Who has the inside track in the Western Conference wild card race?

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The Western Conference wild card race is setting itself up to be an insane scramble to the finish in the second half of the season. Not only because there are a bunch of teams all jumbled together in the standings, but because several of them are completely volatile organizations that have the potential to do something completely outrageous — and exciting! — in the comings weeks to try and secure one of the playoff spots that are still up for grabs.

Heading into Tuesday night the race features four teams all tied in the standings with 47 points for the last playoff spot. That alone is pretty incredible, even at the halfway point of the season. But when you add in the suddenly fading Colorado Avalanche who sit just three points ahead of that pack, as well as the Dallas Stars who hold the third spot in the Central Division based on a tiebreaker with the Avalanche, and then consider the St. Louis Blues are still somehow lurking around after their terrible start, and you have got seven teams all packed together in what can probably best be described as a log-jam of mediocrity.

Also included in it are the Edmonton Oilers, Anaheim Ducks, Vancouver Canucks, and the Minnesota Wild who will be hosting the Los Angeles Kings (8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) on Tuesday night.

[Related: Should Wild’s future include Bruce Boudreau?]

It is absolute mayhem.

So which teams have the inside track to emerge out of that pile?

First, let’s just take a look at where the standings sit as of Tuesday. The important thing to keep in mind here is that even though the Wild, Oilers, Ducks, and Canucks are all currently tied in terms of their points, the number of games played by each team kind of skews things a little bit and puts some teams a little behind the pack.

Here are all seven teams mentioned, their current point total, their current points percentage, and their current points projection based on that points percentage.

The remarkable thing about the Stars is that they are in as good of a position as they are despite all of the drama surrounding them. Like the rest of the teams on this list they are quite flawed, but the national perception of them (at least recently) is that they are a complete mess because their CEO briefly lost his mind and sounded like an irrational fan that decided he had to rant on the post-game call-in show for no real reason.

Now they are looked at as a dysfunctional organization and are a league-wide punchline instead of what they actually are: A team that probably has a better record than it deserves given the flaws on the roster outside of its top line. They’ve probably overachieved this season. Not underacheved.

[Related: Stars’ CEO’s ire should be directed at GM, not Seguin and Benn]

The Stars, along with the Avalanche, are probably in the best position out of this group even though the latter has hit a wall recently and won just four of its past 17 games. They still have a cushion and a little bit of breathing room between them and the teams on the outside of the playoff picture, and assuming neither one really collapses (or in the Avalanche’s case, continues to collapse) in the second half they should be in.

Both teams are also similar in the sense that they are pretty much being carried by a single line. Fortunately for them, they are great lines.

The real fight comes with the five teams after them, and that’s where thing get interesting because this is where they have to make decisions on whether or not they are legitimate playoff teams and should try to add to their rosters before the trade deadline, or if they would just be chasing a mirage.

On paper the Wild probably have the best and most well-rounded team out of this group, even if it hasn’t played out that way on the ice this season. They have a top coach, a goalie that can be one of the best in the league when he is on his game, and a decently balanced roster. You would like to think they could get this season sorted out and get back on track.

The Ducks are pretty much the Western Conference version of the Buffalo Sabres at this point. Only worse. A team that banked a lot of points early in the season and has badly fallen back to the pack as reality punches them in the face.

In the Ducks’ case it has been an 11-game losing streak that has featured a couple of crushing losses over the past week where they allowed early multi-goal leads to spectacularly disappear. It is kind of remarkable they could go through such a losing streak and still be in contention. Nothing about the way this team plays suggests it is a playoff team, but it does have the one X-factor that could give it an edge in the race. That X-factor of course John Gibson, arguably the best goalie in the league this season.

That is the one position and the one player that can significantly elevate a mediocre team above the rest in a race like this.

But the team to really watch here is going to be Edmonton.

They have the best player in the league (Connor McDavid), they are on the fringes of the playoff race, they have a desperate general manager that is almost certainly trying to save his job, and what is seemingly a playoffs-or-bust mandate from ownership and upper management. After all, you can not keep wasting the prime years of a generational superstar.

