With about a month left in the regular season, the playoff teams in the Western Conference are becoming clearer. The only thing left in question is seeding.
The Nashville Predators have 12 matches slated on the remaining schedule before the playoffs begin and sit in the first wild card spot in West with a 35-22-13 record (83 points). Nashville has a nine-point cushion on the Colorado Avalanche and the Minnesota Wild, who are both battling for the second wild card spot.
It is almost a certainty the Predators will neither win the Central Division nor fall to the second wild card spot. They could jump to second or third in the Central Division standings, but the most likely scenario is they remain in the first wild card spot.
Not more than a month ago, that spot was essentially guaranteed to play the winner of the Pacific Division given the Chicago Blackhawks and the Dallas Stars’ dominance over the league. However, the Los Angeles Kings’ late-season surge has that assumption up in the air.
Realistic first round playoff opponents include the Anaheim Ducks, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles and the St. Louis Blues. But which team do the Predators match up best with?
The Predators certainly do not want to play the past two Stanley Cup champions Chicago or Los Angeles. St. Louis has dominated Nashville this season, winning four of five contests. And Anaheim has been the best team in the league since Dec. 21 with a 26-7-1 record.
That leaves the Stars, who have been a mediocre 13-12-6 since the new year.
Dallas has a couple of the most elite scorers in the game in Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Benn, who won the scoring title last season, ranks second in points with 77 (34 goals, 43 assists), and Seguin is third with 72 (33 g, 39 a). Nashville’s defense corps would have their hands full.
However, the Stars’ goaltending inefficiencies make them one of the least formidable opponents in the Western Conference. Since Jan. 1, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi have simply been horrible. Lehtonen is 7-8-2 with a 3.03 goals-against average and a .902 save-percentage, and Niemi is 6-7-4 with a 3.61 GAA and a .873 save-percentage. Teams usually do not go far without a solid goaltender, and it does not appear that the Stars have one.
The Predators and the Stars will play each other twice — both in Dallas on Mar. 29 and Apr. 9 — before the regular season ends. While Dallas has already won two of the first three match-ups this season, the upcoming pair of games will be a good measuring stick to how a potential playoff series would turn out.
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Colin Fitts is a Nashville Predators staff writer and is a credentialed media member of the Chicago Wolves. From Nashville, Tennessee, Colin majors in journalism and public relations at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter, @FittsTHW. Email: 22fitts [at] gmail [dot] com.