Playoff picture clearing up: Coyotes need wins

When the Coyotes take the ice Monday night against the suddenly surging Red Wings, they’ll find themselves three points behind the Stars for the final Western Conference playoff spot. It’s hardly an insurmountable gap, and there are still 17 games left to play.

But while much talk this season has focused on the tightness of the Western Conference race, that once-elusive separation now appears to be taking place.

Colorado and Calgary are slumping and falling, and what was once a six-point gap between 15th place and third is now 14 points. Predicting which teams will make the postseason is a favorite pastime of media and fans as we enter the final five weeks of the season, but the predicting has become a lot easier.

Today, we’re taking our stab at that playoff pecking order. We’ll tell you which teams are in, which teams are out, which teams are near-locks and which teams still reside on the playoff bubble. The depressing reality for the Coyotes? There are only a couple spots up for grabs, making tonight’s game against a Detroit team playing its third game in four nights a must-win in the playoff picture.

THE NO-DUHS

Anaheim: Statisticians have found all kinds of reasons the Ducks can’t sustain this torrid pace. Their shooting percentage will regress to the mean. Rookie goalie Viktor Fasth can’t keep it up. They can’t keep spotting teams leads and then rallying for wins, like they did against the Blackhawks last Thursday. The problem isn’t those stats themselves. Anomalies do tend to flatten out over time. The problem is in the broad application of those stats. A high shooting percentage will likely drop, but you can’t make the leap that the Ducks will, too, even if they did just drop back-to-back home games to Detroit. What if other anomalies crop up? What if other players step up? What if the Ducks just continue to find ways to win? Well, they’re doing just that and we don’t see it ending. This team has all the elements of a Cup contender: Balanced scoring, top-end skill, veteran leadership, great special teams, strong goaltending and yes, a little magic, which is always necessary to win hockey’s Holy Grail.

Verdict: Playoff lock and Pacific Division runaway winner

Chicago: If there were doubts about the Blackhawks’ ability to keep up this incredible pace, they answered it with a 3-1 road-trip that was 5½ minutes away from being a 4-0 road trip before the Ducks did what the Ducks do. Questions will persist about the Hawks’ ability to play a grind-it-out, hard-hitting playoff style – as if that’s the only style available in the postseason – but there is no way this team does any worse than a No. 2 seed with the skill it has up front, the depth it has built on its blue line, the level of play its two goaltenders are turning in and the huge lead it has built in the standings.

Verdict: Playoff lock and Central Division runaway winner

THE NEAR-LOCKS

Minnesota: The early portion of the season had Wild fans biting their nails to the quick as the offseason acquisitions of Gary Suter and Zach Parise failed to pay short-term dividends. But it made sense that the Wild would take time to find chemistry with two such key pieces added to the mix. Minnesota is doing that now, as a recent win at Northwest Division rival Vancouver showed. This team appears to be playing its best hockey as we enter the final five weeks of the season, and that includes the second-best goals-against mark in the West. It’s nice to see hockey thriving again in such a hockey-crazed corner of the U.S.

Verdict: Playoff lock and Northwest Division champ

Los Angeles: Goalie Jonathan Quick hasn’t resembled the 2011-2012 version yet, but Jonathan Bernier has made that less relevant with eye-popping backup stats. Several Kings admitted earlier this week that they had experienced a bit of a Cup hangover and weren’t sharp at the start of the season, but L.A. is steadily climbing the Western Conference standings and there is far too much talent on this club to be sitting home in May.

Verdict: Playoff berth

St. Louis: How much pressure the Blues felt as everybody’s preseason Stanley Cup darling we’ll never know, but it sure took them a while to find their groove. Goalie Brian Elliott’s stunning drop from league-best numbers to league-worst numbers hurt early, as did Jaroslav Halak’s injury, but Jake Allen has stabilized things, the Blues have a terrific (albeit recently slumping) power play and they’re scoring, which was always been the big question mark in past years for a big, bad, hard-hitting team that seems built for the playoffs.

Verdict: Playoff berth

Vancouver: We had serious questions about this team’s depth and resolve when it lost vital forward Ryan Kesler indefinitely with a broken right foot. But the two-time defending Presidents’ Trophy winners made a statement with a 3-0 road trip that included wins in Phoenix, L.A. and Colorado. Goalie Cory Schneider appears to have regained his form after a slow start and the Canucks don’t appear ready to cede the Northwest Division crown and the West’s No. 3 seed to Minnesota just yet.

