is March.
Los Angeles and Phoenix are tied atop the West with 86 points, a point up on Dallas and two on San Jose. Here’ the rub—the LA/Phoenix loser and Dallas hold the last two playoff spots, so not only is San Jose out, but to get in there’s no getting around they have to take out a fellow Pacific member. Which I’m quite certain troubles no one in NoCal, but it’s rare for the NHL to have a division championship race of such high consequence. Saturday will be a big day in this race. Dallas faces Calgary—who by the way is only two points out of the playoffs. Los Angeles hosts Boston, who will not playing up to their #2 in the East standing, have stabilized a bit over the last week. San Jose and Phoenix go head-to-head in the Bay Area in a huge hockey game that would be worth for Center Ice subscribers, given that the puck will drop out west after the NCAA’s regional finals action is over. Then on Sunday there’s no rest for Phoenix who has to quickly come home and face St. Louis—who happens to be the best team in the league.
Oh, and if all this doesn’t make the four-team Pacific race dynamic enough, Colorado is joining Calgary in the fight to push a second division team out of the postseason. The Avalanche are tied with the Stars for the 8-spot, even if they’d lose a tiebreaker today. Colorado has a stiff test at home against Vancouver on Saturday night. I know the good people of Denver got some good news on the NFL front this past week, but don’t forget your hockey team when they need you.
The East’s race for the bottom isn’t nearly as packed, but the battle between Washington and Buffalo is no less intense. The Capitals hold a one-point lead and host Winnipeg tonight, while the Sabres have a tough trip into Madison Square Garden to play the East-leading New York Rangers. Then the Minnesota Wild will try and be a spoiler in the East, as they go to Buffalo on Saturday, then Washington on Sunday.
While the unpredictability of the NHL postseason make the race just to get in the most important, and while seeding position might not carry the same weight it does in the NBA, you’re surely better off with home ice then without, and there’s more races within the playoff teams that look likely to go to the wire. Pittsburgh has closed to within one point of New York in the Atlantic Division, and the winner of that race gets the #1 seed. The loser will be slotted at #4. The Penguins are still the hottest team in hockey, 9-0-1 in their last ten and with the return of Sidney Crosby, a sure favorite for NBCSN when the playoffs start. Boston keeps holding off Ottawa—the standings still show these teams will meet in a 2-7 series, although Florida continues to nip at Boston’s heels for the two-spot. Ottawa plays at lowly Montreal tonight, but then has Pittsburgh in town on Saturday. The Bruins wrap up a west coast trip with the aforementioned Saturday game in the Staples Center, then a visit to a bad Anaheim team.
And is any team skidding backwards into the playoffs faster than Detroit. Once the toast of the league and indeed a lot of the sports world for their record home winning streak, the Wings have lost six in a row, have been blown out by St. Louis in the Central Division and may no longer have home ice. With 93 points, they hold down the 4-spot, but Nashville and red-hot Chicago are both just one point back. Although with the winner of the shaky Pacific guaranteed the 3-hole, it bears wondering if the loser of the Detroit/Chicago/Nashville race is best off going into the 6-spot.