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March 16, 2011
Driving To The Net
Final Push in the Western Conference

by Timo Seppa

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While interest in the Eastern Conference playoff picture largely centers around New Jersey—both due to the attention their Cinderella run has garnered and well as their huge potential impact in the playoffs—it's the Western Conference that has been a logjam all season long and continues to be so. Much, much better teams will miss the postseason in the West, and it's still hard to peg exactly who those teams might be even with a mere dozen games remaining on the schedule.

As with the East, let's glance at the standings to orient ourselves:

Western Conference standings (current)
				
Seed	Team		GP	W	Pts	P%
1 	Vancouver	71	46	101	.711
2 	Detroit		69	41	90	.652
3 	San Jose	71	39	88	.620
4 	Los Angeles	70	39	85	.607
5 	Phoenix		71	36	85	.599
6 	Chicago		70	38	84	.600
7 	Dallas		70	37	82	.586
8 	Calgary		72	36	81	.563
9 	Nashville	70	35	80	.571
10 	Anaheim		69	37	79	.572
11 	Minnesota	70	35	77	.550
12 	Columbus	69	32	74	.536
13 	St. Louis	69	31	71	.514
14 	Colorado	68	26	60	.441
15 	Edmonton	70	23	55	.393

The takeaway? It looks like Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago have separated themselves from the pack by a fraction, to perhaps have an upper hand in the race—but is that true? We'll see in a minute. After that, there are five or arguably six teams vying for two spots: Dallas, Calgary, Nashville, Anaheim, Minnesota and perhaps Columbus. So let's try to make some more sense out of the playoff picture by taking into account which teams have been playing well over the last half-season or so, as opposed to whose overall point totals have been inflated by a fast start:

Western Conference standings (projected)

Seed	Team		Pts	GR	Team P%	Opponent P%	Projected Pts
1 	Vancouver	101	11	.722	.508		118.5
2 	Detroit		90	13	.647	.596		105.8
3 	San Jose	88	11	.625	.588		101.1
4 	Phoenix		85	11	.639	.540		99.6
5 	Chicago		84	12	.643	.579		98.9
6 	Los Angeles	85	12	.571	.557		98.8
7	Calgary		81	10	.676	.510		95.9
8 	Anaheim		79	13	.603	.559		94.7
9 	Dallas		82	12	.514	.547		94.7
10 	Nashville	80	12	.571	.533		94.4
11 	Minnesota	77	12	.571	.534		91.4
12 	Columbus	74	13	.544	.579		87.7
13 	St. Louis	71	13	.441	.557		82.6
14 	Colorado	60	14	.273	.554		67.7
15 	Edmonton	55	12	.357	.559		63.6

As we thought, Phoenix, Chicago and Los Angeles appear to be in the clear (along with San Jose, if there had been any doubt). This will warm the hearts of all of us that favored the Blackhawks and Kings to make it to the postseason out of the pack, given their positive goal differentials a month or two ago when compared to the other contenders/pretenders.

Of the next half dozen teams, it's apparent that Columbus is virtually out of the playoff picture—looking to finish six or more points behind even the projected ninth and tenth place teams, they can comfortably be written off. Anyone remember their magical start to the season?

That leaves us five teams for two spots..but Minnesota's likely out as well. Projecting 3-4 points below the cutoff is a tough place to be when you need to leapfrog three teams.

Of the remaining four, you might think that Calgary's in trouble, having 2-3 less games remaining than the rest of the pack. Not so. Given their lead in points over all the teams except Dallas, their excellent play in the calendar year of 2011, and the weakest remaining schedule in the entire NHL (yes, even weaker than all of the Eastern Conference schedules—go figure—due to facing both Edmonton and Colorado twice), the Flames should be in. Please don't let it put off the rebuild, though.

The logjam that follows could again—as in the East—call for those new tiebreakers to come into effect. Chances are good that at least two of Anaheim, Dallas and Nashville could arrive at the tape in a photo finish. As many folks predicted, it might even as many as 95 points to earn that eighth seed in the West, which is pretty incredible. The Stars, currently leading the points department, are the coldest bubble team—I'd like to believe they're one of the teams on the outside, but perhaps the re-addition of Brad Richards will help right their ship. And without Jonas Hiller, I'd also say that the Ducks are working at a disadvantage. If you're asking me to call it, I'll pick the Preds for the ticket to the dance. But it's shaping up to be a crazy finish.

Remaining schedules

Calgary Flames: COL, @ANA, @LAK*, @SJS, @EDM, ANA, @STL, @COL, EDM, VAN

Anaheim Ducks: STL, @LAK, CGY*, @DAL, @NSH*, @CHI, COL, @CGY, @SJS, DAL*, SJS, LAK, @LAK*

Dallas Stars: CHI, PHI, ANA, @NSH, @PHX, @SJS, @LAK, @ANA*, CBJ, COL, @COL*, MIN

Nashville Predators: BOS, DET, @BUF*, EDM, ANA, DAL, VAN, @COL, DET, ATL, CBJ, @STL*

Minnesota Wild: @SJS, CBJ, MTL*, TOR, STL, @STL, EDM, TBL, @DET*, @VAN, @EDM*, DAL

Columbus Blue Jackets: DET, @MIN, NJD*, @COL, @PHX, VAN, FLA, @WSH, CHI, STL, @DAL, @NSH, BUF*

*Second game of a back-to-back

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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