by Mike Chen on 10/07/08 at 01:38 PM ET
Regular season games have already taken place but for those watching the arms race in the Western Conference, the competition truly begins on Thursday night when Pacific Division heavyweights San Jose and Anaheim go at each other while Detroit showcases its might in a Cup-raising opener. These are strange times for many Western teams, when just about every team believes that it might have a legitimate shot at the Stanley Cup. And for the most part, that’s probably true—squeak into the playoffs and there’s enough parity that you can do some damage. That’s how things go in the wild, unpredictable west.
Of course, the trick is to actually get a playoff spot. That’s a different story.
A quick look across the major hockey prognosticators and previewers shows a general consensus on who’s a Cup contender. For those that fall into that fuzzy area between great and good, well, that’s where we’ve got a little bit of a traffic jam. When you’ve got a mob scrambling for an exit, only a few will get through and some will get left behind. That’s why this will be an interesting race from Day 1.
Assuming all goes according to script, you’ve got playoff spots already penciled in for Detroit, Dallas, Anaheim, and San Jose. If one of those teams missed the playoffs, it’d mean a surprise meltdown of significant proportions. Another playoff spot has to go to the Northwest Division winner (and there’s pretty much no consensus on that other than it won’t be Colorado). That means that three playoff spots remain for Columbus, Chicago, Nashville, Phoenix, and some combination of the other Northwest teams.
Most hockey folks agree: LA, St. Louis, and Colorado are all in different stages of an awkward transition. If you’re betting on youth surging to the top, then the Kings might surprise. If you think that wily veterans can come to the rescue, then the Avalanche might squeak in there. If you’re hoping that chemistry experiments work out, then St. Louis might be your sleeper.
But let’s take a quick tour of the other teams that have a more legit shot at a playoff spot. Columbus and Phoenix made significant moves to address problem areas, Chicago is riding a wave of talented youth, and Nashville continues to be quietly scrappy. In the Northwest, you can argue pros and cons about Minnesota (great team defense, no scoring), Calgary (top-heavy but chemistry problems remain), Edmonton (surging youth, questionable defense and goaltending), and Vancouver (Roberto Luongo, the Sedins, and not much else), but the only certainty is that one of those teams will win the division. The other three will be left in a dogfight. Three playoff spots, seven teams in the hunt. It’s gonna get ugly.
It’s important to note how the schedule has changed. The previous three seasons had division rivals facing off eight times; that’s been cut to six. Instead, there’s an influx of games versus the East. That means there will be more games that don’t directly affect other immediate rivals and less four-point games. This could either make the standings even more volatile or it could allow them to settle faster.
The Washington Capitals proved last season that you can come back from a disaster start to capture the division title. Of course, the Caps had an enormous surge to propel them forward and they had the luck of Carolina being decimated by injuries. And let’s not forget that only a single point separated the Southeast winner and non-playoff teams—and those teams wouldn’t have cut it in the more-competitive Western Conference.
In other words, you can recover from an awful start but only if absolutely everything goes your way. Most teams would be wise to avoid that route. As for the old axiom that games in October don’t matter anymore, well, that just isn’t true anymore. Instead, the smart strategy for every team in the West—even the Detroits and Dallases of the world—is to treat every game like it’s a playoff game. It’s the only way to win the Western Conference and it starts Thursday night.
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