A Look at the Wild Card Race in the Western Conference

Bruce Kluckhohn:Getty ImagesPhoto: Bruce Kluckhohn/Getty Images

As the NHL season winds down with fewer than 13 games remaining in the regular season for most teams, this time of year tends to bring out the best in everyone as they scrap for a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and home-ice advantage. While there are a handful of locks to get into the dance from each conference, several spots remain up for grabs. NoVa Caps takes a look at the very competitive Western Conference race, where seven teams are fighting for three spots and the order changes almost daily.

[A look at the Wild Card Race in the Eastern Conference]

Current Standings:

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Calgary Flames (12 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/14 vs. Winnipeg Jets
  • 3/27 at Vancouver Canucks
  • 3/31 vs. Jets
  • 4/2 vs. Vegas Golden Knights
  • 4/4 vs. Edmonton Oilers

Split: eight home/four away

Outlook: The Flames have overcome an 11-12-4 start to find themselves in the thick of the Western Conference hunt after winning the conference last season. They have a trip to the Tristate area coming up next week, but a lot of their games left come against teams they are fighting with for positioning and a Stanley Cup Playoff berth, including a possible first-round preview with the Oilers on the last day of the regular season. That contest promises to be a feisty matchup after the two teams got involved in a line brawl at the beginning of last month.

The Flames, who rank 16th with an average of 3.06 goals-against per game and 20th with an average of 2.91 goals-per-game, are only one of two teams occupying a spot with a negative goal differential with a -5 (Columbus Blue Jackets: -7).

The game against the Oilers could determine who gets home-ice advantage in a possible first-round series or whether the Flames finish in the top three of the Pacific Division or a wild-card spot. Either way, expect the Flames to make the dance.

Minnesota Wild (13 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/15 vs. Nashville Predators
  • 3/17 vs. Chicago Blackhawks
  • 3/19 at Blackhawks
  • 3/20 at Jets
  • 3/23 at Colorado Avalanche
  • 3/28 at St. Louis Blues
  • 4/4 at Predators

Split: six home/seven away

Outlook: After firing head coach Bruce Boudreau on February 14, the Wild have gone 8-4-0 under interim Dean Evason to surge to the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference. They missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in seven years last season.

A fair amount of their remaining schedule (five games) come against Eastern Conference opponents but after their game against the Golden Knights on Thursday, the other games come against division rivals and teams they are fighting with.

Despite a mediocre offense on paper, the Wild’s average of 3.16 goals-per-game is tied for 12th in the NHL this season to help offset their average of 3.14 goals-against per game, the eighth-highest.

The Wild have been hot lately but their performance in the games against division rivals will make or break their season.

Nashville Predators (13 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/15 at Wild
  • 3/19 vs. Avalanche
  • 3/22 at Blackhawks
  • 3/24 vs. Jets
  • 3/26 at Coyotes
  • 3/27 at Avalanche
  • 4/4 vs. Wild

Split: six home/seven away

Outlook: The Predators’ five-year playoff streak is in jeopardy as they have gone 26-22-6 (.537 points percentage) after a 9-4-2 start (.667 points percentage). Though, they are tied for the second wild card.

The Predators begin a big four-game road trip on Tuesday that ends with a pivotal game in Minnesota on Sunday night. They will also have to fight off teams that are around them and face the Avalanche twice.

The Predators have gotten away from their identity as a strong defensive team this season after trading away P.K. Subban in the summer as their average of 3.10 goals-against per game is tied for the 11th-most while their average of 3.07 goals-per-game is slightly below the league average.

The Predators have the roster to do damage but if that’s going to happen, they will need Pekka Rinne to step up as he currently has an .895 save percentage.

Vancouver Canucks (14 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/12 at Arizona Coyotes
  • 3/13 at Avalanche
  • 3/15 vs. Jets
  • 3/27 vs. Flames
  • 4/2 at Coyotes
  • 4/4 vs. Golden Knights

Split: seven home/seven away

Outlook: The Canucks, who have only won two playoff games since losing Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, are in good position to end their four-year drought this season. Since a five-game winning streak and winning seven of eight at the end of January, they are 6-9-2 and their .412 points percentage is ahead of only the league-worst Detroit Red Wings (.306). They led the tight Pacific Division at that point.

The Canucks have two games left against the Coyotes, both on the road, which will be huge for them; the Anaheim Ducks, which will be important for them to take care of; and the Golden Knights, who they could face in the first round.

