Matt Dumba and Artem Anisimov
The Eastern Conference used to be the land of opportunity, but now it’s the West that looks ripe for the taking if a team can get hot at the right time.
There’s a term, “Group of Death,” that’s usually used in soccer to describe a particularly strong collection of teams that will have to battle each other in order to advance in a tournament. To translate that to NHL terms, it’d be like if, heading into the post-season, one single division boasted the league’s first-place team, defending Stanley Cup champions and a squad that had gone on a 16-game win streak during the regular season. You know, like the Metropolitan Division.
Only one team can emerge from the group and represent the Metropolitan in the Eastern Conference final, and right now the odds for the Eastern representative would have to favor whichever team escapes the NHL’s current powerhouse division. The Metropolitan teams have led the charge for much of the season with stacked lineups that are performing at the top of their game. That’s not to say the Atlantic Division teams stand no chance in the post-season, but rather that most of the favorites to represent the East — and, honestly, to win the Cup — are all in the Metropolitan.
That’s a change from the way things have been in recent years, however. Formerly, the Eastern Conference was the land of opportunity, almost entirely wide open with five or six teams who could be honest-to-goodness contenders. Heading into the post-season in 2015-16, for instance, the Penguins, Capitals, Lightning, Rangers and, to a lesser extent, Panthers were all considered teams with potential for a deep run.
In the West, however, years of dominance by a handful of teams has led to the conference boasting a few teams as contenders entering the post-season with a number of also-rans. From the 2009 post-season until this past season, the Blackhawks appeared in five Western Conference finals, the Kings in three and the Sharks in three. Those three teams account for more than half of the total appearances in the Western Conference final over the past eight campaigns, and the Kings and Blackhawks, especially, were the biggest road blocks en route to the Western Conference title for several years.
It would seem that’s starting to shift, though, and we could be in for a Western Conference that’s more wide open than we’ve seen in some time. The defending Western Conference champion Sharks look like a threat to go deep in the post-season again, without a doubt, and the Blackhawks are still contenders, but they’re not as faultless as they’ve been in the past. Each team has it’s pros and cons, giving to reason to believe it’ll be their year to take home the West title or a season in which they come up just that much short.
The Minnesota Wild, for instance, are the top team in the Western Conference, and the strength up and down the roster is near unquestionable. That includes the crease, especially, where Devan Dubnyk is turning in an outstanding season that is almost sure to end with him receiving the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender. The Wild also boast more depth than possibly any other team in the league and few teams will be able to roll four lines against Minnesota. In the same breath, though, that depth is necessary because the Wild lack that one, game-breaking star. Zach Parise has shown that ability, for sure, but he’s not in the same category as a Connor McDavid, Vladimir Tarasenko or Patrick Kane.
And when it comes to Kane, his Blackhawks have been on fire of late and he’s been no small part of that. Chicago is going to enter the post-season as the favorite for some simply because the team has been atop the league so often of late they seem a constant threat. You mix in the talented core group that has remained in tact and the goaltending the team gets from Corey Crawford, and the Blackhawks are a contender. But the depth can be questioned, and there are a handful of rookies who haven’t seen playoff action before.
Rounding out the top three in the Central Division is the St. Louis Blues, a team which most expected would be competing for a division title, not barely holding onto one of the three divisional playoff spots. The issue in St. Louis has been goaltending. The Blues have one of the West’s more prolific offenses, but their 172 goals against are the most of any team currently holding onto a playoff spot in the West. Things have been looking up under coach Mike Yeo, and the Blues will be very dangerous if goaltender Jake Allen gets hot.
Then there’s the Pacific Division, led by the aforementioned Sharks. The two wily veterans, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, are still chugging along in San Jose, but the team has been led this season by an absolutely outstanding performance by Brent Burns. The defenseman is on pace to have one of the greatest offensive seasons by a blueliner we’ve seen in recent years. Captain Joe Pavelski has also cracked the 20-goal plateau once again, but the depth contributions have been sporadic. The Sharks really were hoping for more from Mikkel Boedker, too.
South of San Jose, the Ducks have stumbled of late under coach Randy Carlyle, but this is still a team with enough top-end talent that a close game can be taken over in an instant. Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are still a remarkable one-two punch up front, and the depth on the back end is excellent. Cam Fowler is having a great year, and Hampus Lindholm and Sami Vatanen have been as steady as ever. The recent injury to John Gibson is worrisome, but if he’s only out for a short period of time, it shouldn’t hinder the Ducks down the stretch. Relying on Jonathan Bernier might lead to disaster, however.
And, of course, everyone is going to be paying close attention to the Oilers. For some, Edmonton will be the Pacific Division favorite solely because of the McDavid factor. His first full season has been a treat to watch and the Oilers have benefited big time from his league-leading point total. Edmonton would probably love a boost to their back end and maybe some bottom-six scoring punch, though. They’re top heavy right now, and if the Oilers match up against a defense that can slow down McDavid, that could result in an earlier exit than some are expecting.
Even in the wild card, the teams appear threatening. The Predators were early season favorites after their acquisition of P.K. Subban, and you’d still be hard done by to find a defense that is better, top to bottom, than that of Nashville. Trouble is the goaltending has been below average, which is the same issue that has plagued Calgary despite the Flames holding onto one of the wild-card spots. Short of acquiring Ben Bishop from the Lightning, there isn’t a quick fix for Calgary in goal, but they’re still competitive. And this is to say nothing yet of the Kings. Los Angeles is still well within striking distance of the post-season, and getting Jonathan Quick back and finding some scoring at the deadline could be a game-changer.
This might not be a one-off in the West, either. With the changeover that’s going on throughout the conference, from the Blackhawks’ in-house retooling to the Oilers’ resurgence and continued build around McDavid, there are more teams in the mix with a real, honest chance to represent the West in the final than we’ve seen in some time. That stands to continue for a few years until one team establishes Western Conference dominance. But until that happens, it’s going to make the playoff race and post-season battles all the more exciting to watch.
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