The Stanley Cup picture in the Western Conference was just coming into focus when the final period before the 2016 NHL All-Star break commenced Wednesday, Jan. 27. The Los Angeles Kings were up 3-2 on a Colorado Avalanche team that was playing through illness for the second time in two days.
The Kings were looking at a four-game lead in the Pacific Division and within half a game of the suddenly cool Chicago Blackhawks and Dallas Stars for the top seed in the Western Conference. The Avalanche were looking at a pair of losses dropping them more than a game back of two Central Division rivals for the two at-large bids to the Stanley Cup playoffs out west.
Then Colorado scored two goals and won in regulation. Welcome to hockey in the Western Conference this 2015-16 NHL season.
The resulting picture (shown in order of where they would be seeded for a potential Western Conference final) is far less clear but provides far more drama. Every single seed will be undetermined when April starts.
Los Angeles now has only a three-game lead over the red-hot San Jose Sharks (one controversial penalty shot and 12.2 seconds away from victory in the only two losses in their 10-game point streak) in the Pacific Division. The Nashville Predators and Minnesota Wild now hold just half-game leads for the wild cards over a team gritty enough to overcome a deficit despite illness and fatigue—including both from the backup goalie that played consecutive nights.
The Kings have a chance to catch the Blackhawks and Stars thanks to the weak Pacific Division. So far this 2015-16 NHL season, the Central Division is collectively 40 more points above .500.
Dallas has the higher point percentage but will have to play three more games down the stretch and lacks the closing ability of the three-time Stanley Cup champions. Chicago should be able to claim the Central Division title and both teams should be able to hold off Los Angeles given the return to Pacific Division contention by the other California teams.
That contention has come too little, too late for the Anaheim Ducks. The Sharks are probably not good enough to take the Pacific Division crown from the Kings given only one game between the teams remains on the 2015-16 NHL season.
In fact, Anaheim should catch San Jose for second place in the final week of the season. Home-ice advantage for the teams on a collision course for each other in the first round of the 2016 Stanley Cup playoffs may very well come down to the last day, but the three-time Pacific Division champions are more likely to claim it by finishing narrowly in second place.
Meanwhile, the St. Louis Blues will battle both of them for the fourth-best record in the Western Conference. They have not been an impressive team this 2015-16 NHL season but have remained near the top of the best division in hockey. They seem likely to earn the Central Division’s final guaranteed spot, but a tougher schedule means the Ducks and even Sharks probably finish with a better record.
With the resurgence of Anaheim and San Jose, the Arizona Coyotes fall back to earth in time to make a move or two for the future at the trade deadline. The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks should come to the same conclusion by that time because neither was able to get much above .500 when more of the Pacific Division was struggling.
That leaves the wild cards for the Central Division. The three-way battle for the two spots is almost even, with the Wild trending down right now while the Avalanche and Predators are trending up. That would seem to make picking the final two spots a matter of who finishes ahead of whom rather than which teams make it in.
However, there are other variables. Colorado is young and less likely to make a move for now at the trade deadline than its veteran Central Division rivals. There is also a reason both of them were in the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs and predicted to return—they look better on paper. Nashville seems the best choice for the top wild card since it is the one headed in the right direction—partly because a move they already made is paying off and partly because Pekka Rinne may have found his game (one goal allowed in each of last three starts).