On Saturday, March 29, 2014, most of the main NHL Western conference contenders and hopefuls were in action. Anaheim, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minnesota, and Colorado all posted wins. The Chicago Blackhawks were idle.
With all teams having eight games or less remaining in the regular season, here is a quick look at the best of the west.
The Contenders -
St. Louis Blues: The Blues have all but clinched the Central division crown, and are only one point behind the Boston Bruins in the race for the (basically meaningless) President's trophy. Back in the day, finishing with the best regular season record, was it's own reward. Home ice advantage was enough, until Commissioner Gary Bettman decided that an obligatory trophy was also in order. It is what it is, so be it. This is the best St. Louis team since the Ken Hitchcock era began, in the midst of the 2011-12 season. The acquisition of All-star goalie Ryan Miller just few days before the trade deadline, was meant to be the final piece of the puzzle. The only downside may be that having clinched a playoff berth, and having been in the driver's seat for the division so early, may wind up affecting the team's intensity come playoff time. It has happened to teams before, a great regular season, followed by a week or two of "it doesn't really matter if they win or lose" type games, spells postseason doom. It'll be up to the coach, and the veteran leaders to make sure the focus is still there in mid-April.
Chicago Blackhawks: The defending Stanley Cup champs have had a few peaks and valleys this season. Definitely dangerous, and capable of repeating, they are currently dealing with the loss of puckhandling wizard Patrick Kane. Kane is expected back in time for the playoffs, and as long as the chemistry remains, they should be fine. They also boast possibly the best blueline in the West. The only achilles heel, could be if 37 year-old center Michal Handzus suddenly starts showing his age at the wrong time. Even so, this is going to be a tough team to beat. They are all but guaranteed to face Colorado in the first round. As it stands now, Colorado would have home-ice advantage.
Anaheim Ducks: Proved to everyone that last season was not a fluke. The Ducks are battling San Jose for the division crown, and are just a few points back of St. Louis and Boston, in the race for the President's trophy. Anaheim is solid, and shored up the blueline, by adding veteran Stephane Robidas to replace injured Sheldon Souray. Center Ryan Getzlaf is having a great season, as is his wingman Corey Perry. Saku Koivu and Nick Bonino are solid centers, but can they do what it takes to win the 16 most important games of the season ? Koivu is 39 years old, and Bonino is a solid, but primarily third line-type center. The other question could be secondary scoring. Jakob Silfverberg was acquired in the Bobby Ryan trade, and started the season well, but has since battled injuries and confidence issues, seemingly all season long. Other than that, the defensive corps is fine, and Jonas Hiller is strong in goal. As previously mentioned, scoring depth will be the key to their playoff success.
San Jose Sharks: Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, the list goes on. This is a high-octane lineup which still cannot not shake the label of "playoff chokers". The label was applied after they the President's trophy in 2009, and then lost to Anaheim in the first round of playoffs. They did make the Conference final in 2010 and 2011, but somehow never really got any credit for it. Make no mistake, the Sharks are still a force to be reckoned with. Thornton and Marleau are a bit long in the tooth, but the emergence of other forwards, such as Tommy Wingels, Brent Burns, and rookie Tomas Hertl, provide insurance the team will remain strong as they transition into a new era. Either this team or the Ducks will face the Los Angeles Kings, in the first round of the 2014 playoffs.
*Los Angeles Kings: Recently, the Kings have really found their game. Goalie Jonathan Quick has played near-flawlessly in goal since returning from the Olympics. They also have been getting help from an unexpected source, as defenseman Alec Martinez has suddenly emerged as an offensive force. Martinez has 6 goals and 5 assists in his last 14 games, after having scored just 4 goals and 3 assists in the previous 39 games. The trade deadline acquisition of Marian Gaborik has also worked out very well. Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, and Jarrett Stoll form the strongest center-ice trio in the West. Riding a six-game win streak, the Kings provide incentive for both Anaheim and San Jose to win the Pacific division in order to avoid this first round matchup. Do not take this third-place team lightly.
*Kings have yet to clinch a playoff berth, but it is becoming increasingly unlikely that they will finish lower than third place in the division.
Colorado Avalanche: Their speed and talent is undeniable. Definitely a worthy playoff team, but unfortunately probably will not survive a first round matchup with the Blackhawks. Most likely, the experience and toughness of Chicago will be more than this team is ready to handle at this stage. The future looks bright, but Avs are probably still a couple years away from being true contenders.
Minnesota Wild: Should clinch a playoff spot soon. Though that will also signal a return to being a perennial playoff team, they are not yet showing enough consistency to have expectations of a deep playoff run. As a wildcard team, a matchup with St. Louis, San Jose, or Anaheim, awaits.
Dallas Stars: Head coach Lindy Ruff had the team playing some great hockey for much of the season, but a recent swoon, combined with a surge by the Phoenix Coyotes, has put them on the playoff bubble. Postseason action is far from guaranteed. It is probably going to come down to the final day of the season.
Phoenix Coyotes: Making a late push for the postseason, but have lost goalie Mike Smith for at least another week. Two wildcard spots are up for grabs, and only 3 points separate the Coyotes, Wild, and Stars.