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Checking up on the Pacific Division

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Year 2 has been an up-and-down ride for Vegas, but how have things fared for the rest of the division?

NHL: Calgary Flames at San Jose Sharks Andrew Villa-USA TODAY Sports

The beginning of the 2018-19 season was not kind to the Golden Knights, as injuries and a key suspension coupled with bad luck and inconsistent play left the Knights reeling early on. The one thing working in Vegas’ favor, however, was the fact that the rest of the division was struggling as well.

That made it possible for a 5-0-0 run in late November to help turn around what had been a semi-disastrous start to the Knights’ sophomore campaign. Vegas now holds one of the three divisional playoff spots with a 21-15-4 record and 46 points.

But the standings remain incredibly tight, and there’s still a little more than half a season left to be played. With that in mind, let’s take a look at how things have gone thus far in 2018-19 for the other seven teams that make up the Pacific Division, the same teams Vegas will continue to fight against for playoff positioning.

Anaheim Ducks (19-15-5)

The Ducks have been battling the injury bug like nobody’s business this season. Nearly half the team has missed time due to various ailments, including Corey Perry, Jakob Silfverberg, Ryan Getzlaf, Rickard Rakell, Ryan Kesler, Hampus Lindholm, Cam Fowler, Ondrej Kase, Patrick Eaves, John Gibson and Ryan Miller, to name a few.

Scoring has been the main concern for the Ducks, who are second-to-last in goals per game with an average of 2.41. But thanks to the stellar play of Gibson, whose .927 save percentage is second in the league (min. 15 games) and who leads the league in goals saved above average (15.92), Anaheim has remained in the top half of the division standings for most of the year.

The team’s 26th-ranked power play is operating at 14.7 percent; the penalty kill is trending in the same direction but currently ranks 15th with a 79.8 percent effectiveness rate.

Getzlaf leads the team in points with 29 (nine goals, 20 assists) in 33 games, while Pontus Aberg, claimed off waivers in early October, leads the Ducks in goals (11). But Ondrej Kase has been particularly impressive, scoring nine goals and 16 points in 21 games coming off last year’s breakout 20-goal campaign. His 57.60 Corsi For percentage leads the team, as does his 57.14 High-Danger CF%.

Aside from Kase, however, only two Ducks in the current lineup have a CF% higher than 50 (Aberg: 52.43 and Getzlaf: 51.08), and the Ducks rank 28th in the league in CF% (46.21) and 31st in HDCF% (42.50).

Anaheim holds a 5-4-2 record against division opponents and has gone 0-2-0 against the Knights. Three of the Ducks’ next four opponents are Pacific Division teams, which includes a Jan. 4 meeting against Vegas; these two teams will conclude their season series Mar. 1 in Anaheim.

The overall outlook for the Ducks is one of uncertainty considering the extent of man-games lost thus far. Last year’s 25-10-4 run to end the season is not likely to be repeated, but there’s no reason not to expect the Ducks to be in the running come April, especially since they’ve qualified for the postseason six years in a row.

Arizona Coyotes (16-19-2)

The Coyotes currently rank seventh in the Pacific Division and 13th in the Western Conference with 34 points in 37 games. Arizona got off to a rough start out of the gate, and though things have improved since then, the Coyotes haven’t been able to fully right the ship.

Alex Galchenyuk, Arizona’s main offseason addition, has been a disappointment on the whole, scoring just five goals and 15 points in 27 games, though the newly-acquired Nick Schmaltz has four goals and 12 points in 15 games since coming to the desert. He’s given the Coyotes a more dynamic attack up front despite his 45.11 CF%.

This is especially important since Christian Dvorak has been out of the lineup all year and could miss the rest of the season; defenseman Jason Demers has already been ruled out for the rest of the year, as has goaltender Antti Raanta.

With Raanta on the shelf, it’ll be interesting to see whether Arizona puts the bulk of the goaltending burden on Adin Hill, who has been a pleasant surprise with six wins in 10 games to go along with a 2.20 goals-against average and .918 save percentage this season.

Clayton Keller was the star of this team last year, scoring 23 goals and 65 points en route to a Calder Trophy nomination as rookie of the year. While his sophomore campaign has been less than stellar so far (eight goals, 26 points), he appears to be turning things around with 12 points in his last 14 games.

