Monday, January 26, 2015

NHL’s Wild West Sees Unpredictable Finish

By Mike Chen

Now that the NHL is entering the second half of the season, it's time to really knuckle down and prepare for the playoff races. In the Western Conference, there's no telling who will make it. Anaheim and Nashville are the clear leaders; St. Louis and Chicago are also probably in barring a major collapse. The last four spots see a number of teams duking it out down the stretch. Who will make it? That remains to be seen, but it should be one heck of a ride.

Los Angeles Kings

Are the Kings in or out? The reigning Stanley Cup champs have looked equal parts world beaters and also rans this season, though that's not anything new for them. The L.A. roster has looked very similar over the past few years, and that means the core team has played plenty of extra games between the playoffs and the Olympics. But will experience kick in for the stretch run again or will three years of deep playoff runs finally empty their gas tank?

San Jose Sharks

The Sharks have been one of the most consistent and most baffling teams of the past decade. After last year's historic loss to the Kings, internal turmoil took center stage. On one hand, both veterans and younger players have played well and San Jose has defeated the best of the best. On the other, though, they've consistently lost to the worst of the worst. This could either be the first steps in a team coming together or middle of the road mediocrity.

Calgary Flames

Each season has that one team that statistically should not be as good as its record. Last year, it was the Colorado Avalanche. This year, it appears to be the Calgary Flames. Advanced stats show that the Flames should fall back to Earth, and they did for a stretch in December. However, they continue to work hard and pester the seemingly better teams. Now we'll see if their puck luck continues to hold up.

Vancouver Canucks

Depending on which night you tuned into the Vancouver Canucks, you may have felt that this was the elite team from several seasons back or the listless squad from last year. The good news is that Ryan Miller is having a solid season, and the Sedin twins are playing at an elite level. The bad news is that the team is woefully thin with a lack of secondary scoring. Being top heavy has doomed the Canucks in the past; will it lead to a second-half collapse?

Winnipeg Jets

Few people would have penciled in the Jets to be this competitive this late into the season. A strong showing from breakout goalie Michael Hutchinson has been the biggest story coming out of Winnipeg. However, the Jets have a decidedly average home record, and while that's not a requirement for making the post-season, enjoying a home-ice advantage during the stretch run makes a big difference when the intensity ratchets up.

Dallas Stars

The Stars were the expected breakout team in the Western Conference, and it took them a long time to start living up the hype. Within spitting distance of a wild card spot, the Stars have one of the best goals-for in the league — and one of the worst goals-against. Goaltending is a huge issue in Texas, and the Stars seem to have lost faith in Kari Lehtonen. Will a deadline deal for a goalie push them over the top?

Colorado Avalanche

Last year's puck luck darlings were the Avalanche. Many advanced stats experts called the team a house of cards, and the first half of the season saw plenty of reasons why. Patrick Roy's team has fought back from the dead to be considered part of the mix, albeit a long shot. Still, the forward group has underachieved, and if the click on the level they should, there's a chance that Colorado can surge back in.

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