Less than a week remains in the NHL regular season and that means the Stanley Cup race is nearly upon us. In Detroit, the Red Wings locked up their ninth Central Division championship in 10 seasons, holding off a late surge from the Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators.
Speaking of those two teams, the Red Wings may not be done with them after this week ends. The Predators and Blackhawks are right in the middle of things in the Western Conference and both could end up as a potential first round opponent. In fact, fourth through eighth place in the conference are separated by four points. That's a lot of teams that can move up and down the standings this week. Below are the five most likely contenders to draw the Wings in the first round.
Record vs. Detroit this season: 2-0-2
The Red Wings' playoff opponents from last season are the least likely of the five teams to face them in the first round this year, but anything can happen in the West at this point. All three divisions have been clinched, so the Coyotes can't move up past fourth place in this last week, but they'll still be playing for home ice in the first round.
Phoenix is very much a scrappy team in the sense that they don't wow you one way or another. Defenseman Keith Yandle leads the team with 59 points, which is a top reason many consider him a Norris Trophy candidate. Fan favorite and captain Shane Doan leads the team in goals with just 19.
The big obstacle on this team is the 6-foot-3, 208-pound monster between the pipes, Ilya Bryzgalov. The man has been a menace for opposing teams since he became the starter in Phoenix three years ago, winning 129 games over the past four seasons while starting at least 55 games each year. Last year, he started an astounding 69 times while going 42-20-6 with a 2.29 goals against average. His numbers are slightly down and his GAA has ballooned a bit this year, but there's no doubt he's still among the top goaltenders in the league.
Los Angeles Kings
Record vs. Detroit this season: 3-1-0
Don't let the Kings' success against the Wings in the regular season fool you. Los Angeles is a beatable squad and can have a major meltdown on the defensive side of the red line as their 6-1 drubbing at the hands of the San Jose Sharks on Monday showed. The Red Wings also whipped the Kings in their only victory of the year over LA, a 7-4 win in Los Angeles last month.
As is the case with Phoenix, goaltending will determine how far the Kings go in the West. Jonathan Quick is the workhorse in net with a 34-20-3 record and a 2.24 GAA, but he can be beat. However, Quick can be one of the toughest in the league to play against when he's on top of his game; Detroit knows this first hand after he turned aside 51 shots in a 5-0 win on Dec. 13.
On the offensive side, Anze Kopitar and Dustin Brown are the two guys to keep your eye on when they're on the ice. Kopitar won't break his career high of 81 points set last season, but he already has a career high in assists. Leading goal-scorer Brown likely won't surpass his career-high either, but the man is consistent: Brown has scored at least 24 goals in each of the past four seasons.
Correction: Kopitar is out for the season after suffering an ankle injury against Colorado on March 26. The Kings initially hoped Kopitar would be ready in six weeks, but that won't be the case. The offense for Los Angeles will heavily rely on Brown in the coming weeks.
Record vs. Detroit this season: 4-1-1
If the season ended right now this is the matchup the Red Wings would get in the first round, and Red Wings fans aren't too thrilled about the prospect to say the least. Nashville has had their way with the Winged Wheel this season, despite a 4-3 setback last Saturday that essentially put the Predators out of the Central Division race.
Nashville is not a very high-scoring team; in fact, of the eight teams currently in the playoff race, Nashville has the lowest goal total of all with 209 on the year. No Nashville player has broken 50 points on the year yet, but they do have some consistency as five players are over 40 points.
That said, Nashville's M.O. is not offense, it's their defense. Remember that thing I said about being the lowest scoring team in the playoffs a little while ago? Reverse that for the defensive side. Nashville has allowed the second-least amount of goals in the league with 188; only first-place Vancouver has allowed less with 181. Most of that is due to the behemoth in net, Pekka Rinne. Rinne sports a modest 31-21-9 record, but he's second in the league with a 2.13 GAA. Against Detroit this year, he's 3-1-1 with a 2.18 GAA.
Record vs. Detroit this season: 1-3-0
If you're going by regular season record of preferred playoff opponents, this is the team you'll want to pick. Detroit was very good against the Ducks this year, including two early season shutouts and a buzzer-beating goal by Pavel Datsyuk in a third contest. The only loss the Red Wings suffered at the hands of the Ducks was a controversial 2-1 overtime game on March 2 that saw Bobby Ryan score on a penalty shot to win the game.
Unlike the Coyotes and Predators, the Ducks can score. Where Nashville only has five players in the 40-point range, Anaheim has five with at least 60, led by the NHL's leading goal-scorer, Corey Perry. Anaheim features four players in the NHL's top 25 in scoring, which surprisingly includes elder statesman Teemu Selanne. Still chugging along at 40 years old, Selanne's nowhere near where he used to be in his 100-point season days, but he still packs a scoring punch. His 76 points this year are the most he's had since 2007.
Also unlike the previous teams, goaltending is an uncertain issue for the Ducks. Jonas Hiller seemed the logical choice in net for this team, but that area is a bit murky with his vertigo diagnosis. It's pretty hard to play goalie when you can't even stand up straight. Hiller played against Nashville on March 24 but was pulled after just 12 minutes. Ray Emery in the meantime has made a strong return to the NHL, winning his first six starts with the Ducks. If Hiller doesn't appear ready to play in the postseason, the Ducks won't hesitate to use Emery.
Record vs. Detroit this season: 3-1-0 (two games remaining)
Like the Predators, this is another team that the Red Wings don't want to face in the playoffs, at least in the first round. Detroit has struggled mightily against the defending champions and hasn't beaten them since Oct. 9, their fourth game of the season.
The champs looked like they might miss the playoffs early on after they gutted their roster due to salary cap issues. But as champions do, they've survived by playing well after the All-Star break and nearly made a run at the Wings in the Central before Detroit closed the door on Sunday. The Blackhawks will always be a serious threat in the West as long as the trio of Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp stays healthy. That, however, is a big if, as Sharp has been lost to injury since March 20 and the Blackhawks have struggled recently without him.
And since we're talking about potential Red Wings playoff opponents, what has gotten into former Wing Tomas Kopecky? Kopecky has nearly doubled his career-high point total this season and has scored four goals in the first four games against the Wings this season.
Like Anaheim, goaltending is a big question coming into the playoffs for the 'Hawks. Corey Crawford has played extremely well this season, but he has never played meaningful time in an NHL playoff game and will be Chicago's third different starting playoff goalie in as many years. Antti Niemi played stellar in net last year and won the Cup for Chicago; they'll need Crawford do the same if they plan on repeating.
The Rest of the West
Calgary Flames: The standings say Calgary is just one point out of a playoff race, but they have only two games left and would need a lot of help from Chicago to make it in. Even if they did make it, it would be highly unlikely they'd climb far enough to play Detroit in the first round.
Dallas Stars: If any team is going to overtake the Hawks, it's going to be the Stars. Dallas has four games left and sits three points out, plus they have a favorable schedule. Detroit and Dallas likely won't meet unless both Anaheim and Chicago tank.
Minnesota, St. Louis, Columbus, Colorado, Edmonton: Better luck next year guys. This bunch has already been eliminated from the race, so I don't know why I'm even mentioning them. Okay, I'll stop now, seriously.
The first five teams I mentioned (Phoenix, LA, Nashville, Anaheim, Chicago) are going to be the final playoff teams in my opinion. But, their positioning in the West is certainly not set in stone; the Blackhawks could very well move up a couple of spots and the Coyotes could move down a few. With only three to four games left for these teams there's not a whole lot of wiggle room, but there's enough to shake up the standings in the last week.