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Inside the Western Conference Standings – December 26

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Every now and then, we’ll take a look at each conference’s standings to see if there are any trends or quirks that explain why some teams are failing and others are overachieving. Obviously, these results will reveal bigger truths once we advance later into this season … but it’s still fun and interesting to take a peek at bigger picture numbers.

Click here for the November edition and click here for the October version.

For this month’s Eastern Conference inside the standings post, click here.

Let’s take a look at some of the trends – both good and bad – in the tough as nails West.

Detroit primed for a slight fall?

The Red Wings are struggling (for them, at least) with a 4-5-1 record in their last 10 and must deal with a month of Datsyuk-free hockey (maybe more). Another bit of bad news: they’ve played six more games at Joe Louis Arena than on the road, so they’ll have to bring their squadron of veterans away from Detroit quite a bit going forward.

I doubt that the Red Wings are in significant trouble, but they might struggle to keep the top seed in the West.

Chicago faces a grind.

After playing quite a few more games than anyone else to begin the season, the rest of the league is catching up to Chicago in games played. The good news is that the struggling defending champs still are in the playoff picture, but it won’t be easy. They will face four more road contests than games at home, but they’ve been OK (8-5-3) away so far.

Los Angeles still has a shot at the Pacific title.

With two less games played and three more home games left than road contests, the Kings aren’t out of the Pacific Division title race just yet. They might need to “learn how to lose” more effectively, though, as their one overtime/shootout loss is the lowest in the West. (Only the Florida Panthers are “worse” at losing, with a big zero in the “otl” category.)

There is hope for Phoenix and Calgary.

While the Coyotes have more reasons for optimism than the Flames since they’ve played in less games (33 to 36) and own more standings points (37 to 33), both teams have more home games in the future. Phoenix will play five more games at home while Calgary will play four more once the season is over.

But not much hope for Columbus.

Conversely, the collapsing Columbus Blue Jackets played 19 out of their first 34 games at home, so they’ll need to play five more road games than home games going forward. On the bright side, they’ve actually been a better away team (8-5-2) than home team (9-9-1) so far this season.

The Ducks have been busy, but inefficient.

While Anaheim’s 40 standings points places them in a virtual tie for eighth place, they’ve played the most games in the NHL with 38 so far this year. St. Louis only needs one win in four games to pass them, while Nashville – the team they’re tied with – got to the 40 mark in four less tries.

In other words, the Ducks’ seem like they’re in better shape than they actually are at this point.

***

After looking over the standings, I feel like the Canucks might have the safest divisional lead in the NHL. The Red Wings should be able to hold onto the Central crown as well, though, unless a heavy amount of road games causes their aging squad to break down.

The Pacific is the division that’s really up for grabs. The Sharks are nipping at the Stars’ heels while the Kings and Coyotes have more home games than road games remaining (and games in hand). Even the Ducks could pose a threat based on their streaky talents, though they are a long shot for the reasons discussed in this post.

While nearly every team has a shot at the playoffs, I think the Blues and Coyotes are two teams outside the top eight who pose the biggest threats to the squads who would make the playoffs if they began today.

While the East seems to be a conference of have and have-nots, no one seems particularly safe in the West. Not even the mighty Red Wings (to some extent, at least).

Cody Eakin plays unlikely hero as Stars even series with Blues thanks to OT win

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Needing a win to even the series with the St. Louis Blues, the Dallas Stars didn’t get off to the greatest start Thursday.

On a rather embarrassing play in the first period of a crucial Game 4, the Stars were caught on the television feed clearly with six skaters on the ice, but still surrendered a breakaway goal on a stretch pass to a wide open Vladimir Tarasenko — 1-0 Blues. Again, not a great start for the Stars.

Sometimes in hockey, it’s apparently not always about how you start but how you finish. The Stars gained strength during the second period on goals from Radek Faksa and Patrick Sharp just 1:09 apart. Early in overtime, Cody Eakin scored his first goal of these playoffs to give the Stars a 3-2 win.

This series is now tied heading back to Dallas for Game 5. For the Blues, it’s a missed opportunity to put the high-flying Stars on the brink of elimination.

Eakin snapped a 17-game scoring drought that stretched into late-March of the regular season by going top shelf, short side of Blues goalie Brian Elliott just 2:58 into the extra period.

Jamie Benn and Patrick Sharp each had two-point nights for Dallas, assisting on the game winning goal.

In a series billed as Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, the supporting cast is taking over for Penguins, Capitals

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PITTSBURGH — The well-traveled defenseman filling in for his team’s most indispensable player scored the first goal. The seemingly ageless center closing in on his 40th birthday scored the second. And the winger who makes a living trying to create space for Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby delivered the overtime winner that brought the Penguins within one victory of a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.

Sure, the stars might be out in the NHL’s marquee playoff matchup. They’re just not the ones shining.

Pittsburgh’s 3-2 thriller over top-seeded Washington in Game 4 on Wednesday night did more than give the Penguins a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. It also highlighted the depth the club has spent months cultivating around Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang.