The Canucks certainly have the offense (eighth with an average of 3.25 goals-per-game) and the goaltending (starter Jacob Markstrom is 23-16-4 with a .918 save percentage, a 2.75 goals-against average, and two shutouts this season) but they will have to tighten up their defense (average of 3.10 is below league average) to grab a spot. However, expect the Canucks to find a way to do it this season.

Winnipeg Jets (12 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/14 at Flames
  • 3/15 at Canucks
  • 3/20 vs. Wild
  • 3/27 vs. Avalanche
  • 3/28 at Predators
  • 3/31 at Flames
  • 4/2 at Avalanche
  • 4/4 at Coyotes

Split: four home/eight away

Outlook: The Jets face a tough stretch to the finish line with a lot of road games and a majority of them coming against teams they are fighting with for their lives, six of them on the road.

Their already thin blue line is banged up with injuries to Luca Sbisa, Sami Niku, and Anthony Bitetto and Dustin Byfuglien pondering retirement, though the Jets are tied for 10th with an average of 2.84 goals-against per game. While they have played well, all of the injuries will take a toll eventually and the group has allowed an average of 32.5 shots-per-game, the seventh-most in the NHL. Despite loads of talent upfront with the likes of Mark Schiefele, Patrik Laine, and Kyle Connor, the Jets’ average of 2.99 goals-per-game is slightly below the league average. As much as Connor Hellebuyck, who is tied for second in the NHL with 30 wins, 10th with a .922 save percentage, 16th with a 2.58 goals-against average, and first with six shutouts, has stood on his head, only Carey Price of the Montreal Canadiens plays more than him and successful teams recently have shown that you need two goalies to win.

With an underperforming offense, a thin defense, a goaltender that will be worn out eventually, and a rigorous schedule down the road, the Jets will likely fall short of a berth for the first time in three seasons.

Arizona Coyotes (12 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/12 vs. Canucks
  • 3/18 vs. Golden Knights
  • 3/25 at Golden Knights
  • 3/28 vs. Predators
  • 3/31 at Avalanche
  • 4/2 vs. Canucks
  • 4/4 vs. Jets

Split: eight home/four away

Outlook: The Coyotes have gone 14-17-4 (.457 points percentage) since acquiring forward Taylor Hall in a trade with the New Jersey Devils on December 16 after leading the Pacific Division with a 19-12-4 record before the deal.

Their average of 2.71 goals-per-game is a slight improvement after adding Hall and Phil Kessel in the past nine months but is still at the bottom as it ranks 23rd in the league to offset the good work by their defense, which is tied for the Blue Jackets for third with a 2.61 goals-against per game. The good news for the Coyotes is that their ace in goal, Darcy Kuemper (who is sixth with a .928 save percentage and tied for fourth with a 2.22 goals-against average this season), is back in business after missing more than two months due to a lower-body injury.

The Coyotes have the defense and goaltending to make a run but they will have to turn their play around as soon as possible if they’re going to snap the longest active Stanley Cup Playoff drought this spring.

 

Chicago Blackhawks (13 games remaining)

Key Games Left:

  • 3/17 at Wild
  • 3/19 vs. Wild
  • 3/22 vs. Predators

Split: eight home/five away

Outlook: The Blackhawks signaled that they are preparing to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third consecutive season when they dealt pending unrestricted free agents in defenseman Erik Gustafsson and goaltender Robin Lehner at the trade deadline.

The fact that they lost to the Detroit Red Wings, who are the worst team by 23 points, this past week all but seals their fate for this season but they are only eight points out and with stars like Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, they cannot be ruled out. Despite their star-loaded offense, it ranks only 19th in the NHL with a 2.93 goals-per-game and is at the league average in terms of goals-against per game (3.07) despite making efforts to improve it over the summer. Corey Crawford has been healthy this season but has not been the Crawford that we used to know.

Chicago has an opportunity to get back in the race with games against the San Jose Sharks and Ottawa Senators this week but the pressure is on them to take advantage.

You can read our Eastern Conference Wild Card outlook here.

By Harrison Brown

About Harrison Brown

Harrison is a diehard Caps fan and a hockey fanatic with a passion for sports writing. He attended his first game at age 8 and has been a season ticket holder since the 2010-2011 season. His fondest Caps memory was watching the Capitals hoist the Stanley Cup in Las Vegas. In his spare time, he enjoys travel, photography, and hanging out with his two dogs. Follow Harrison on Twitter @HarrisonB927077
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