March 09 2012 01:55PM
We know today where the Vancouver Canucks are likely to finish in the Western Conference. They may not technically have clinched the Northwest Division crown at this point, but with an 18-point gap separating them from second-ranked Colorado, that’s simply a formality. They also don’t have a mathematical lock on the first or second spot in the West, but with a 13-point gap between them and the current Pacific Division leader (Dallas), that’s another mere formality.
With so much certainty for the Canucks, who are their likely playoff opponents?
Yes, the ever-popular Chicago Blackhawks are in the mix again. Currently sixth in the West, if the Blackhawks maintain their current position they’ll have a nice, cushy first-round series against whoever wins the Pacific division. Of the teams currently vying for that title, only the San Jose Sharks (currently third in the Pacific) have a better goal differential (plus-14) than the ‘Hawks. Still, the likeliest outcome is that the ‘Hawks finish in sixth and end up as a potential second round opponent for whoever wins the West.
Pacific Division Also-Rans
Dallas, with 79 points, currently holds the Pacific Division lead, but Phoenix (76), San Jose (75), Los Angeles (74) are all still in the running. Anaheim (68 points) is probably too far back to take the division lead, but they’ve been one of the NHL’s best teams in 2012 and could make the playoffs.
Of those teams, the matchup to avoid is obviously San Jose. San Jose may be trailing in terms of points but by goal differential (plus-14) they’re the only team with some positive distance between themselves and the break-even mark. Phoenix and L.A. are both plus-2 teams, Dallas is even, and the Ducks are minus-20 thanks to their terrible start to the year.
Northwest Division Also-Rans
Though unlikely, the Northwest Division could sport a second playoff team, with Colorado (74 points) and Calgary (72 points) the most likely contender to squeak into the playoffs. Neither team is a particularly strong bubble team; the Avs have a minus-5 goal differential and the Flames are sitting at minus-21.
The Rogues' Gallery
There are two opponents that the Canucks would clearly prefer not to play: San Jose and Chicago. The Sharks are better than their record, while the Blackhawks are a strong team let down by shaky goaltending – and all it takes is one goalie to catch fire for that situation to change. From a Vancouver perspective, ideally the Sharks would take the Pacific and face the Blackhawks in the first round.
Aside from that, there really isn’t a formidable team in the Western Conference bubble race. The Ducks are hot, the Coyotes and (especially) Kings are good defensively, but none of them are particularly fear-inspiring. The likely outcome is Vancouver facing a comparatively weak team in the first round of the playoffs.
Of course, while an easier first round is always preferable, it’s hardly necessary. The Canucks faced one of the toughest eighth seeds in recent memory last year when they played Chicago – the Blackhawks had a plus-33 goal differential on the season, which was the third best total in the West and just two goals worse than second-best San Jose. Despite that tough initial challenge, Vancouver made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals.