There’s less than a month remaining in the season and the Pacific Division could be won by four teams. The division contenders, all of which are hot and cold, are separated by five points. Who’s the favorite to win the Pacific going into the final stretch of games? Patrick and I debate…
By Ryan Porth
Despite Dallas’ current three-point lead, this division feels like a toss-up right now. With that said, the Stars are playing great hockey at the perfect time – which is why they have to be viewed as the favorite.
I’ve been saying it all year: the Stars are better than everyone thinks. Jamie Benn, Loui Eriksson and Mike Ribeiro lead a solid offensive attack. When Kari Lehtonen is at the top of his game, he’s in the top half of No. 1 netminders around the league. And they have a nice blend of experience and youth, which has served well this season.
The surging Stars are 8-0-1 in their last nine games and are finally a healthy team (aside from the bumps and bruises). Benn is back in the lineup again. Captain Brenden Morrow was recently activated from injured reserve. Others who have been in and out of the lineup this year are healthy.
When this team is healthy, they are effective. They flew out of the gates, starting the season with an 11-3-0 record. After some ups and downs since then, Glen Gulutzan’s gang has gravitated back to the top of the Pacific with 14 games remaining.
Two players that don’t get enough credit are Ribeiro and Michael Ryder. Ribeiro is an underrated playmaker at center, while Ryder is on the verge of his third career 30-goal campaign. Both have been key during the Stars’ recent run.
Of the four teams vying for the division crown – Phoenix, San Jose and Los Angeles the others – Dallas has the easiest remaining schedule. Their opponents’ combined winning percentage in the final 14 games is .522. (Phoenix’s (.573) and San Jose’s (.558) are markedly tougher.)
However, the Stars have a difficult five-game stretch to close out the season. They will play the Canucks, Predators and Blues. But most importantly, the Stars and Sharks have a home-and-home in the final week, which could ultimately decide the division.
If the Stars don’t fall apart down the stretch, like the Coyotes have after last month’s surge to the top of the division, then hockey fans in Big D should be seeing playoff hockey for the first time in four years. Winning the Pacific would be gravy.
San Jose Sharks
By Patrick Hoffman
When it comes to the most consistent teams in the NHL over the past number of years, one will always hear about the likes of the Detroit Red Wings, Nashville Predators, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Vancouver Canucks and so on and so forth.
However, one club that does not get the recognition that it deserves is the San Jose Sharks. While the Sharks are four points behind the division-leading Dallas Stars, because of their experience and talent, they will overcome the Stars and win the Pacific Division at the end of the regular season.
For starters, this team has experienced a lot together. They have won four consecutive Pacific Division titles and have gone to the last two Western Conference Finals together. This team is battle-tested; and while they have not been able to get to the big dance, they have been able to get to the postseason every year since the lockout. Only other team, Detroit, can say that.
If you look at the Dallas Stars, they have not made it to the playoffs since 2008 season. That year, that got to the Western Conference Finals only to lose to the powerful Red Wings. Since then however, they have failed to get into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. As a result, they aren’t battle-tested like these Sharks.
Secondly, this Sharks hockey club has a lot of offensive talent. Joe Thornton (14g-48a), Patrick Marleau (27g-26a), Logan Couture (27g-26a), and Joe Pavelski (24g-25a) can all provide a ton of offense. Unfortunately for the Sharks, they just have not been able to do it consistently throughout the season. That could all change come playoff time.
Lastly, they have a great coach in Todd McLellan. He has done almost everything for franchise except bring them a Stanley Cup. There is no doubt that he can get his club back on the right track, playing good enough hockey down the stretch to win the division.
It is going to be a few exciting weeks down the stretch for this division but when all is said and done, the Sharks have a great chance of coming out of it as Pacific Division champions for the fifth straight season.
Photos credit: Getty Images