The league just wrapped up the All-Star Break and is entering the playoff stretch run. Only three teams in the Western Conference are more than 10 points outside of playoff position (Anaheim, Edmonton and Columbus), leaving 12 teams in a tight battle for the top-eight slots in the conference. With the NHL's Trade Deadline looming at the end of the month, the next few weeks will be key to determining who will likely be buyers and sellers at the deadline.
Even though parity has five teams within six points for the No. 1 seed in the Conference and home ice advantage through the playoffs and another five teams separated by only five points in the race for the No. 8 seed in the conference, there is a big difference between this season and last season. At this point last season, there was a mere nine point differential between the No. 3 - 14 slots in the Western Conference (click here to look back at the Feb. 9, 2011 Conference Notebook
); this year there is an 11 point gap between the No. 6 and No. 9 seeds in the West, including a five point difference between the No. 6 and No. 7 seeds and another three points between the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds.Central Division Notes:
The Central Division has established itself as the premier division in the NHL again this season with 4 of the NHL's top-eight teams by points ... Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and St. Louis all hold leads of at least 11 points over the No. 9 seed in the Conference. If all four make the playoffs it will mark the third time in the last four years that 4 teams from the same division have qualified for the Western Conference playoffs (four Pacific Division teams in 2011, four Central Division teams in 2009) ... Detroit has a heavy back-loaded home schedule with 18 of their final 30 games at Joe Louis Arena. By comparison both Chicago and St. Louis are back-loaded with road games; the Hawks play 18 of their final 30 on the road and the Blues play 20 of their final 33 away from home ... Chicago, Detroit, Nashville, and St. Louis play each other 17 more times this season: CHI/STL-4, CHI/DET-3, CHI/NSH-3, DET/NSH-3, NSH/STL-3, DET/STL-1 ... St. Louis has a daunting 8 back-to-back sets remaining over its final 33 games of the season. By comparison, Nashville has only 4 more back-to-back sets and Detroit has a mere 3 more back-to-back sets this season.Northwest Division Notes:
Vancouver owns an 10 point lead in the Northwest Division race, the largest current lead of any division leader in the NHL ... The Canucks are the only team in the Division with a positive goal differential (+36 goals this season) ... Minnesota, Colorado, and Calgary are all bunched within 5 points for second place in the division (and the No. 8 seed in the Conference) ... Minnesota, Colorado, and Calgary play each other 7 more times this season: COL/MIN-3, COL/CGY-2, CGY/MIN-2 ... Minnesota and Calgary both have heavy home schedules remaining. Both the Wild and Flames have 18 home games left this season ... Colorado has a balanced remaining schedule with 14 home games and 15 road dates. However, the Avalanche have a favorable strength of schedule over the final 29 games with 9 games against teams currently ranked at the bottom of the NHL standings (fewer than 50 points earned heading into Friday night's games) ... Edmonton is in prime position to play the "spoiler" role down the back-stretch. The Oilers are an impressive 14-8-3 on home ice this season and have 16 more home games -- including six against teams just outside the playoff cut line (within five points of the No. 8 seed).Pacific Division Notes:
The Anaheim Ducks are the hottest team in the Pacific Division with a 9-2-1 mark over their last 12 games, however the Ducks still enter Friday night's action 12 points out of the playoff contention ... The top two teams in the division -- San Jose and Los Angeles -- both have road-heavy schedules down the back-stretch of the season. The Sharks play 19 more road games and just 14 more home games this season. The Kings have a Conference-high 20 more road games and an NHL-low 11 more home dates ... Los Angeles also has a challenging 7 back-to-back sets remaining over the final 31 games of the season ... The Dallas Stars have stumbled to an 8-11-1 mark over its last 20 games, including a 3-6-1 record in the last 10, drawing comparisons to last season when the Stars started the season 24-13-4, but finished the second half 18-16-7 to miss out on the playoffs on the final day of the season ... The Phoenix Coyotes have gone 4-8-5 over their last 17 games to fall five points out of eighth place in Western Conference.