Western Conference Playoff Preview

The race for the playoffs is extremely tight in the Western Conference. With four bottom-half teams realistically having a shot at making the playoffs, and a fight atop the standings, the final ten games of the season will be as important as ever. Veteran playoff teams like the Red Wings will be fighting for the eighth spot, while newbie teams like the Coyotes will be challenging for the top spot in the conference.

1. *Chicago Blackhawks – 97

Since training camp, the Blackhawks have been most people’s favorite to win the Western Conference. They are in great position to do that, as they have the highest goal differential in the West and have dominated what is always an extremely tough conference. Patrick Kane has lead the team from the get go, while Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi have held down the fort in goal.

2. *San Jose Sharks – 96

The Sharks have been the NHL’s premiere regular season team for years, though their division title is being threatened by the Coyotes. San Jose’s defense has been solid all year, while Dany Heatley has flourished in a new system. Evgeni Nabokov is still one of the NHL’s best goaltenders.

3. *Vancouver Canucks – 92

On the reigns of a career year by Henrik Sedin and great support from a once-injured Daniel Sedin, the Canucks are once again looking to take the Northwest Division crown. Olympic golden goalie Roberto Luongo is driving this team towards the playoffs yet again, and looking for a deep run.

4. Phoenix Coyotes – 95

With all due respect to the NHL’s team, no one expected them to be in the race for the playoffs at the beginning of the season, and for sure no one thought that they would be challenging both the Sharks and the Blackhawks at the top of the conference. Yet, Ilya Bryzgalov has lead this team from the start with incredible goaltending. The Coyotes are one of the best defensive teams in the league.

5. Los Angeles Kings – 87

The Kings have been out of the playoffs for many years, but for the past few, they were always that team that was “on the verge” of greatness. However, they are now on the threshold of being a great team, as they are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since the 2001-02 season.

6. Nashville Predators – 87

Coach Barry Trotz has managed to make the playoffs almost every year with a team that is short on talent. He is able to squeeze whatever he can out of his players on an annual basis, and it is showing as they are about to clinch another playoff berth.

7. Colorado Avalanche – 86

Craig Anderson and Co. have lead a surprise season in which the Avalanche should qualify for the playoffs with a couple games remaining. Rookie Matt Duchene is a front-runner for the Calder Trophy.

8. Detroit Red Wings – 83

In danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in almost two decades, the Red Wings are slowly moving up the conference. With a game in hand over the ninth-place Flames, Mike Babcock is attempting to win the Stanley Cup and Gold Medal in the same season.

9. Calgary Flames – 81

Having a disappointing season, the Flames are, pardon the expression, flaming out.”

10. St. Louis Blues – 77

The Blues went on a surge at the end of the 2008-09 season to make the postseason, yet it looks unlikely to happen again in 2010.

11. Minnesota Wild – 76

Even star goalie Niklas Backstrom is not able to bring the Wild to the playoffs by himself. The new regime in Minnesota still has a few more years left before they can compete.

Alan Bass is a writer for The Hockey News and THN.com. In addition to writing for Inside Hockey and Pro Hockey News, he has also worked for the Philadelphia Flyers. He is the General Manager of the Muhlenberg College hockey team as well. You can contact him at BergHockey24@gmail.com.

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