The NHL’s Race For #8: Phoenix, Colorado & Calgary

The race for the final playoff spots is on in the NHL, and today TheSportsNotebook will focus in on the Western Conference, where three teams are packed within three points for #8. Phoenix holds the spot down if the season ended today, but Calgary and Colorado are hot on the heels of the Coyotes. Here’s a look at the strengths and weakness of all three teams…

Phoenix (8th, 63 points): The Coyotes are doing it with goaltending and killing opposing power plays, two directly related strengths. Phoenix is 8th in the league at preventing goals, but it’s not because of a great team defensive effort. Goaltender Mike Smith gets hit hard with shots, but he’s stood up with a 92.5 percent save rate. That’s not anything that’s going to put him up there with names like Henrik Lundqvist in New York, Tim Thomas in Boston or Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, but Smith’s performance is enough to take a basically lousy defense and push it into the playoffs. Particularly if he gets some help offensively.

The Coyote offense is fairly mediocre, with both strengths coming on the wings. Ray Whitney is a good passé, while Radim Vrbata is a finisher. There’s not much in the way of depth, nor do defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsen or Keith Yandle contribute much from the backline. Phoenix is playing good hockey right now, having picked up 14 points out of a possible 20 in the last ten games, but there’s still enough time for the cycle to turn back down and they put too much pressure on a goalie who’s not elite-level.

Calgary (9th, 62): Calgary’s also in good form right now, with 14 points out of the last 20 possible. Mikka Kiprusoff does good, albeit not great work in the goal, and while the offensive performance overall is poor (24th in the league) there are some individual pieces that make a run possible. Center Oli Jokinen and right-winger Alex Tanguay are each very good at passing the puck and Jarome Iginla is the best offensive player overall, both finishing and passing. The inability of these individual parts to coalesce into better team performance doesn’t reflect well on the coaching staff of Brent Sutter and the NHL is the most trigger-happy league when it comes to canning coaches. I am hardly attuned to Calgary media, but just based on what you see in this team, one would have to think Sutter needs to make the playoffs.

Colorado (10th, 60): A proud franchise in a good hockey town missed a chance to gain ground last night against Vancouver, but still might have the best chance of making a late-season push. The Avalanche have a bizarre statistical disparity—they rank 8th in getting shots, but 23rd in actually scoring. At this point in the season that can hardly be written off to bad luck, so we have to question quality of shots. But at the very least, it does suggest some activity on the offensive end that Phoenix and Calgary don’t have. A lot of what happens with Colorado will also depend on how games are officiated. While their 5-on-5 game is terrible, they do a credible job killing penalties and an even better job cashing in their own chances on the power play. When you evaluate teams at a championship level I don’t like to see this much dependence on power play scoring. But when you’re talking about mediocre teams just trying to steal wins, this type of strength is a nice X-factor to have in your back pocket.

Phoenix is my home team, at least for a month, while I escape the winters of Wisconsin and chill out here until mid-March and I’m looking forward to going to the Vancouver game when the Canucks come here on February 28. I’d like to say I’ll be following a playoff team. But if the race comes down to these three (Los Angeles is at 65 points and Chicago seems bound and determined to play their way back to this level), I think Colorado is the one that will pull it out.