After I broke down who the contenders and pretenders in the Eastern Conference, it’s time to turn our focus to the other side of the continent. The Central division clearly holds power over the Atlantic division, at least in terms of depth. Without further adeiu, here we go:
Not many expected the Flames to be in the playoff hunt. The Flames have dominated their own division, to the tune of a sizzling (yes, the pun was intended) 14-3-1 record versus Pacific division opponents. Despite owning the best differential in their division, Calgary isn’t built to be a playoff team. The only win 46.7% of their faceoffs, which ranks 28th in the league. The lack of wins off the draw leads to a severe dearth of possession. Calgary’s Corsi For per 60 minutes currently sits at 48.9, while their Corsi Against per 60 is an ugly 61.6.
A lack of possession will catch up with the Flames come playoff time. In order to compete with the likes of Chicago and St. Louis, Calgary will need to take some pressure off of goaltender Jonas Hiller and be able to operate with the puck. The Flames are tied for the highest winning percentage when outshot (.625%). During a seven game series, the odds of being able to defeat a (likely) higher seed while being outplayed are about as slim as Phil Kessel back-checking. It just doesn’t happen. Unless the Flames can hold control of the puck more, don’t expect them to put up much of a fight if they qualify for the playoffs.
San Jose Sharks
I almost feel bad for these guys. The Bay Area team lacks an identity ever since General Manager Doug Wilson declared the team was in a rebuilding mode, despite keeping the core together and adding noted goon John Scott. Brent Burns is hybrid forward-defenseman, and the team lacks enough depth across the board to compete with powerhouses like Chicago who can roll four lines.
Now peddling through mediocrity, the Sharks aren’t built to withstand a run to the Stanley Cup. They are the only team currently occupying a playoff spot with a negative goal differential. The Sharks have lost their teeth defensively and offensively (Man, these puns are WAYYY too easy), currently sitting at 18th and 19th respectively in goals against and goals for per game. Their shooting percentage is a cringeworthy 7.14%, good for 25th in the league. The Sharks aren’t exceptional at anything, and their lack of a strength and overall mediocrity will doom them when the playoffs roll around.
The Los Angeles Kings came so close to being listed as a contender. They are going through the motions during the regular season (shocking!) and then will improve the quality of play come playoff time. Same script, different year.
In the Central, there are three heavyweights fighting with each other for control within the division. Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago are all extremely talented teams. However, I’m only going to choose two for the sake of the article.
There is almost too much to like about this team. Pekka Rinne is saving anything aimed towards the 72″ by 48″ frame. Shea Weber is anchoring a defensively strong team, along with Roman Josi and Seth Jones, who have progressed into strong two-way blueliners. This team is incredibly deep down the middle. No team can boast the depth at center that Nashville can. Many of their wings (Olli Jokinen, Craig Smith, Colin Wilson) can also play down the middle. Centers dictate the pace of play and the middle of the ice, easily the most important part of the playing surface.
The Predators don’t have any stars up front to lead the attack. Their goals are a balanced effort from Filip Forsberg, James Neal, a collection of bounce back veterans (Mike Ribiero) and sudden not-so-depth players (Craig Smith, Colin Wilson). Nashville finds ways to win. When trailing first, Nashville wins 54.2% of the time. They are one of four teams who win over 50% of their games when trailing first. When they score first, the Predators win 85% of the time, also good for third in the league. They dominate the Western Conference, owning a sterling 21-5-4 record. When playing five on five, the Predators pace the league with a 1.52 goals for/against ratio. This team is firing on all cylinders, which should put some fear into the rest of the league.
This is my pick to win the Stanley Cup finals. They were when the season started, and they still are now. They are a complete team. Corey Crawford has proven that he is capable of winning a Stanley Cup. Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson and company hold down the fort on the back end. The offense can burn opponents in multiple different ways, usually involving crisp passing. This is a well coached, proven team that is capable of winning it all again.
If Chicago has a lead, don’t expect the opposition to be able to mount a comeback. Other teams are jealous of the Hawks’ ability to close out games. If Chicago is winning after the first period, they win 93.8% of the time, leading the league in that statistic. When leading after two periods, the Blackhawks have not lost. Head Coach Joel Quenneville’s team is outshooting teams by six shots per game, and have a 1.24 even strength goals for/against ratio. With a lineup full of well-coached, talented players no team should want a date with the Blackhawks in the playoffs.
Agree or disagree with the list? Comment below!
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