Verdict: Playoff berth

THE BUBBLE BOYS

Nashville: Wasn’t it just last spring that we were touting the Predators as the model franchise for small markets? Then Ryan Suter left the franchise red-faced, Alex Radulov left for Russia again, Patric Hornqvist spent much of the season on the shelf and Nashville reported for duty with pop-guns instead of live rounds. Goaltender Pekka Rinne has been good again, but not as good as some in Nashville would have you believe, and not good enough to overcome enormous deficiencies elsewhere, like the league’s second-lowest-scoring offense. Working in Nashville’s favor down the stretch is that it plays 10 of its final 16 games at home, where the Predators are 8-2-4.

Verdict: Inside trek to playoff spot

Detroit: Before this weekend’s stunning road sweep in Anaheim, the Red Wings’ streak of 21 straight seasons making the playoffs was in jeopardy. It’s still in doubt given how streaky this team has been this season, but the Red Wings are still the Red Wings, and they won’t go quietly into the night. Goalie Jimmy Howard has been good if not great (doesn’t that description always follow Detroit’s goaltending?), and stars Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have played like stars. We still question this team’s depth and defense, but maybe experience and tradition can win out in the short term.

Verdict: Inside trek to playoff spot

Dallas: We know the Stars have won two straight and sit in the West’s final playoff spot. We know they have some nice pieces in goalie Kari Lehtonen and forwards Jamie Benn, Jaromir Jagr and Ray Whitney. But there’s something about this club’s leaky defense we just don’t trust down the stretch. Dallas always strikes us as a team that just misses the playoff cut.

Verdict: Playoff long shot

San Jose: Remember the Sharks’ 7-0-1 start this season – the one that had the Blackhawks’ start on the backburner? Yeah. Good times. Since then, San Jose is 6-11-5, and a roster full of key players who will enter the final year of their contracts next season (Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Martin Havlat, Dan Boyle) is preparing for demolition. Something has never been quite right in San Jose. It’s hard to say if its leadership, bad breaks or bad chemistry, but the head-rolling will commence this spring, and coach Todd McLellan may be the first sacrifice.

Verdict: Playoff long shot

Phoenix: If you looked at the task at hand on paper, you’d put the Coyotes in the Wait Til Next Year category. Goalie Mike Smith is hurt and hasn’t been anything close to last year’s version anyway. The offense is struggling, the power play stinks (what’s new?), the Coyotes are in 12th place in the conference and, after Monday, they play 10 of their final 16 games on the road, where they are a pathetic 3-8-2. Then you remember this is the franchise that coined the phrase “hockey the hard way.” And you remember that coach Dave Tippett has missed the playoffs just once in nine seasons as a hockey bench boss. And you’re not ready to close the book on this bunch just yet, even if the odds look terribly long.

Verdict: Playoff long shot

WAIT TIL NEXT YEAR

Colorado: The Avalanche hoped that bringing holdout center Ryan O’Reilly back in the fold would spark a playoff push. Colorado boasts center depth as good as any club in the NHL. The problem is, the Avs are Charmin soft on the back end and in goal, having allowed 3.19 goals per game, the second-worst mark in the conference. Colorado could be a dangerous team in years to come with O’Reilly, Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny up the middle, but there are lots of holes to fill before that promise can be realized.

Verdict: No playoffs for you

Columbus: We love the run the Blue Jackets are on. If this club were to make the postseason while sporting the youngest collective roster (average age 26.9 years) in the NHL, it would be everybody’s Cinderella story. Unfortunately, we peeked at the Jackets’ remaining schedule and noticed they play 12 of their final 18 and six of their final seven on the road. Let’s see: an inexperienced team embroiled in a playoff-push with veteran clubs on a road-heavy slate. The canon will fall silent on Apr. 27.

Verdict: No playoffs for you

Calgary: We suspect the news travels a little more slowly in Alberta. How else to explain the Flames’ slow recognition of something everybody else realized long ago: This is not a playoff roster and its time to sell off a couple key pieces to help in the rebuilding project, namely captain Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff. Obviously, the former is a difficult move given all that Iginla has meant to this franchise, but he deserves a chance to compete for a Cup and that won’t be happening any time soon in Calgary. TSN reported Sunday that Iginla has given the club a list of four teams to which he’d accept a trade: Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh.

Verdict: No playoffs for you

Edmonton: We love all that talent the Oilers have up front, but for some reason the Oilers aren’t scoring enough. Sam Gagner and Taylor Hall are doing their jobs, but Jordan Eberle has just been OK and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has just two goals. Edmonton has focused a lot on its defensive game – a wise move given the team’s woeful shortcomings there in past years — but you still can’t call this one of the league’s better defensive teams. With three first-overall picks in the lineup and top defensive prospect Justin Schultz added to the mix, this was supposed to be a year of progress. Instead, it’s going to be another year of drafting high.

Verdict: No playoffs for you

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