One of the tightest NHL playoff races in years is taking place in the Western Conference.
Currently, the Phoenix Coyotes sit in ninth place with 84 points, one spot out of the playoffs. However, the Coyotes are only one point away from being tied with the Dallas Stars for the Pacific Division lead and third in the standings.
The Stars and Coyotes are not the only teams battling it out for playoff position though. The Colorado Avalanche are one point ahead of the Coyotes with 85 points in seventh place, the Los Angeles Kings are tied with the Coyotes with 84 points but sit in eighth because they own the current tie-breaker of less games played, and both the San Jose Sharks and Calgary Flames are nipping at the heels of the Coyotes with 82 points.
While the playoff picture is sure to change a lot before they start on April 11th, the Coyotes potential matchups can be narrowed down to five teams.
St. Louis Blues (46-19-8)
The Blues gave coach Davis Payne only 13 games behind the bench this season before pulling the trigger and replacing him with veteran, cup-winning coach Ken Hitchcock. Fast forward 60 games and the Blues have the best record in the NHL and sit comfortably on top of the Western Conference with 100 points.
The turnaround cannot be credited solely to the coaching change though. Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have been hands down the best goalie duo in the NHL. Elliott has a 21-9-2 record and leads the league in save percentage (.937) and goals against average (1.62). Halak has been no slouch either. Halak has posted a record of 25-10-6 and is one of the only goalies in the league to challenge Elliot's numbers. Halak ranks fourth in save percentage (.929) and second, only to Elliot, in GAA (1.85). The two have also combined for 12 shutouts this year, an NHL-high.
While the Blues have a solid backstop, they do not have a defined all-star scorer. T.J. Oshie leads them with 50 points, and is followed closely by David Backes, 48, and Alex Pietrangelo, 44. The Blues roster is very balanced, with nearly every player with a double digit positive plus/minus rating.
Surprisingly, the Blues may be one of the best matchups for the Coyotes. Both teams rosters are built similarly, with no true "all-stars" and rely on scoring to come from lines one through four. While streaky at times, Mike Smith has proven to be a franchise goaltender this season. If he keeps the Coyotes in games, and the forwards capitalize on their chances, the Coyotes have a shot to advance in the No. 1 Vs. No. 8 matchup.
The Blues have won both games this season against the Coyotes, but the Coyotes will face them two more times before the end of the season.
Special Teams: Blues
Vancouver Canucks (43-21-8)
The Canucks have continued to be a force in the NHL, and if it was not for the incredible run by the Blues they would be in the running for a second consecutive Presidents Trophy.
The Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, have been doing their best impression of "Lob City" in Vancouver. Henrik has put up 57 assist, while Daniel has lit the lamp 30 times. The brothers have combined for 137 points this year.
While Roberto Luongo is having a bad year by his standards, posting his lowest win total since 2004 and not being ranked in the top ten in any major goalie category, he is still a veteran goalie with over 50 games of playoff experience.
The Coyotes will have to stay out of the box if they plan on having a chance against the deep, talented roster of the Canucks. The Canucks power play unit ranks second in NHL, only a tenth of a percent behind Nashville for first. A sixth ranked penalty kill unit is sure to rattle the Coyote's NHL-worst power play unit as well.
The Coyotes and Canucks have faced off four times this year, splitting the season series 2-2. Two of the games have been decided in a shootout, while the other two ended with Vancouver winning 5-0 early in the year and Phoenix taking the Mar. 14 game by a score of 5-4.
Special Teams: Canucks
Detroit Red Wings (44-25-4)
Would it really feel like the playoffs if the Coyotes did not face the Red Wings in the first round? The Coyotes have been eliminated by the Red Wings in their previous two trips to the postseason, including a four-game sweep last year. The matchup has, arguably, become a rivalry.
The Red Wings roster boast four 50+ point getters, including a slew of veterans who are more then capable of putting the puck in the net. Not to mention, they have a solid defensive corps that is headlined by seven-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom.
Jimmy Howard has had a great year in net for the Red Wings. He ranks third in the NHL with 32 wins, seventh in GAA at 2.15, and has six shutouts. Howard has faced the Coyotes three times this year, letting in two goals in each game and capturing three W's.
The Red Wings have lost a season-high, five in-a-row at the worst time of the year. At one point in the season it looked as if they would simply stroll into the playoffs with the number one seed and the Presidents Trophy, but after Howard and Lidstrom missed time in March because of injury, the Red Wings have failed to get back on track.
The Red Wings currently sit in fifth, but if the Coyotes manage to capture the Pacific Division title and the Chicago Blackhawks, currently two-points behind the Red Wings, keep winning and jump Detroit in the standings, it would set up a third consecutive first-round matchup between the Coyotes and Red Wings. This is the last thing the Coyotes want.
