The fight over Western Conference wildcard berths is now the NHL’s topic of intrigue. With the Stanley Cup Playoffs curling into view, the Nashville Predators, Dallas Stars, and Vegas Golden Knights have become the protagonists in a five-way battle for a spot in the postseason – and it’s coming down to the wire.
As it stands, the Golden Knights are on the outside looking in. However, they’re just one point back of the LA Kings in the Pacific Division and could conceivably leapfrog them before the playoffs arrive. It would also be unwise to discount the Vancouver Canucks. Bruce Boudreau’s squad trail Vegas by only three points and have nothing to lose heading down the stretch.
The situation in the Central Division is simpler: Joe Sakic’s Colorado Avalanche have already punched their ticket to the playoffs, with the Minnesota Wild and St Louis Blues too far ahead of the chasing pack to be dragged into scrap for Western Conference wildcard places.
With playoff considerations in mind, this weekend promises to be a scorcher in the NHL. Let’s dive into what to expect from our five bubble teams out west.
Nashville Predators’ Playoff Hopes Hinge on Tanner Jeannot’s Form
Tanner Jeannot’s dedication to wreaking havoc makes him a perfect fit in Nashville. The 24-year-old uses every inch of his 6-foot-2, 208lbs frame and has the hands to back up his physical play.
“When you look at power forwards, you don’t necessarily see a ton of them anymore that bring all those elements [of] his game but have a scoring touch,” Predators coach John Hynes said of Jeannot’s style.
“You think about how he scores. He scores multiple ways. He can score on a breakaway. He can shoot it, and he also gets tips and jams and wraps. You don’t see that a ton. You might see a guy like him that does all that, but he’s going to score at the net-front, and that’s it. He’s got a little bit more versatility to him.”
Tanner. Jeannot. pic.twitter.com/syzD8VBvIz
— Nashville Predators (@PredsNHL) April 10, 2022
An outsider in this year’s Calder Trophy race, Jeannot’s emergence as an everyday NHLer has sparked fresh life into the Preds. He has 41 points on the season and leads rookies in goals (24). However, the Canadian’s form has dipped recently. He’s registered just one point – a goal versus the Ottawa Senators – over his last five appearances, with his time on ice dipping to 14:42 in Nashville’s 4-0 loss to the Oilers last time out.
However, the Predators need Jeannot to snap back into gear with an important double-header on the horizon. They host the Chicago Blackhawks at 17:30 on Saturday [16 April] before taking on the Blues at 23:00 a day later.
- Tune into the NHL Network on Saturday and Sunday to watch the Predators continue their playoff chase.
Dallas Stars Must Bounce Back Versus San Jose Sharks
Despite having their backs against the wall, the Stars have proven they can hang with playoff clubs. Dallas are 5-2-2 since the start of the month, a stretch that includes a 1-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning and overtime losses to the Wild and Toronto Maple Leafs.
However, Rick Bowness’ side have a mental block when it comes to beating basement teams. Their two regulation-time losses this month have come against the New Jersey Devils and Seattle Kraken. Whoof.
As a result, Sunday’s 01:00 face-off on the NHL Network carries extra weight. Will Dallas play up to their level against the San Jose Sharks – or is another upset on the cards?
Jason Robertson is the key player to watch on the Stars, the 22-year-old has 70 points (36 goals, 34 goals) playing alongside Joe Pavelski in his second professional season. He certainly has a key role to play in the race for a Western Conference wildcard berth.
LA Kings Risk Dropping into Western Conference Wildcard Berth
Unless the Kings come across a second wind, they’re at serious risk of falling out of the top three in the Pacific Division. Todd McLellan’s team are 4-6-0 since 26 March, a disappointing stretch that includes Thursday’s [14 April] 9-3 defeat to the Avs.
However, the Kings remain in control of their destiny. None of their final six regular-season opponents occupy a playoff berth, with the Columbus Blue Jackets up next for LA.
That isn’t to say the Californian team have it easy down the stretch. Drew Doughty, the team’s alternate captain, is out for the rest of the season, opening a huge hole in the blueline of general manager Rob Blake.
Defenseman Drew Doughty underwent successful wrist surgery today & will not return this season.
He is expected to make a full recovery for next season. pic.twitter.com/vNtgSZ1fS9
— LA Kings (@LAKings) April 11, 2022
“Drew’s timeline will be ready for training camp – see how things progress through summer,” Blake told The Athletic.
Doughty is a major piece of the puzzle in LA, averaging 25:55 of ice time this season. That’s the fifth-highest tally in the NHL.
- Tune into the NHL Network at 03:30 on Sunday to watch the Kings, sans Doughty, go toe-to-toe with the Blue Jackets.
Vegas Golden Knights Set for Connor McDavid Showdown
After hammering the Calgary Flames 6-1 on the road on Thursday, the Golden Knights enter the weekend with the wind in their sails. They face the Edmonton Oilers next, with FreeSports’ live coverage set for 21:00 on Saturday.
Although the Golden Knights have plenty of work to do down the stretch, Peter DeBoer’s side are in the ascendancy following captain Mark Stone’s return to health. The 29-year-old was taken off the injury-reserve list earlier this week, featuring in Vegas’ 5-4 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Tuesday [12 April].
There will be a lot of maneuvering if Mark Stone is back in the lineup. pic.twitter.com/SKbzjUOjEc
— NHL Network (@NHLNetwork) April 12, 2022
Stone’s reintegration into the line-up boosts the Nevada-based franchise’s playoff odds tremendously. He’s one of the best defensive forwards in the sport and can create scoring chances on the transition at a moment’s notice.
However, the Golden Knights are in a race against time – they’re two points below the playoff line with seven games to play. Vegas’ run-in isn’t easy either, they’ve got matches against the Washington Capitals, Stars, and Blues on the horizon.
As a result, Saturday’s contest promises to be must-watch hockey.
Vancouver Canucks at Rivals’ Mercy
While the Canucks are just about still in the playoff picture, Boudreau’s team are heavy outsiders to claim a Western Conference wildcard spot. However, they’re 5-0-0 since 6 April and have a favourable schedule to end the year.
As a result, Vancouver’s margin for error over the next fortnight is zero. They also need results elsewhere to go in their favour.
Will Boudreau’s team still be in the playoff race by the time they return to the ice on Tuesday [19 April] to face off against Dallas at 03:30 on the NHL Network?
Will the LA Kings fall into a Western Conference wildcard berth? Join the discussion by tweeting @BritIceHockey.