But Keller’s lack of production is a microcosm of the team’s overall inability to put pucks in the net. Despite holding the league’s best penalty kill with an impressive 87.7 percent effectiveness rate, the Coyotes are scoring just 2.49 goals per game, which is not enough to overcome their average of 2.78 goals against.

The ‘Yotes will come face to face with the Knights Dec. 30 and are 4-4-1 against Pacific Division teams this season.

Though Arizona has shown flashes of what this team could be in the future, it’s unlikely the Coyotes will be a playoff contender this season. Anything is possible, especially with the standings as close as they are, but it looks like it will be seven straight seasons without playoff hockey in Arizona.

Calgary Flames (23-12-3)

The Calgary Flames are having the season many expected them to have last year. They’re currently first in the division and second in the conference with 49 points, including an 8-3-1 record in December (though Calgary has gone 1-2-1 in its last four games).

With better goaltending, this team could be at the very top of the standings. Both Mike Smith and David Rittich have had strong stretches, including six-game winning streaks, but the lack of consistency in the crease continues to be an issue for an otherwise-solid roster.

Among goalies with at least 10 starts, Smith is last in the league in save percentage (.888) and is one of just three goalies with a goals-against average of at least 3.00. Rittich has been much better, going 12-4-2 with a 2.22 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, but he has yet to prove himself for an extended period of time.

One of the Flames’ offseason acquisitions was 10-time 20-goal scorer and former Golden Knight James Neal. However, he has just three strikes this season and a total of seven points in 37 games, good for a points-per-game rate of just 0.19. Needless to say, he has been an eyesore on this roster, which features five players with at least 35 points. Leading the charge is Johnny Gaudreau, who has 19 goals and 51 points in 38 games, good for fifth overall in the league.

Though Neal hasn’t panned out, Calgary’s other major splash of the offseason has fared quite well, as Elias Lindholm and Noah Hanifin have found success with their new team. Hanifin hasn’t replicated Dougie Hamilton’s production, but he’s still a strong possession player (54.02 CF%) and has taken on tougher minutes this season with a 50.53 offensive zone faceoff percentage (compared to 62.79 last year).

Lindholm has been a natural fit on the top line with Gaudreau and Sean Monahan. He is third on the team in goals (17) and has 41 points and 15 power-play points in 38 contests; plus, his 56.48 CF% is first on the team among forwards and second overall.

Things are looking up for the Flames. They rank seventh in the league with a 53.02 CF% and are just one point behind Winnipeg for first place in the entire conference. However, things also looked promising last year before the Flames’ team-wide collapse in a 5-13-1 run to close out the season. But it would be shocking to see this team miss the playoffs this year; it’s just a matter of how far Calgary can go with the current goaltending tandem.

Edmonton Oilers (18-16-3)

It has been a story of two seasons for the Edmonton Oilers. After a discouraging start that saw very little game-changing play from anyone not named Connor McDavid, the team has seemingly done a complete 180 since firing head coach Todd McLellan and replacing him with the defensive-minded Ken Hitchcock. In fact, Edmonton went 7-2-2 in its first 10 games under Hitchcock’s supervision before losing four of its last five games.

The most beneficial side effect of Hitchcock’s system has been an improvement in goaltending, especially from Cam Talbot (3.31 goals-against average, .888 save percentage under McLellan; 2.96 goals-against average, .907 save percentage under Hitchcock). Despite the improvement, though, it appears as though Talbot has lost the starter’s gig just two years removed from a 42-win campaign.

That’s because Mikko Koskinen, who signed with the Oilers as a free agent in the offseason, has been solid, going 11-6-1 while recording a 2.52 goals-against average and .918 save percentage with three shutouts; he is 7-2-0 on home ice.

As has become the norm in Edmonton, McDavid leads the team in almost every scoring category, including goals (19), assists (35), points (54) and power-play points (19). His 54 points rank fourth overall in the NHL, and he’s well on his way to his third-straight 100-point campaign. He and Leon Draisaitl have combined for 99 points, and Alex Chiasson has scored a career-high 16 goals.

