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.

Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

UP NEXT

Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

He found a little of both.

The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

“I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

“It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

“That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

“We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

“It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

UP NEXT

Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.

Avalanche spoil Kuemper’s return, top Capitals 3-2 as Bednar sets mark

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
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DENVER – Artturi Lehkonen, Andrew Cogliano and Alex Newhook scored against former teammate Darcy Kuemper and the surging Colorado Avalanche held off the Washington Capitals 3-2 to give coach Jared Bednar his franchise-record 266th victory.

Logan O'Connor added two assists, Nathan MacKinnon had an assist for his 700th point and Alexandar Georgiev made 37 saves in the Avs’ season-best sixth straight victory. They moved into third place in the Central Division, one point ahead of Minnesota.

Bednar, coaching his 500th game for Colorado, improved to 266-185-49 and passed former Quebec Nordiques boss Michel Bergeron for the most coaching victories in franchise history.

Alex Ovechkin returned from an injury to score his 31st goal for Washington. Conor Sheary also scored and Kuemper stopped 23 shots in his first game in Denver since helping the Avalanche win the Stanley Cup in June.

The crowd stood and applauded after a first-period video tribute for Kuemper, who won 37 games in the regular season and 10 more in the playoffs.

The Avs chose not to re-sign Kuemper, who then inked a five-year deal with the Capitals in July.

He had his moments against his former team, including nifty glove saves against Jacob MacDonald and Lehkonen in the second period to keep it a one-goal game. But Newhook’s goal with 4:21 left in the second made it 3-1.

The depleted Capitals dominated the third period but still lost for the fifth time in seven games.

Ovechkin’s one-timer at 9:44 of the third was his 811th goal after he missed his first game of the season Saturday with a lower-body injury. But Washington was without T.J. Oshie, who left to be with his wife for the birth of their fourth child. And Nicklas Backstrom was a late scratch with a non-COVID illness.

Then Tom Wilson exited in the second period after blocking a shot and underwent an X-ray between periods.

The Avalanche, who haven’t trailed during their win streak, solved Kuemper at 8:57 of the first when MacKinnon absorbed a big hit from Dmitry Orlov and fed Lehkonen for his 15th goal and sixth in six games.

Cogliano redirected Kurtis MacDermid‘s shot 2:04 into the second to make it 2-0. Sheary cut the. lead in half when he tipped in Martin Fehervary‘s shot for his 12th goal just over two minutes later.

HE BROKE THE CUP

It also marked the return of Washington’s Nicolas Aube-Kubel, who had 22 points in 67 games for the Avs in 2021-22, He’s remembered for dropping and denting the Cup during the on-ice celebration.

“It’s part of my journey here,” a smiling Aube-Kubel said of his fumble, adding the season was “the best time of my life.”

NOTES: Avs D Cale Makar (upper body) practiced Monday and took part in the morning skate, but missed his fourth straight game. … Avs W Anton Blidh cleared waivers and skated on the fourth line. … Aliaksei Protas centered Washington’s third line in his first NHL action since Jan. 5 and was robbed by Georgiev in the first period. … The Capitals have only four games left outside the Eastern time zone.

UP NEXT

Capitals: Host Pittsburgh.

Avalanche: Host Anaheim.