Below the Goal Line continues its preview of the NHL race to the playoffs. Last night, we looked at the Eastern Conference. Today, we will look into what's happening in the Western Conference.
As of this morning, only one team has qualified for the playoffs so far in the Western Conference. That would be the Nashville Predators. With 106 points in 72 games played, the Predators are the likely favorites to be the top overall seed to win the Central Division and finish first in the West. That would match them up with the second Wild Card team that qualifies for the playoffs in the West.
The Winnipeg Jets are another strong contended in the Central Division. They sit in second place with 98 points in 73 games. They will likely be the second see in the Central, and if that's true, they will face the third team in the Central.
That third team will come down to a race between the Minnesota Wild (90 point in 38 games) and the Colorado Avalanche (87 in 74). Minnesota has a strong, 6-point lead of the fourth team in the Central Division, the reeling Dallas Stars, so they will likely finish in a playoff spot even if it's just a Wild Card spot.
The Avalanche, who have been playing some strong hockey lately, do occupy that first Wild Card position in the Western Conference. After going 6-1-3, they have opened up a two point gap between themselves and the Anaheim Ducks of the Pacific Division. Barring a sudden drop in play, the Avalanche, too, will qualify for the playoffs, but where they will be seeded is still up for debate.
In what would be a preseason surprise, the Vegas Golden Knights lead the Pacific Division with 99 points in 73 games. If you have watched any of the Golden Knights this season, you would not be surprised they occupy a high spot in the Western Conference playoff picture. Vegas is a strong, fast team that makes you pay for your mistakes. They will be interested to follow postseason.
The San Jose Sharks occupy the second spot in the Pacific with 91 points in 73 games. Playing a significant chunk of the season without offensive catalyst Joe Thornton, the Sharks have stuck around and find themselves four points ahead of the rival Los Angeles Kings. The Sharks will likely have home ice against an in-state rival in the first round of the playoffs.
The aforementioned Kings sit in the third spot in the Pacific Division. With with 87 points in 74 games, Los Angeles is just one game ahead of the second Wild Card team, the Anaheim Ducks, who have played one less game. If the can take advantage of the seven remaining games against teams below them in the standings, they will be in a good position to face the Sharks in the first round.
The Dallas Stars sit two points out of the final Wild Card spot occupied by the Ducks. They have been in an absolute free-fall lately, going just 2-5-3 in their last ten. I don't know if they can fix all of their problems in time to qualify for the playoffs.
The St. Louis Blues, who I wrote off a few days ago, are three points back of Anaheim, but are still a contender for a Wild Card spot if the Ducks struggle at all the last few weeks.
Calgary is the only other team with a shot at the postseason. With just 80 points in 74 games, the Flames are six points out of a playoff spot. The offense has been a struggle for the Flames, who aren't deep enough to score with the rest of the playoff hopefuls.
Here is what I see the playoffs looking like in a few weeks: Vegas vs. Los Angeles, San Jose vs. Anaheim, Nashville vs. Colorado, and Winnipeg vs. Minnesota.
This would mean that the Duck pass up the Kings for the third spot in the Pacific, and the Avalanche continue to impress by making the playoffs over the likes of Dallas and St. Louis after a dreadful season last year. Winnipeg will likely overrun the Wild, but it should be interesting match-up, with the winner taking on the Nashville Predators in the next round.
I think the playoff experience from last year from the Predators propel them to conference final, where they will meet the Anaheim Ducks. The heavy game of the Ducks will overcome the injury-riddled Sharks, and their playoff experience will be just too much for the upstart Golden Knights.
Stay tuned for more on the playoff race. Good luck to everyone the rest of the way!