Coyote fans may be clamoring for a chance to avenge the losses of the past two seasons, but this is not a good idea. The Coyotes simply do not matchup well against the depth and experience of the Red Wings. If the Coyotes want to escape the first round, this is probably the worst matchup for them.
Detroit has been the NHL's best team at home this year, and even set the NHL record for consecutive home wins with 23. Despite Detroit having a better record than the Coyotes, the 'Yotes would be the higher seeded team and hold home-ice advantage during the series. This means they would escape playing a possible game seven at Joe Louis Arena. There is no way this matchup can take place in the first round without the Coyotes having the higher seed.
Detroit won the season series 3-1, but two of those wins were in a shootout. The Coyotes won the most recent matchup on Feb. 6 by a score of 3-1.
Forwards: Red Wings
Defense: Red Wings
Goaltending: Toss up
Special Teams: Red Wings
Chicago Blackhawks (41-25-8)
The Blackhawks had lost nine in-a-row coming out of the all-star break and it looked as if they may slip out of a playoff spot, something that looked so certain earlier in the season. However, the Blackhawks are having a March similar to the Coyotes February, only losing once in regulation so far and are now surging up the standings. The Blackhawks are now threatening to jump both Nashville and Detroit for the highest seed for a team who has not won their division.
The Blackhawks are another team that boast four 50+ point getters, including the ageless wonder Marian Hossa who is having his best season since he put up 100 points during the 2006-2007 season.
Chicago is a fairly young team as well. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, have combined for 116 points and have a combined age of 46, only five years younger than Detroit defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom.
The Coyotes would have a distinct advantage in net if they faced the Blackhawks. Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have split time in net and have put up similar stats. Both have a .903 save percentage, 39th in the NHL, and just over a 2.70 GAA. Even backup Coyote goaltender Jason LaBarbera has better numbers this year (.915% and 2.45 GAA).
It may also be one of the rare matchups where the Coyotes will have the advantage on special teams. The Blackhawks rank 22nd on the power play and are in the bottom-five on the penalty kill.
Phoenix won the season series 3-1 against the Blackhawks. The teams traded multi-goal wins, then the Coyotes won in a shootout and closed out the series with a 3-1 win in February.
Defense: Toss Up
Special Teams: Coyotes
Nashville Predators (42-23-8)
The Predators may not be a big name team like the Red Wings or Blackhawks, but the Predators have proven to be a solid NHL-franchise in recent years. They have made the playoffs in back-to-back seasons and even advanced past the first round last year.
Nashville was one of the most active teams at the trade deadline. General manager David Poile brought in verteran defenseman Hal Gill, as well as forwards Andrei Kostitsyn and Paul Gaustad to bolster their roster.
The Predators made an additional move Wednesday to bring back Alexander Radulov, an explosive forward who left the team in 2008 for the KHL. He is a two-time MVP of the KHL and the league's all-time scorer with 254 goals. He is sure to contribute come playoff time.
The Predators are a team with a very balanced scoring attack. Martin Erat leads them with 18 goals and 39 assist, and it is then distributed between ten other players who have 30+ points.
Veteran defenseman Shea Weber has been the key to the Predators success. He eats up big minutes, playing over 26 a game, can shut down the opponents top line and even contribute on the offensive end. Weber has totaled 43 points this year.
Pekka Rinne has been a brick wall for the Predators in net. The 29-year-old goalie from Finland is having a career year. He has put up a NHL-high 39 wins while facing the most shots this year. He ranks 4th and 8th in GAA and save percentage respectively.
The Predators also have the leagues best power play unit, converting on 21.6 percent of their man-advantage opportunities. Phoenix is the third-least penalized team in the league at just under nine minutes a game, but the 'Yotes have been known to take penalties at inopportune moments. The Coyotes will have to stay out of the box against the Predators and keep their power play unit off the ice.
The teams split the season series 2-2, with each team tallying a regulation and shootout win. It should be noted though that Mike Smith only faced the Predators one time this year.
Goaltending: Toss Up
Special Teams: Predators
The playoffs are two weeks away, but the standings will begin to clear up by the end of March. The Coyotes play the Sharks twice and Avalanche once before the end of the month, all must-have games. The Coyotes cannot expect to lose more than two regulation games and expect to make the playoffs.
|St. Louis Blues||73||46-19-8||100|
|Detroit Red Wings||73||44-25-4||92|
|Los Angeles Kings||73||36-25-12||84|
|San Jose Sharks||73||36-27-10||82|
|Columbus Blue Jackets||73||23-43-7||53|
Standings as of March 12