Which teams will win the West wild-card races?

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For quite some time, the Eastern Conference’s bubble races seemed confined to a few good teams, while the West wild-card skirmishes felt like they might come down to who would mess up the least.

As March begins, the West’s battles look a little more like those out East, even if the West teams are behind their bubble brothers by about four of five points.

With all due respect to the scrappiness of the Chicago Blackhawks (63 points, 64 games played) and Vancouver Canucks (63 points, 65 GP), the West’s two wild-card spots look like they’re going to come down to two of four teams, in order of their standings positions: the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild, Colorado Avalanche, and Arizona Coyotes.

In all honesty, it’s extremely difficult to parse out who will win out, to the point that you’d probably be best wagering on the standings remaining in this order … mainly because it’s just that close.

All four teams have played 64 games. There’s not a huge disparity in home/road splits, as only the Wild have one extra road game (and thus one fewer home game).

Take a look at snapshots of each team to get an idea of how snug everything is. Again, teams are listed in order of their standings placement heading into Friday’s games.

WC1: Dallas Stars: 32-27-5, 69 points, 64 GP, 32 regulation/overtime wins.

Split: 10 homes remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 4-6-0 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: Tragic, as Mats Zuccarello broke his arm 40 minutes into his first game as a Dallas Star.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Zero left against Coyotes.
  • Two remaining against Wild: @Min on March 14, close season home vs. MIN on April 6.
  • Two home games left against Avalanche: March 7 and 21.

Key stretch(es): From March 5-23, the Stars play eight of 10 games at home.

WC2: Minnesota Wild: 31-27-6, 68 points, 64 GP, 30 ROW

Split: Nine games left at home and on the road

Recent play: Four-game winning streak, 5-4-1 in last 10.

Trade deadline activity: On paper, you’d  think they’d be minuses, as they shipped out more established veterans in Mikael Granlund (for Kevin Fiala) and Charlie Coyle (for Ryan Donato). Yet, Donato’s off to such a hot start for his Wild career (six points in 4 games, one overtime game-winning goal) that those moves don’t seem like such subtractions at this moment. Shipping away Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask a little further out, though? Not much is polishing that one.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two remaining against Stars: Home on March 14, season-closer in Dallas on April 6.
  • One left against Coyotes: At Arizona on March 31.
  • One left against Avs: Home on March 19.

Key stretch(es): Five-game homestand from March 11-19.

Ninth: Avalanche: 28-24-12, 68 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Won last game, 6-2-2 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Pretty quiet, as the Avs settled for a modest addition in oft-traded forward Derick Brassard. Then again, the Senators selling off means that Ottawa’s 2019 first-rounder figures to be quite the future “upgrade.”

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • Two road games against Stars: March 7 and 21.
  • One road game against Wild: March 19.
  • One home game versus Coyotes: March 29

Key stretch(es): After they get through a run that includes three of four road games starting on Friday, the Avs’ schedule is pretty home-heavy, including a four-game homestand from March 9-17.

Tenth: Coyotes: 31-28-5, 67 points, 64 GP, 27 ROW

Split: 10 home games remaining, eight left on the road.

Recent play: Five-game winning streak, 8-2-0 in last 10 games.

Trade deadline activity: Not much.

Considering how hot the Coyotes have been – they’re basically the West’s version of the Carolina Hurricanes – you’d think the ‘Yotes added a big name that “galvanized the locker room.” Sorry, Michael Chaput, but improvements seem to be internal, rather than external.

Head-to-head contests remaining

  • One road game versus Avs: March 29
  • One home game against Wild: March 31.
  • No games left against Stars.

Key stretch(es): The Coyotes are three games in (all wins) to a seven-game homestand, so they have four home games left from March 2-9. They play six of their next eight games at home from March 2-16. After that, they’ll go on a four-game road trip (March 18-24), which puts them at six of eight games on the road from March 11-24.

So, taking advantage of the upcoming opportunities (while mitigating the challenges that follow) will be key.

***

Again, if there are advantages, they are subtle. The Coyotes get the least amount of say, in that they only face the other three wild-card teams two times total, while the other three get four games to “control their destinies.”

Which two teams do you expect to make the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs? Could a team like the Blackhawks or Canucks defy considerable odds by leapfrogging into position? Can any of these teams threaten the Flames, Predators, or Jets in a potential first-round series?

There are quite a few questions to answer over the next five weeks (or so) of hockey, so expect a fascinating finish.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blackhawks’ Boris Katchouk sidelined by ankle sprain

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CHICAGO — Blackhawks forward Boris Katchouk will be sidelined for four to six weeks with a left ankle sprain, the team announced.

The 24-year-old Katchouk played almost 12 minutes during a 3-0 preseason loss to Detroit on Saturday night. He was acquired in a multiplayer trade with Tampa Bay in March.

The Blackhawks open the season on Oct. 12 at Colorado.

The team also said forward Jujhar Khaira is day to day with a right ankle injury.

Ducks’ Urho Vaakanainen crashes into boards, leaves on stretcher

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ANAHEIM, Calif. — Ducks defenseman Urho Vaakanainen was taken off the Honda Center ice on a stretcher after he crashed into the end boards in the first period of Anaheim’s preseason game against the San Jose Sharks.

The Finnish defenseman was conscious and alert with full movement in his extremities at UCI Medical Center, the Ducks said.

The frightening incident occurred midway through the opening period when Vaakanainen smashed into the boards at a dangerous speed behind the Sharks’ net. Vaakanainen appeared to be concentrating on the pass he had just made to Derek Grant, who scored the Ducks’ opening goal on the assist.

Vaakanainen’s teammates came onto the ice and gathered around him as he was taken away on the stretcher.

The Ducks acquired the 23-year-old Vaakanainen from Boston last March in the deal that sent longtime Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm to the Bruins. After recording two assists in 14 games for the Ducks last season, Vaakanainen is attempting to win a top-six role on Anaheim’s defense this fall.

Lightning donate $2 million to Hurricane Ian relief efforts

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TAMPA, Fla. — The Tampa Bay Lightning and team owner Jeff Vinik are donating $2 million toward Hurricane Ian relief efforts.

The NHL team announced that $1 million each will be donated by the Tampa Bay Lightning Foundation and the Vinik Family Foundation.

“This is a tragic situation for many families and communities across the state of Florida, but especially so in the southwest region of the state,” Vinik said in a statement released by the team. “In times like these the most important thing we can do is support one another, and we hope this donation will help families recover and rebuild in the months to come.”

Ian made landfall Wednesday on Florida’s Gulf Coast, south of the Tampa Bay area. The Lightning postponed two home preseason games and moved the club’s training camp to Nashville, Tennessee, during the storm.

Maple Leafs sign defenseman Rasmus Sandin to 2-year deal

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TORONTO — Rasmus Sandin has signed a two-year, $2.8 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the club announced on Thursday.

The 22-year-old from Sweden was the 29th overall selection in the 2018 draft. Sandin had 16 points in 51 games with Toronto last season. He’s played in 88 career regular-season games, with six goals and 22 assists, and has one goal in five playoff games.

“Got a great set of tools,” fellow defenseman Jake Muzzin said. “With experience, I think they’re only going to get better.”

The signing comes as the Leafs’ blueliners been hit hard by injuries. Muzzin has been dealing with a back issue, and Timothy Liljegren recently had surgery for a hernia.

Toronto then lost Jamie Benn (groin) and Carl Dahlstrom (shoulder) in Wednesday’s 3-0 preseason victory over the Montreal Canadiens, pressing forwards Calle Jarnkrok and Alexander Kerfoot into defensive roles for two periods.