If the website Sports Club Stats is to be believed, the Vancouver Canucks have a 99 per cent chance of winding up in first place in the Western Conference. To be first in the conference would be a wonderful achievement, never mind the home-ice advantage that comes with it.
However, for every one seed, there is also an eight seed team to match up against in the postseason, and, most of the time, these eighth seeded teams are dispatched by their superior rivals quite easily and shrug themselves off to the dregs of the NHL from whence they came.
But, other times, they can be quite a nuisance. Washington put Montreal on the cusp of elimination last year, but the Canadiens won three straight games on fluke bounces and unconscious goaltending to move onto the second round.
In that list, it is Dallas and Phoenix, yes, that Phoenix, who have won two games in Vancouver this season, who are probably the most favourable matchups. Vancouver rolled over Dallas four times this season, a team that slumped in the second half when the percentages (high shooting and high save) started swinging in the other direction and they came back down to earth. Currently, the Stars have a goal differential of 1 and their special teams ratio adds up to 97.2%, under the 100% average. Knowing how important special teams are in the playoffs, that could factor in.
Phoenix is in a similar spot. They lucked out a victory in Vancouver last time, but carry the lowest special teams of the seven teams at 94.3%. Their goal differential is 7 and they've been playing the season on a high PDO (again, shot percentage + save percentage at even strength) of 102%. While Ilya Bryzgalov is seen as a formidable playoff foe, he was rung up last season by a Detroit team that similar in style to the Canucks this season.
Next on the list is Anaheim. The Ducks, of course, are missing Jonas Hiller, and while Anaheim have had their successes against Vancouver, it will be tough for them to continue that path with Dan Ellis, Ray Emery or Curtis McBackup in net. The Ducks have a goal differential of -4 this year, despite a PDO of 101%, a number that is sure to drop considering the Ducks, at even strength, saw Jonas Hiller stop 93% of the pucks directed on him. With their other four goalies? On 625 shots faced, their goaltenders allowed 64, for an EV SV% of 89.8%, which is slightly lower than Brian Elliot's.
Middle of the pack we find Calgary, who boast 99.9% special teams rating, an even PDO and a +11 goal differential. Essentially, if you were to go shopping for a mediocre hockey team, the Flames would be on a 2-for-1 special.
Los Angeles and Chicago each pose different problems, but Nashville is an interesting case. Pekka Rinne is far superior to a replacement level goalie and is among the league leaders in EV SV%, but his playoff numbers dipped last season from .925 to .910, so the Predators' high percentages can be called into question. Their special teams lie at 100.3%, just over average, so, on paper, they certainly look like a team that could regress come playoff time. That said, the Preds have matched up very well against the Canucks this season, allowing just 53.5% of the Canucks' shots to reach target, and they play a boring style that fans would just want to avoid anyway. They're high on my avoid list.
The Kings are an above average hockey team and are probably the second strongest team statistically of the seven, but a big reason for their going this year has been Jonathan Quick, who has been solved by the Canucks last season. Since two of the Kings' matchups against Vancouver were so long ago, we can't exactly use the data to determine how the teams' stack up. Luckily, the play each other before the season is out.
Chicago is the strongest team on the list, who have lost many a man-game to injury this season but have come together at the right time. Critics see this as more of a potential second-round matchup, assuming Chicago upsets whomever they meet in the first round, as a likely possibility. Their place in the standings all year, hovering around the playoff bubble, does not match their goal differential (32). That said, who doesn't want to see the Canucks finally beat the Blackhawks, and play Chelsea Dagger during the handshake? Vancouver have played them well this season if you discount the 7-1 game and saw three strong games from Roberto Luongo against the team that he supposedly can't beat. Will these teams see each other again this year? Time will tell. I'm not scared. Why would I be scared?