By stuhackel
March 22, 2012

Chasing the Stars in the Pacific Division, Joe Pavelski and the enigmatic Sharks control their own destiny. (Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

As the days of the regular season dwindle down to a precious few, the playoff picture has begun to get clearer, but only somewhat. Much remains undecided, including the bottom qualifiers in each conference and the first round seedings.

From a strictly mathematical perspective, only the Blues and Rangers have clinched playoff spots and only the Blue Jackets have been eliminated.

Yesterday, we looked at the East and today, let's take stock of  the Western Conference where, realistically, it appears that the Oilers, Wild and Ducks are close to joining the Blue Jackets in the Also-Ran department, too far out of contention with too few games left for us to believe they can make a serious charge to eighth place.

Beyond that, not much is certain.

As always, hot and cold performances will be key, as will injuries -- just ask the Red Wings. And we can't forget suspensions, either. The Coyotes will be without their captain and catalyst Shane Doan, who will sit for three games after this elbow to the Stars' Jamie Benn on Tuesday.

And on Wednesday, the Blackhawks' top defenseman, Duncan Keith, threw his elbow into the Canucks' Daniel Sedin and will certainly be hearing from Brendan Shanahan as a result.

If you think that these top players would show a bit more discipline at such a critical time in the schedule, you'd be wrong. Sedin, who earlier smashed into Keith but didn't finish the game after taking the elbow, may be out for a while -- and that could be a blow for two teams: Vancouver, because the Canucks won't have him, and the Blackhawks because the severity of his injury may lengthen Keith's punishment.

Another huge factor -- the only one that is certain -- is a team's schedule. Home vs. road games can be a crucial factor, as can head-to-head matchups (in bold below) against clubs that are being chased or held off. So let's take a quick look at who is still alive and the games that remain between now and April 7.

Before we do, it's important to keep the tie-breaking procedure in mind since some of these races are very close and could remain that way to the end. Here are the criteria of how ties in the final standings will be broken.

1. The greater number of games won, excluding games won in the shootout. On, that is the "ROW" (for regulation and overtime wins) column in the standings).

2. This one's complicated: The greater number of points earned in games between the tied clubs. If two clubs are tied, and have not played an equal number of home games against each other, points earned in the first game played in the city that had the extra game shall not be included. If more than two clubs are tied, the higher percentage of available points earned in games among those clubs, and not including any "odd" games, shall be used to determine the standing. Got that?

3. The greater differential between goals for and against for the entire regular season. In the standing,s a victory in a shootout counts as one goal for, while a shootout loss counts as one goal against

Had the Blues beaten the Ducks on Wednesday night and the Canucks not gotten the point for a regulation tie in Chicago, St. Louis would lead the conference by eight points -- making it nearly over. Instead, the margin is five, so we still have a bit of a contest here for first seed.

Blues, 100 points on 46 wins, 42 in regulation or overtime. 8 games remaining: 4 home (Predators, Blue Jackets, Red Wings, Coyotes), 4 road (Kings, Coyotes, Blackhawks, Stars). Plus: They have a decent lead and the conference is theirs to win or lose. Minus: Other than the Columbus game, all of their remaining opponents are still in the playoff race and should be fired up.

Canucks, 95 points on 43 wins, 36 in regulation or overtime. 9 games remaining: 6 home (Kings, Avalanche, Stars, Flames, Ducks, Oilers), 3 road (Stars, Avalanche, Flames). Plus: Their five-game homestand in the middle of their remaining schedule. Minus: No head-to-head meeting with the Blues, so they'll need help to close the gap, and they have a good-sized deficit in the shootout tie-breaker.

After that race, there's a glut of teams jockeying for spots, including the third seed as winner of the very tight Pacific Division, which is currently led by Dallas. The Pacific teams that finish below the division winner will be battling for a bottom rung spot in the conference and there are five teams fighting for two berths. First the Pacific race:

Stars, 85 points on 40 wins, 33 in regulation or overtime. 9 games remaining: 4 home (Canucks, Flames, Sharks, Blues), 5 road (Flames, Oilers, Canucks, Sharks, Predators). Plus: An edge on all of their pursuers in the shootout tiebreaker, at least for now. Minus: A four-game road trip to Western Canada and San Jose.

Kings, 84 points on 36 wins, 31 in regulation or overtime. 9 games remaining: 4 home (Blues, Bruins, Oilers, Sharks), 5 road (Canucks, Flames, Oilers, Wild, Sharks). Plus: Three games against non-playoff teams. Minus: A four-game trip to Western Canada and Minnesota.

Coyotes, 84 points on 36 wins, 30 in regulation or overtime. 8 games left: 5 home (Avalanche, Blues, Sharks, Ducks, Blue Jackets), 3 road (Sharks, Blues, Wild). Plus: A favorable home vs. road schedule with a four-game homestand. Minus: Trailing Dallas in the shootout tie-breaker.

Sharks, 82 points on 36 wins, 29 in regulation or overtime. 9 games remaining: 5 home (Bruins, Coyotes, Avalanche, Stars, Kings), 4 road (Ducks, Coyotes, Stars, Kings). Plus: Favorable home vs. road schedule and a whopping six head-to-head games against teams in their division. When you add the game vs. Colorado, a team that is also fighting for one of the last two conference spots, that makes seven of their nine games against teams that are battling for the same thing. More than any team, the Sharks control their own destiny. Minus: Biggest current deficit in the shootout tiebreaker.

Now let's add the other teams in the running for the final two playoff spots in the conference: the Avalanche and Flames.

Avalanche, 85 points on 40 wins, 31 in regulation or overtime. 7 games remaining: 3 home (Canucks, Blue Jackets, Predators), 4 road (Coyotes, Sharks, Canucks, Flames). Plus: Their 31 ROWs are tied for the best mark among this group of contenders. Minus: They've played the most games, so everyone has games in hand on them.

Flames, 82 points on 34 wins, 31 in regulation or overtime. 8 games remaining: 5 home (Stars, Kings, Avalanche, Canucks, Ducks), 3 road (Wild, Stars, Canucks). Plus: Favorable home vs. road schedule; 31 ROWs. Minus: Fewest wins in the group, which is the first tiebreaker.

The Western Conference also has a pretty interesting Central Division battle going on between Detroit, Chicago and Nashville in the middle of the playoff qualifiers for home ice in the first round. Perhaps we'll look at that race next week. And if you missed it, you can check out the Eastern Conference playoff race here.

Lots of people covered that George Jones song, from the pop singer Jack Jones to the Grateful Dead to Sawyer Brown. But this version by Loretta Lynn may be my favorite.

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