The problem, of course, is that even with that generational superstar this is still a team that is probably more than one or two mid-season additions away from even being a playoff team, let alone a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. Can you really risk trading a 2019 first-round draft pick, or your No. 4 overall pick from two years ago (Jesse Pulujarvi) to try and chase what might only be a wild card spot and likely being a sacrificial lamb for one of the Western Conference’s powerhouses?

Doing so would be risking what could still be something that could benefit the McDavid-Leon Draisaitl core in the future for what is basically a Hail Mary attempt at trying to make something out of this season. Those types of trades have not exactly worked out well for this particular organization.

On one hand, a lot of crazy things can happen if you get in the playoffs. A goalie can get hot, the other team’s goalie can fall apart, a superstar like McDavid can go off for seven games and throw everything off course and open the door for a 2017 Ottawa Senators like run.

But you have to actually get in the playoffs for that to be a possibility, and that still seems like it could be a big challenge for this team.

Then we have the Canucks and Blues, who are for all intents and purposes tied based on their current projections.

The Canucks are the feel-good story here because they seem to be ahead of schedule in their rebuild thanks in large part to the rapid development of Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser. But even with those two, and even with their better-than-expected record, they are still only an 82-point pace for the season right now, still have a deficit to make up when it comes to catching the the wild card teams, and still are not that great of a team. Keep in mind that 82-points would have been 13 points short of a playoff spot a year ago, and while the threshold to get in this year will probably be lower than that, there is still a chance that it increases from the 85-point projection it is at now with the Wild. All it is going to take is one of those current Wild Card teams to go on a five or six game winning streak (something they are both perfectly capable of doing) to change the target.

Look at it this way, only one Western Conference team in the salary cap era has made the playoffs with less than 90 points (the 2015-16 Wild made it with 87 points). Reaching the 90-point plateau would require Vancouver to play at a .614 points percentage over its remaining 35 games. This is a team that has played at a .500 pace over 47 games.

Then there are the Blues, winners of five of their past seven and 11 of their past 17, trying to dig themselves out of their slow start. This seems like a case of too little, too late. Goaltending is still a big issue and the they just seem to have put themselves in too deep of a hole to make up that much ground.

So that is where every team stands and what is ahead of them.

If you are a Stars or Avalanche fan, you should be somewhat comfortable. If you are a Wild fan perhaps cautiously optimistic. If you are fan of the other teams, you should hope your team does not do something drastic and could potentially damage the long-term outlook of your team.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Buzzer: Another shutout for Jarry; Draisaitl puts Oilers back in first

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Three Stars

1. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins. Another big win for the Penguins on Friday night, and they owe this one to Jarry as he recorded his second consecutive shutout and stole the show in Phil Kessel‘s first visit back to Pittsburgh as a visiting player since the offseason trade. Jarry has been getting the bulk of the starts over the past couple of weeks and is making a pretty convincing case to keep getting them as he improved his season save percentage to .942 with Friday’s win. He has stopped all 61 shots he has faced over the past two games and has won six of his past seven appearances.

2. Leon Draisaitl, Edmonton Oilers. Thanks to the Arizona Coyotes’ 2-0 loss in Pittsburgh, the Oilers were able to jump back ahead of them for first place in the Pacific Division with their 2-1 win over the Los Angeles Kings. Draisaitl was again one of the big impact players for the Oilers by factoring into both of the team’s goals. He opened the scoring in the first period by banking a shot in off of Kings defender Drew Doughty, then set up Alex Chiasson‘s game-winning goal just a few minutes later. With his two points he takes over sole possession of the league lead in the scoring race with 53 points, moving one point ahead of his teammate — and linemate — Connor McDavid, who now has 52 points. No other player in the league has more than 44 points right now.

3. Jakub Vrana, Washington Capitals. Vrana continued his hot streak — and great season — on Friday with a pair of points, including the game-winning goal, in the Capitals’ 3-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks. He now has at least one point in seven of his past nine games, including three multi-point games. His goal on Friday was already his 15th of the season and has him on pace for close to 40 goals this season.