Trevor Daley skated more than 28 minutes and picked up his first postseason goal in more than two years while serving the ironman role typically filled by Letang, serving a one-game suspension for an illegal hit in Game 3. Matt Cullen, who at 39 has openly wondered if he wants to return in the fall, slipped behind the Washington defense to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead. Patric Hornqvist, who spends most of time suction-cupped to a spot in front of the opposing goaltender, pounced on a loose puck 2:34 into overtime and slammed it by Braden Holtby to end Pittsburgh’s eight-game playoff losing streak in games pushed beyond regulation.

Related: Trevor Daley  is ‘in a good place’ now 

Heady territory for guys considered mere supporting players when the second-ever playoff showdown between Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin began last week.

“I think there’s a great chemistry amongst the team that we have right now,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “To see these guys play as hard as they do for one another as their coaches, it’s a thrill.”

Washington coach Barry Trotz tried to downplay the hype between two of the NHL’s most dynamic players in the run-up to Game 1, stressing there were much more to the longtime rivals than their franchise cornerstones.

Trotz was more right than he knew, only it’s Pittsburgh’s role players who have pushed the Presidents’ Trophy winners to the brink of elimination. Cullen’s two points during the series equal Malkin’s output. Hornqvist has three points through four games, two more than Crosby, though the two-time MVP occupied Holtby’s attention just long enough that the goaltender couldn’t get in proper position to stop the Game 4 winner.

“(Hornqvist) does a lot of the thankless things that help this team be successful,” Sullivan said. “To see him get rewarded in overtime for us is a thrill.”

The Capitals powered their way to the NHL’s best record behind spectacular goaltending from Holtby, a league-leading 50 goals from Ovechkin and a potent power play. All three have taken a significant step back against Pittsburgh. Penguins rookie Matt Murray has been every bit Holtby’s equal, Ovechkin’s 21 shots have produced a single goal and Washington is just 1 for 12 with the man advantage.

Though John Carlson, Jay Beagle and Marcus Johansson have tried to pick up the slack, the Capitals are now on the verge of succumbing to an all too familiar result in the spring.

Trotz pointed to Letang’s absence in Game 4 as an opportunity Washington needed to exploit. Instead, Daley patrolled the blue line and quarterbacked the power play in Letang’s stead while Justin Schultz – playing for the first time in more than two weeks – was solid in his return.

“The other guys were good, too,” Backstrom said. “I feel like they’re a good team. It’s not going to be easy.”

Especially playing a club getting contributions from all over, a far cry from the top-heavy roster that relied so heavily – usually too heavily – on Crosby and Malkin for production during recent postseason swoons.

It’s symbolic of the way Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford rebuilt Pittsburgh since taking over in the summer of 2014 that neither Daley nor Schultz were around when the season began. Then again, they’re hardly alone. Only a handful of players remain from the group that skated off the ice following a Game 7 loss to New York in the second round two years ago, a series the Penguins had led 3-1.

That setback is still fresh in the mind of Crosby and the others who remain. At the same time, most of the guys who surround Crosby in the dressing room won’t carry that baggage into Game 5 on Saturday night in Washington. This is, in many ways, feels like a fresh start filled with fresh faces, even if some are less well-known than others.

“We’ve always found ways to get the job done,” Daley said. “That’s what this team’s been all about. We always found ways to get it done. We started it awhile ago and it’s continuing on.”

 

Report: Ducks interested in Travis Green for vacant head coaching job

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Travis Green seems to be gaining increased attention for available head coaching jobs in the NHL, and the Anaheim Ducks, who fired Bruce Boudreau after a first-round playoff loss, are reportedly interested.

That’s according to a report from Elliotte Friedman during Thursday’s broadcast of Game 4 between the St. Louis Blues and Dallas Stars.

Green helped guide the Utica Comets, AHL affiliate of the Vancouver Canucks, to an appearance in the Calder Cup final a year ago. The Comets were, however, eliminated in the opening round of the post-season this year.

“I think I’m ready,” Green, who has spent the last three seasons in Utica, said recently. “Every job in the NHL is worth its weight in gold, and I would have 100 per cent interest at options with every team in the league. You hope all your qualities are enticing for one of them.”

Related: With four vacancies, the NHL  coaching carousel is ‘spinning out of control’ 

Video: The Stars had six skaters on the ice and still didn’t cover Tarasenko on breakaway goal

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Vladimir Tarasenko can be elusive to the opposition at five-on-five. Apparently that also applies to when the opposition has six skaters on the ice and their goalie still in the crease.

Tarasenko opened the scoring for the St. Louis Blues in Game 4 on Thursday, sneaking in behind the Stars defense for a breakaway goal on Kari Lehtonen. The Stars, by the way, had six skaters on the ice as the puck was turned over in the St. Louis zone.

Despite Dallas clearly having too many skaters, the play wasn’t blown down and Tarasenko found himself in the one-on-one situation. He made no mistake.

(Here’s a screen grab of the turnover inside the St. Louis end, leading to the breakaway. Six Dallas skaters.)

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