Monday, April 11, 2022

Weekend rankings: The West is chaos (but fun), the Leafs are good (but maybe not good enough) and the Red Wings are confusing

Last week, we talked about the Eastern Conference, and how the eight playoff teams are so good that the stretch run feels kind of boring. Almost everyone is a legitimate contender, so none of the races really matter, and there isn’t much reason to worry about who finishes where or matches up with who, and nobody is a favorite.

And then there’s the Western Conference.

You want a wildcard race? You’ve got it. You want a clear favorite? Got that too. Want just enough separation between the top and the bottom that there’s the potential for results that feel like real upsets? Yep. How about one team that’s gone over the cap to pack the roster with stars and still might miss the playoffs in what would be the biggest disaster of the season and make 31 other fan bases laugh evilly? That’s weirdly specific, but yeah, the West has you covered.

Heading down the stretch, the West pretty much has it all, except for suspense around the two division winners. We know those will be the Avs and Flames. Beyond that, there’s still lots to be decided.

Let’s start in the Central, where we pretty much know we’re going to get the Wild and Blues in round one, but aren’t sure who’ll have home ice. Both teams are hot, and on Friday we got a head-to-head playoff preview that the Blues took in overtime. The Wild held a 3-1 lead early in the third but let it slip away as the Robert Thomas breakout continues, meaning the Blues are even in points but Minnesota still has a game in hand. Given that both teams are far better at home than the road, the race for second might matter a lot.

The Pacific looks like it could be headed towards an Oilers/Kings matchup that will launch a thousand playoff format complaints but bring back some old-school Smythe Division vibes. The Oilers just went toe-to-toe with the Avs in the rare 2-1 game that was actually entertaining before a one-sided overtime ended and everyone turned it off. Somebody won in the shootout, but that part doesn’t matter as much as two key storylines: The Oilers can hold their own in a low-scoring slugfest with a contender, and Darcy Kuemper is quietly heating up for an Avs team that was already the favorite when he was mediocre.

The Avs, Oilers, Flames Blues and Wild are all locked into the playoffs, leaving four or maybe five teams fighting for three spots. That “maybe” is for you Vancouver fans, and to their credit the Canucks aren’t going quietly with three wins this week. I think they’re out of runway, but tomorrow’s showdown with Vegas still feels meaningful. The Golden Knights absolutely need to make the playoffs, and with six wins in their last seven and Max Pacioretty back, they’ve still got a decent shot. They’re chasing the Predators and Stars for the wildcard spots, but their best chance might be overtaking Los Angeles for third in the Pacific, especially after the Kings coughed up a strong start in yesterday’s loss to the Wild. The Predators got a point in an OT loss to the Penguins, while Dallas took care of business in Chicago.

It’s chaos, the good kind, and the outlook changes pretty much every night. That’s a lot more fun than what we have out East, unless you’re one of those fans living and dying with every result down the stretch.

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