Other notable performances from Friday

  • Shea Weber was great for the Montreal Canadiens in their 2-1 win over the New York Rangers, but he also had a painful night by taking a puck right to the face. Read all about it here.
  • Alex DeBrincat scored for the second game in a row (his seventh goal of the season) as the Blackhawks were able to get a 2-1 shootout win in New Jersey. Corey Crawford was also great in net for the Blackhawks, stopping 29 out of 30 shots throughout regulation and overtime three out of five shots in a five-round shootout.
  • Mikko Koskinen stopped 35 out of 36 shots for the Oilers in their win over the Kings.

Highlights of the Night

Nate Thompson gives the Canadiens the lead with his game-winning goal against the Rangers.

When you record consecutive shutouts you probably have a lot of big saves on your individual highlight reel, and this was probably Jarry’s best of the night on Friday against the Coyotes. This helped protect what was at the time a one-goal lead.

The Blackhawks were 2-1 shootout winners in New Jersey and it was rookie Kirby Dach scoring the winning goal in the fifth round on this slick move.

Blooper of the Night

This could have been a problem for Capitals goalie Braden Holtby as he nearly put the puck in his own net.

Factoids

  • The past two days have seen almost every game across the NHL be decided by just a single goal. The only two that have been decided by more than one goal were only decided by more because of late empty net goals. [NHL PR]
  • Claude Julien moved into a tie for sixth place on the Canadiens’ all-time coaching wins list on Friday night. [NHL PR]
  • The Oilers’ power play is one of the big reasons they are in first place in the Pacific Division so far this season. [NHL PR]

Scores

Pittsburgh Penguins 2, Arizona Coyotes 0
Montreal Canadiens 2, New York Rangers 1
Chicago Blackhawks 2, New Jersey Devils 1 (SO)
Edmonton Oilers 2, Los Angeles Kings 1
Washington Capitals 3, Anaheim Ducks 2

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Canadiens’ Shea Weber bloodied after blocking shot with his face (Video)

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The Montreal Canadiens picked up a hard fought (and much needed) win in New York on Friday night by knocking off the Rangers, 2-1, thanks to a late goal from Nate Thompson with a minute to play in regulation.

It was a painful win for captain Shea Weber.

He was once again a workhorse on the Canadiens’ blue line, playing a game-high 24 minutes, finishing as a plus-one, attempting five shots, and blocking five in the defensive zone. One of those blocks in the first period left him bloodied as he slid to the ice and was hit directly in the face by a shot from Rangers center Ryan Strome.

You can see the play in the video above. He somehow did not miss a shift after that play.

Weber has been one of the consistent bright spots for the Canadiens this season and is showing that he can still be a dominant, impactful player. His biggest problem the past few years has been staying healthy enough to remain in the lineup so he can make that impact. So far this season that has not been a problem. He already has 23 points (nine goals, 14 assists) in the Canadiens’ first 30 games this season while posting some of the best possession numbers of his career. His 0.76 points per game average would also be the highest mark of his career.

The Canadiens’ win on Friday was only their second in their past 11 games.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Hurricanes remain ‘hopeful’ for a Justin Williams comeback

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When Justin Williams announced in September he would be “taking a break” from hockey, he didn’t shut the door entirely on a possible comeback at some point this season.

“Because of my current indecision, and without the type of mental and physical commitment that I’m accustomed to having, I’ve decided to step away from the game,” wrote the 38-year-old Williams.

With the Hurricanes sitting in an Eastern Conference wild card and only two points away from a top three spot in the Metropolitan Division, adding a veteran goal scorer like Williams would only help. What he brings on and off the ice is immeasurable, and it was clear last season just how valuable he was to a budding young team. The team is hopeful he’ll return to play and are keeping the lines of communication open.

“We continue to talk with him. I think he’s working out a little bit more on his own right now,” Hurricanes GM Don Waddell told the team website this week. “I think he’s going to start coming to the gym a little more. That’s a positive sign. What that end result is yet is still a mystery to all of us, but we’re hopeful that maybe there is an opportunity there to have him come back.”

Waddell isn’t the only one who’s unsure of a Williams return. Williams himself sounds like he’s been back and forth on what his future holds, according to head coach Rod Brind’Amour.

