Hang on to your hats, folks, because the destiny of several teams will come down to the last week or even day of the regular season. In the West, every team has a shot with 19-20 games left. Here’s a playoff case for each of the West’s bottom seven.
9) Phoenix Coyotes (13-12-4): They’ve never really found a consistent stride so far this year, but they’ve been able to stay afloat in the West even without critical goal scorers Radim Vrbata and Martin Hanzal for several games. Once Vrbata returns the ‘Yotes will have that all-important scorer spreading the ice on the right wing. Mike Smith might be the most inconsistent goalie in the league, but when he’s on, he’s one of the league’s best. The ‘Yotes should look at last season’s finish as motivation. They peaked at the right time and were three wins away from the Finals. This is a playoff-caliber team.
10) Dallas Stars (13-12-3): Their season has mirrored that of Phoenix so far: ups and downs without much consistency. But this team can make the playoffs with its effective combination of young speedsters and a stabilizing veteran presence. Winger Cody Eakin and big defenseman Brenden Dillion have been absolute revelations for the Stars this season, and Jaromir Jagr seems to forget that he is 41 years old, currently leading the Stars in scoring. Kari Lehtonen has been a little inconsistent as of late, but has been by and large as advertised this season. The biggest question mark for the Stars is a constant defensive intensity. If they can establish that, they have enough offense to get into the playoffs. Dallas is also a playoff-level team.
11) Edmonton Oilers (11-11-6): I am in love with the offensive core of the Oil. They’ve been suffering in the standings for years but all that time in the cellar has finally paid off with established players like Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Sam Gagner, etc. They are one of the league’s youngest teams, and are right up there with the league’s most entertaining. They, like Dallas, will rely on the spirited energy of their young legs to simply outskate their opponents. But they do have a lot of talent. Their forwards constantly circle around the offensive zone, the puck is never stagnant and they have the ability to just wear opposing teams down. Their defense has been spotty, but G Devan Dubnyk has been solid. They can be a tough out in the first round.
12) Nashville Predators (11-12-6): Pretty disappointing record for a team as well constructed as this one. Their offense has been anemic and their penalty kill ranks 26th league-wide: a self-destructive combination. Their blue line has clearly dropped a bit with the loss of star D-man Ryan Suter, yet they are still the league’s eighth best defense. They are leaning harder on their goalie, Pekka Rinne, than any team in the league leans on theirs, but if their offense can just become average they will be able to stay in games. Rinne is that good. They’ll be a lower seed at best, but elite goaltending can carry you.
13) Columbus Blue Jackets (11-12-6): If there was a “Most Improved Team” award, Columbus would get it. Sixteen games in and I thought they were done, but they have slowly clawed their way back into the playoff race. Although they have some exciting players, they are probably the least likely playoff team in the bottom seven. If anything, sheer momentum could slip them into the top eight.
14) Calgary Flames (11-12-4): They’ve featured a solid offense highlighted by Curtis Glencross, Alex Tanguay and Lee Stempniak, and their power play is in the league’s top 10. Their greatest concern is consistent goaltending – Miikka Kiprusoff has been in and out of the lineup this whole season. If he can re-establish himself in the pipes, they have they firepower to compete in a first round series.
15) Colorado Avalanche (10-14-4): Somehow they are in the bottom 20 in the league in every major category. Go figure. Despite their place in the standings, this team is not the worst in the conference. They have highly coveted centers Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny and winger Gabriel Landeskog. G Semyon Varlamov needs to be better, along with everything else. But it really is a mystery why this team only has 24 points after 28 games. I think they are better than Columbus.