USA TODAY Sports
With less than half the season remaining, which Western Conference teams will have the challenge of trying to make the playoffs while facing a slate of elite opponents?
Set to embark on a five-game road trip that begins tonight in Los Angeles, the Sharks are smack-dab in the middle of a group comprised by eight Western Conference teams with between 28 and 32 standings points on the season. With the Blackhawks and Ducks likely locks at this point for the conference's top two spots, only six in the Group Of Eight will survive the regular season.
Which ones make it to the playoffs will depend on a number of factors ranging from injuries to puck luck to goaltending to trade deadline movement but perhaps an oft-overlooked aspect of handicapping the playoff race is the quality of opponents teams are slated to face the rest of the way. There are a couple of ways of accounting for team quality. The standings is an obvious one but just because a team has had success so far this season doesn't necessarily mean they should be expected to maintain their pace the rest of the way. For example, Anaheim may have more points than St. Louis but given the significant discrepancy between the clubs' underlying numbers, it's probably unwise to predict the Ducks will be a more difficult out down the stretch than the Blues.
Since shot differential (when adjusted for score effects) is the single best predictor of future results, it makes sense to gauge the adversity in store for teams over the season's second half by looking at the shot differential (specifically, the even-strength shot differential in situations where the score was close, also known as "Fenwick Close") of their remaining opponents. Travis Yost did just that for the Eastern Conference yesterday so here's a look at the strength of schedule Western teams will face from now through the end of the season.
|Current Rank||Team||Games Remaining||Home Games Remaining||Avg. Opp. FenClose|
The spread isn't really all that substantial but the Kings have a butter-soft schedule to close out the year. Not only are 12 of their 22 remaining games at home but the combined possession rate of their remaining opponents is abysmal, in no small part due to the fact that the Kings never have to play themselves. I'd be surprised if L.A. finishes any lower than 4th and there's probably a decent chance they give the Ducks a run for their money atop the Pacific. On the other side of the coin is Phoenix who play just 8 of their final 22 on home ice and face the most difficult remaining opponents of any Western team. In addition, only the Wings and Predators have played more games among playoff-contending teams. Dave Tippett has worked miracles before but it would really be impressive if he can get the 'Yotes into the postseason.
On average, the Sharks will be facing below-average possession teams the rest of the way too. At least on paper, this trip is one San Jose has a good opportunity to crush. After finishing up their back-to-back against the Kings tonight, they'll play three of the worst possession teams in the conference over the next four games. Two of those contests are against the Ducks who seemingly always give the Sharks fits no matter what the numbers say but this is a pivotal stretch of the season in which San Jose has a real chance to solidify their grip on a playoff spot. It all begins tonight in Los Angeles. Go Sharks.
|6th in Western Conference|
Projected Sharks Lineup
Projected Kings Lineup