“I don’t know. I think we’re getting closer to a time where if he doesn’t, then he’s not,” Brind’Amour said. “He’s got to get in game shape and do all that, so there’s a time frame for that. There’s still time for that. … We talk quite a bit. We mostly talk about kids and how’s coaching going. I’ll ask if he’s staying in shape or getting in shape, and he’ll some days say, ‘Yeah,’ and then say, ‘Ah, maybe.’ So, we’ll see.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Kessel returns to Pittsburgh trying to find his game for Coyotes

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When the Arizona Coyotes acquired Phil Kessel from the Pittsburgh Penguins back in August (for forward Alex Galchenyuk and defense prospect Pierre-Olivier Joseph) it gave them the type of player the organization had been lacking for years: a bonafide star forward, and one that was capable of scoring at a level that no Coyotes player had reached in close to a decade.

For a team that was just a couple of games away from the playoffs a season ago — despite an absurd season-long run of injuries that consistently decimated the roster — it was the type of move that could not only generate excitement within the fan base (it did, and they have the season ticket sales to prove it), but also give the team the last extra push it needed to get over the hump and end what is currently a seven-year playoff drought.

With Kessel set to make his first visit to Pittsburgh since the trade on Friday night, the Coyotes have put themselves in a great position to end that drought, sitting on top of the Pacific Division after 30 games thanks to their 3-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Thursday.

What is perhaps most surprising about their current spot in the standings is they have done it while getting minimal offensive impact from Kessel, even with his two-goal effort in Thursday’s win.

The early numbers are kind of staggering given the high bar Kessel has set for himself over the years offensively.

  • His six goals are his fewest through 30 games since his rookie year in 2006-07 (five goals).
  • He has been held without a goal in 26 of the team’s first 30 games.
  • He has just one even-strength goal on the season, with the other five coming on the power play (including both goals on Thursday — one of which was also an empty-net goal).
  • He is on pace for just 16 goals over 82 games. If he does not improve on that it would be his lowest total since his rookie year (11) and the first time since 2007-08 (his second year in the league when he missed 10 games) he did not top 20 goals in a season.

Some decline in his overall production should have been expected.

Not only because he is another year older (32) and another year away from his prime, but because he went from playing on a veteran, star-laden roster in Pittsburgh that plays one of the most up-tempo styles in the league, to a young Arizona team that, while talented, does not have Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin in the middle of its lineup.

Even with all of that in mind this is still a pretty significant drop across the board, but it does not mean all hope is lost for him this season. Like any elite goal scorer Kessel can be notoriously streaky and score goals in bunches (this is not a knock on Kessel; it’s a reality for all players across the league), and it’s also not the first time he’s started a year slow. In his first year with the Penguins back in 2015-16 he had just nine goals through 30 games before getting hot in the second half, then catching fire in the playoffs on the way to the first of back-to-back Stanley Cups.

While Kessel has not exactly lit the world on fire for the Coyotes, the trade has not exactly been a rousing success for the Penguins.

For all of Kessel’s flaws as a player, the Penguins absolutely miss his presence on a power play unit that been mostly dysfunctional this season. A lot of their power play the past few years ran through him, from his ability to gain entry into the zone (a problem for the Penguins this year), to his playmaking, to his ability to finish. Even with all of his struggles in Arizona offensively his five power play goals are more than any player on the Penguins.

They also have not received anything close to what they hoped they would from Alex Galchenyuk, which is starting to become a pretty big issue. He has just two goals through his first 20 games and has mostly been relegated to fourth-line duty. Even with the Penguins missing several regulars in their lineup he has not topped the 10-minute mark in three of the team’s past four games, while general manager Jim Rutherford on Thursday (via The Athletic’s Josh Yohe) that Galchenyuk is not a lock to remain in the lineup when everyone is back. Galchenyuk always seemed like a one-and-done player in Pittsburgh from the very beginning — Joseph is the key long-term piece — but they probably expected more than this.

The funny thing about all of this is the trade has not really done much for either team through the first quarter of the season, but both teams have still managed to put themselves on solid ground.

The Coyotes are healthy and in first place and still have the hope that a Kessel goal-binge is lurking somewhere in the not-too-distant future.

The Penguins are overcoming their injury issues, playing the way they want to play, and finding ways to collect points while they wait for their regulars to return.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.