NEWS BY DIVISION
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- HPT Blog: Union shies from mediator as talks continue Southeast
- HPT Blog: Union shies from mediator as talks continue Central
- HPT Blog: Union shies from mediator as talks continue Northwest
- HPT Blog: Union shies from mediator as talks continue Pacific
- Most potent top line resides in Jersey Atlantic
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|Pacific Division Playoff Preview|
|Written by Andrew Knoll|
|Monday, 02 April 2012 02:42|
Not only could four of the five Pacific Division teams make the playoffs, but each of those four clubs also still has a chance at finishing in first place. Below is a look at the current state of the four contenders and the one franchise that has been eliminated.
San Jose Sharks, Also-Ran
While Bay Area residents from Sly Stone to J.R. Rider made “the funk” fashionable, it has been anything but for the San Jose Sharks. Defenseman Douglas Murray coined the term during a woeful road trip and, according to him, they have not gotten out of it yet. Just as they showed signs of capability and resilience with a three-game win streak, the Sharks followed up with two losses in which they scored just one goal. They managed to earn a huge win over Dallas on Saturday to stay in the postseason picture. The Sharks face the Stars once more and the Kings twice, giving them unparalleled control of their playoff destiny.
However, should the Sharks reach the playoffs, there remains little indication that they could be a formidable force. While their top players have mostly produced to their capability statistically, cohesion and complete efforts have eluded the Sharks all season. Their penalty kill has remained woeful despite deals to bolster it and their offense has gone cold without warning repeatedly.
The Sharks simply have not looked like the team that has won the Pacific four years in a row, and even then they seldom projected the confidence of a contender. San Jose may find itself at a crossroads in the near future as most of their players are under contract for two more seasons and a disappointing campaign may have turned up the heat under GM Doug Wilson’s collar.
Phoenix Coyotes, Also-Ran
The Coyotes have persevered tremendously this season through a major change in net, injuries on defense and a forward corps that lacks the big names of the other four Pacific squads. Coach Dave Tippett seems to be given perennial consideration for the Jack Adams Trophy as his defensive system thrives despite a good bit of organizational upheaval.
Nevertheless, the Coyotes need the combination of wingers Ray Whitney and Radim Vrbata to click every night to generate any type of consistent offense. Overall, it seems unlikely that they are equipped to handle the variety of situations and unpredictable adversity teams face in the postseason.
Captain Shane Doan and veteran Raffi Torres could be key contributors in the playoffs and their defensemen have coalesced over the past couple of months. Still, the Coyotes seem hard-pressed to deal with a club that can win in a wider variety of ways, the type of team that is plentiful among Western Conference contenders.
Los Angeles Kings, Dark Horse
If the Kings can hold onto their narrow lead in the Pacific Division, they will erase a long stretch of underwhelming offense and overall underachievement. Since Darryl Sutter stepped behind their bench, the Kings have posted a 24-13-9 record and improved considerably their deficient power play and once-anemic offense.
In addition to the coaching change, personnel shifts have aided the Kings. The addition of Jeff Carter via trade has opened up the ice for his teammates and allowed all the L.A. forwards to play roles suited to their style and ability. A pair of Manchester call-ups, Dwight King and Jordan Nolan, have been welcome additions up front, giving the Kings a true four-line squad and greatly reducing their number of meaningless shifts.
Defensively, the Kings have been superb all year, boasting the second stingiest D in the NHL and a potential Vezina nominee in Jonathan Quick. Among the middling Pacific clubs, almost all of whom have designs on the postseason, they seem to be the most complete and almost certainly the most dangerous team in the playoffs. While they are still one of the youngest teams in the league, the Kings have gone into win-now mode and have at least an outside shot at the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup.
Dallas Stars, Also-Ran
While goaltender Kari Lehtonen has played tremendously and may be capable of stealing a series, the Stars lack the depth to go on a deep run. They rely heavily on the top line and versatile, high-energy forward Jamie Benn, who have scored nearly 80 percent of the team’s goals this month. Last season, teams like Nashville and Boston with fierce top pairings were generally able to neutralize one-line offenses.
At one point, the Stars had been lights out on the penalty kill but they have wobbled a bit more of late. Having allowed one power-play goal in 10 games, they gave three in one game to the low-voltage Calgary Flames last week. While either side of their special teams could heat up over the course of a series, sustained excellence may not be in the cards for the Stars.
Dallas has gotten a career year out of Michael Ryder and has him under contract for three more seasons. Sheldon Souray has been a pleasant surprise, logging over 20 minutes and leading the club in plus-minus rating. A new contract for Benn will be the first order of business in the offseason, but Dallas has cap space to spare. It seems like the Stars and their new ownership may be rising in the West, just not this season.
Anaheim Ducks, Eliminated
While the Ducks’ historic surge fell well short, they have plenty to build on going into next year. Coach Bruce Boudreau has succeeded in placing his own stamp on the organization quickly, the Ducks’ core players have picked up their play and Teemu Selanne may be leaning toward yet another return.
Anaheim also boasts promising young players who could bolster their nucleus. Kyle Palmieri had an excellent stretch before he was reassigned to Syracuse for the AHL playoffs while budding defenseman Luca Sbisa and rookie forward Devante Smith-Pelly have each played increasingly large and diverse roles for the Ducks.
At practice Friday, Boudreau praised all three players and talked about the balance of young players and veterans like Selanne and Saku Koivu that have made the Ducks one of the best second-half teams this season. More than anything, there was a sense of genuine exuberance and enthusiasm in practice. During an odd-man rush drill, the players were divided into two teams for a competition that ended with the winning side dog piling onto one another on the ice as if they had just won a playoff series.
Phoenix’s Ray Whitney scored points Nos. 1,000 and 1,000 Saturday and Mike Smith earned his second consecutive shutout in a 4-0 win over Anaheim. Derek Morris played in his 1000th game in Wednesday’s 4-0 loss to St. Louis … San Jose earned a critical 3-0 win over Dallas Saturday after two uninspired losses. They did so without Douglas Murray for the second straight game and despite Logan Couture reaching a career-long drought of 10 games without a goal … Los Angeles finished the week in first place, but deadline acquisition Jeff Carter has been battling an ankle injury. He will miss his third straight game Monday and he will also undergo an MRI to determine the severity of the injury … Dallas had a disastrous weekend, losing 5-2 in Vancouver Friday and 3-0 in San Jose Saturday. They find themselves staring at a second straight year with their playoff berth in question until the final day of the season … Anaheim also fared poorly, following up on their shutout at the hands of Phoenix with 2-1 loss to Edmonton in their final home game of the season. Toni Lydman missed the game with an upper-body injury and Teemu Selanne scored goal No. 663 in what may have been his final game at the Honda Center. He said he will make a decision on his future before July 1.
|Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 April 2012 01:32|