Conference battles in full force midway through Season

A cursory glance of the NHL Conferences reveals some interesting trends and sets up the 2nd half for what will be some amazing hockey. As always…it is time for the cream to rise to the top. Here are my opinions on who is rising up and who is going down.

Look at the Western Conference and you see 12 teams with realistic playoff aspirations. The battle for playoff spots and positioning will be fierce! Whoever rises to the top, has to be given extra credit for the sheer competitiveness of the Conference and it’s Divisions. Additionally, due to the focus on interdivisional and interconference play, many of the remaining games will be 4 point games and the battles will be far more intense. Expect a playoff like atmosphere to most games from here on in.

Only 11 points separates 1st from 8th and San Jose, currently in the 12th spot, sit 8 pts out and have 3 or more games in hand on the teams ahead of them. Here is how the conference should shake down.

Detroit and Nashville look like locks to make the playoffs, as they each play 15 more games against teams in the bottom 5 of the division. Eight of Nashville’s last 9 games come against the Blues, Blue Jackets, Blackhawks, Wild and the Ducks. Teams that will be playing more for pride, and spots on the team next year, than anything else.

Even if Nashville stumbles again, they should be able to collect enough points against weak competition to secure a playoff berth. I like their lineup and see them as being poised to take the next step. Solid, but not flashy, in every position except goaltending where Vokoun has emerged as a big time goalie. A team loaded with the zest and speed of youth. They seem to be destined for greater things, just maybe not this year.

Detroit has been consistent, if not great, all season long. They seem to be strong in just about every position and boast a lineup oozing with veteran leadership (Yzerman, Shanahan, Chelios, Lidstrom et al). The question mark seems to be whether Manny Legace can assert himself as a top flight goaltender in the playoffs.

The poor teams in the Northwest Division are going to be beating each other to a pulp for the remainder of the season. Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, and Vancouver all seem to be teams missing a key ingredient to go far in the playoffs. The battle in this division might be so intense that two teams might be on the outside looking in with points totals in the 90′s.

Calgary wants to prove 2003-04 wasn’t a fluke and should stay in the playoff picture and possibly win the division. Calgary has what every other team in this division wants so badly…a star goalie with proven playoff success. They have depth and know what it takes to get there. This should give them the consistency to hold off the other teams in the division. Kiprusoff has wisely opted out of playing in the Olympics. Choosing to rest a sore hip and gear up for what is hoped to be a long playoff campaign. All this bodes well for Calgary’s playoff hopes.

Edmonton is sorely in need of a goaltender who can make the key saves for them. The rest of the team seems to be playing well and they possess enough character and leadership to make a run at the playoffs. They desperately need to keep winning games, as even a short 4-5 game skid can be enough to put them behind the proverbial 8-ball. Kevin Lowe might have picked up a couple of extra d-men to facilitate a trade for a quality goaltender. Rumours continue to swirl around the goaltending situation and this needs to be resolved soon or they could find themselves on the outside looking in come late April.

Vancouver has finally found a 2nd line that can score on a regular basis. Now they need the top line of Bertuzzi, Naslund and Morrison to get hot heading into the late part of the season. If this occurs, the Canucks will make the playoffs. If it doesn’t, they will probably still be there. Is it just me or does Mark Crawford sound like a man who is losing his team? I am not sold on him as a coach as I think players tire of his message and this might already be the case with his current squad. Still, the team is firmly entrenched in the playoff picture. They have decent depth and a mobile defensive rotation. Their GAA is high and goaltending is, of course, the main weakness on an above average NHL team. Can Alex Auld handle the load? He seems to be answering that question with a capable, but not spectacular: “yes”.

Colorado is still in the mix and boast the 2nd best record vs their division. They play a lot of tough games down the road and might struggle if Aebischer starts playing like…well, David Aebischer again. I don’t think team management is sold on him as their go-to-guy and wouldn’t be surprised if they dealt for a goalie. Pierre Lacroix is always working the phones seeing what is being shopped around. I still think they lack 3rd and 4th line depth. The injury to Konowalchuk deepened this problem. Not a lock to make the playoffs but I think they will have to fight every step of the way to get there. Lastly, will the real Joe Sakic please stand up?

I have trouble picturing Dallas missing the playoffs this year. They have an awesome netminder in Turco who also doubles as a 3rd defenseman. They have veteran leadership and Modano seems to have put his troubles with the taxman behind him and is focusing on hockey. This team could go deep in the playoffs if they get hot at the right time.

Something about the LA sun, must make players more prone to injury, as LA has been bit by the injury bug. Once Demitra gets hurt he seems to stay that way. A solid, well coached squad that tries hard almost every night. Young goaltending has proven to be okay for the regular season. Will it be enough come playoff time? Have hit a lull in play lately, and this might be the sign of a team about to falter. San Jose and others are coming at them. So they can’t afford to lay off the pedal for a second. I can see LA missing the playoffs. They will be knocking heads with 3-4 teams for the final spot.

Forgive me Duck fan. But, I have a feeling Scott Niedermayer will opt to have surgery if your team so much as stumbles in the next few weeks, and this will impact the team hugely. I have also heard J.S. Giguere being mentioned in the papers as being on the trading block. I see Goaltending woes, rookie coaching and lack of consistent offense will keep them from continuing to challenge for a playoff spot.

Phoenix is just there. Gretzky has been a better coach than many envisioned, but, this team still needs key pieces in order to be successful. I would be shocked if they battled through a mucky lower division to make the playoffs. Cujo might be heading to greener pastures and Gretzky doesn’t seem to be done tinkering, so you never know what might transpire.

San Jose is coming! They are making a run for one of the final playoff spots. They will need to continue their improved recent play. What is deceiving is the games in hand that San Jose is sitting on. If those games turn into wins, by seasons end, they can definitely be in the playoffs. Inspired by the Thornton trade, both Joe and the team have really changed gears and are playing serious hockey. I see them doing just that and joining the top 8 in the conference at either LA, Edmonton, or Colorado’s expense.

I can’t discount the Wild as Lemaire seems to get the most out of that mediocre looking lineup. I just can’t see them in the playoffs, and predict they slide a little further down the totem pole as the season progresses.

All the rest in the division are pretenders. Fodder for the rest of the league with, maybe, a late spoiler role to play.

This should all add up for some amazing matchups and key games late in the season. It will be a battle to remember and 3 or 4 teams will miss the playoffs with records well over .500 . Edmonton missed in 03-04 with 89 points. This year might take even more points, as the playing field has been levelled drastically since then.

What are your thoughts?