With the regular season reaching its final stretch, I’ve decided to use the next two days to take a look at the race for the final few spots in each conference’s playoff race. To do this, I’ll take a look at the current standings, and rank each teams recent success, remaining schedule, and the overall ability they have at each position on the ice. Then, in the end, I’ll provide my prediction for the seasons ending.
So, let’s start with the Western Conference where currently Phoenix, San Jose, Colorado, Calgary and Los Angeles are in a battle for the final two spots. And, while these are the teams I’ll focus on, keep in mind that technically Minnesota and Anaheim are still within reach, and by no means are Dallas and Chicago confirmed as playoff teams.
1. Colorado Avalanche (Last 10: 7-3-0) – Aside from a tough two-game stretch a week ago, the Av’s are statistically the most successful team in the Western Conference since mid-Febrary. Most recently, Colorado completed a two-game sweep of Minnesota by a combined score of 9-1.
2. Los Angeles Kings (Last 10: 5-4-1) – Well, despite facing a 5-7-2 record in February, the Kings have won three straight including a tough victory in Nashville and again look poised to make a move in the standings.
3. Calgary Flames (Last 10: 3-3-4) – I know, the Flames have been far from impressive lately. But, they belong ahead of the Coyotes simply because of the three points they have secured in two matchups with them over the last seven games. And, while Calgary has lost a lot, they are doing it in extra time, which still means a point.
4. Phoenix Coyotes (Last 10: 6-4-0) – Don’t let that record fool you. The Coyotes have lost four straight in regulation for the first time under head coach Dave Tippett, with two of the defeats coming to the NHL’s worst team — simply, not playoff performance.
5. San Jose Sharks (Last 10: 2-7-1) – The Sharks just can’t seem to win a close game lately, which has cost them dearly in the standings. In fact, six of San Jose’s last eight losses have come by one goal as they now only grasp a one-point advantage in the race.
1. San Jose Sharks – These guys are an easy choice here, even with their recent struggles. San Jose has the most games remaining (17), with eight of them coming against the four other teams in the race. Therefore, they will have the best chance to solidify themselves as a playoff team.
2. Calgary Flames – Even though they have only 15 games left, the Flames face eight teams that are not currently in playoff position, and host nine of the contests. The toughest test for Calgary will come at the end of March when they battle Vancouver back-to-back.
3. Phoenix Coyotes – The remaining schedule for Phoenix may seem more daunting than it really is due to its recent play. I mean, the Coyotes are done with Eastern Conference opponents, and have seven of 15 games left with non playoff teams. It’s manageable. But, they do conclude the year with two straight road games, so watch how that develops.
4. Los Angeles Kings – LA has 16 games left, which is certainly good news with its current winning trend. However, 10 of those final 16 are against playoff teams, including a stretch of three games against Chicago and Detroit. They’ll need to catch fire to finish strong.
5. Colorado Avalanche – Perhaps the only thing that will keep the Av’s from the postseason will be their schedule. For starters, they have only 14 games remaining, which is the least of any team in the race. Also, Colorado still has a three-game trip to the east coast, which is typically rare at this time of the year. They will need much help to get in.
1. San Jose Sharks (12th in goals per game) – Forget the losing for a moment and just look at the offensive leaders of this squad. The Sharks have nearly four players with at least 50 points — led by Joe Thornton’s 59 — and have been by far the most consistent scoring team in this group all year long.
2. Colorado Avalanche (21st in goals per game) – Since acquiring Steve Downie and Jamie McGinn (who have combined for 14 points) the COL offense has been fantastic. This was especially true in the 7-1 thumping of the Wild in their last outing. However, the Av’s miss out on the top spot because of the injury to Matt Duchene. That is a game changer. Period.
3. Calgary Flames (25th in goals per game) – The Flames offense isn’t all that dangerous, but it has been consistent as of late. In their last seven games they have averaged three goals per game, which is easily amongst the tops in hockey. And, I really enjoy the scoring combination of Olli Jokinen and Jarome Iginla.
4. Los Angeles Kings (29th in goals per game) – The Kings have been at the bottom of the league all year when it comes to scoring. But, in their last four wins, they have scored at least four goals each game. This is almost double their typical output. We’ll see if it holds up.
5. Phoenix Coyotes (22nd in goals per game) – Whew, typically you wouldn’t find the Coyotes at the back of offensive rankings, but lately it has been a struggle. Phoenix has failed to score more than two goals in five straight — probably a big reason for the losing skid.
1. Los Angeles Kings (3rd in goals against average) – LA is miles ahead of the other competitors on the defensive end of the ice. They have given up more than 20 fewer goals than each of the other four teams in the race, which speaks volumes about outstanding netminder Jonathan Quick.
2. Colorado Avalanche (13th in goals against average) – This one may be a bit surprising if you don’t follow the Av’s. The combination of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere is finally forming into a fairly dynamic duo. In fact, Colorado has surrendered two goals or less in six of eight, with the only outliers being against Detroit and Pittsburgh.
3. Phoenix Coyotes (7th in goals against average) – Mike Smith (29-17-7, 2.32 GAA) has been fantastic this year, don’t get me wrong. The reason Phoenix drops to third is because of the five games in their last eight that have resulted in three or more goals allowed.
4. Calgary Flames (14th in goals against average) – As is typically the case, Calgary has remained fairly steady as a solid defensive club. They rely almost exclusively on Miikka Kiprusoff, who is in the midst of another successful year. But, they’ll need to avoid a letdown in the final weeks if they hope to stay in the race.
5. San Jose Sharks (8th in goals against average) – Overall, the Sharks are a quality team in the defensive zone. Recently though, it has been quite the opposite. San Jose has allowed at least three tallies in nine of 12 contests, which is not going to lead to many victories.
So, who’s in?
Well, for now, I’m taking the San Jose Sharks and the Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks were an easy call because their schedule is set up perfectly for a playoff run. This is especially true if they can handle business in their contests against the other teams in this article. And, while they have struggled recently, I expect the defense to change its tide shortly to lead them to the finish line.
Los Angeles was a much more difficult choice for the final spot in the postseason. They certainly do not have an easy schedule moving forward, but what they do have is an outstanding defense with an improving offense. The addition of forward Jeff Carter should be huge moving forward, and any group paced by Quick can make a run late in the season.