The Oilers handed Vegas a 2-1 loss at the start of December, evening up the season series at one game apiece. Edmonton is 4-5-1 against division opponents but will have a chance to improve that record with eight out of the next 11 games coming against Pacific Division teams.

It’s playoffs or bust this year for Edmonton, but Hitchcock has this team focused and playing responsible two-way hockey; if Koskinen can keep it up, the Oilers are a legitimate threat in the Pacific.

Los Angeles Kings (15-20-3)

The Los Angeles Kings’ season has not gone according to plan. At all. In fact, the Kings are the worst team in the NHL with 33 points in 38 games. Los Angeles made a coaching change in early November, but it hasn’t made much of a difference in the team’s overall play.

Ilya Kovalchuk has been a major letdown in the first year of his three-year, $18.75 million contract. He was brought in to help a goal-starved offense but has scored just seven goals and 17 points in 28 games. The Kings are also not getting much out of Anze Kopitar, who was nominated for the Hart Trophy last year with a career-high 92 points; he has just 24 through 37 games in the 2018-19 season.

Alex Iafallo has points in seven out of his last eight games and has a total of 20 points through 38 games, tied for third on the team in scoring. But when your captain and leading scorer has just 24 points, it’s clear that something is wrong with the offense, which ranks last in the league with an average of just 2.29 goals per game.

The true surprise, however, has been the team’s penalty kill, which is 29th overall with a success rate of just 74.1 percent; that’s quite a dropoff from the Kings’ league-leading rate of 85 percent last season.

Not much has gone right for the Kings this year, and it would be a huge surprise to see them make the playoffs. Remarkably, though, they’re still just eight points out of a playoff spot, and considering what this core of veterans has demonstrated in the past, you can never truly count them out.

San Jose Sharks (20-12-7)

After acquiring Erik Karlsson in a favorable deal this offseason, most expected the Sharks, one of the top Stanley Cup favorites, to run away with the division title from the beginning. Instead, San Jose has gotten off to a slower start than many anticipated, though a lot of that has to do with the sub-par goaltending from Martin Jones.

Jones has gone 15-8-4 with a 2.83 goals-against average and .899 save percentage, giving up at least three goals 18 times this season; he was recently pulled after giving up three goals on four shots against Chicago.

Somehow, the Sharks had trouble scoring early on despite the firepower throughout the roster, and it took a while for Karlsson to get going. However, Karlsson recently put together an eight-game point streak prior to receiving a two-game suspension, and he was promoted to the team’s top power-play unit over Brent Burns (who is tied for first on the team in scoring with 36 points). San Jose is now scoring 3.28 goals per game, good for eighth in the league, though one would expect that to further improve.

The Sharks have five players with at least 30 points and six with at least 25; Logan Couture is tied with Burns for the team lead in scoring with 36 points, though Timo Meier has been the true surprise of the season. The 22-year-old has 18 goals and 34 points in 36 games. Evander Kane has taken a step back after signing a seven-year, $49 million extension over the summer. After collecting 14 points in 17 games with the Sharks last year, he has just 23 in 39 games this season and has spent much of the year on the third line.

San Jose is 6-2-3 against Pacific Division teams and 0-1-0 against Vegas after losing 6-0 Nov. 24. These teams will meet Jan. 10 and twice in March to close out the season series.

San Jose remains a serious contender for the Stanley Cup, but the Sharks’ future will depend on the play of Jones moving forward. Once the Sharks learn how to maximize the benefits of having two world-class offensive defensemen in the same lineup, look out.

Vancouver Canucks (18-18-4)

The highlight of the Canucks’ season has been the play of Elias Pettersson, who is the early favorite to win the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. Pettersson has been brilliant in his first NHL campaign, scoring 18 goals and a team-high 38 points despite missing six games with a concussion. He and Brock Boeser form quite the dynamic duo on the second line, and Bo Horvat rounds out the team’s trio of future stars.

In the first year of the Sedin-less era, this team has pulled off some surprising upsets against some of the top teams in the league, though there are nights when it’s clear the Canucks’ lack of depth is inhibiting the team’s overall progress. They pulled off a convincing 4-2 win in Edmonton last night to leapfrog the Oilers in the standings, though Edmonton has three games in hand.

Goaltender Jacob Markstrom is tied for second in the division with 15 wins, and he recently won six games in a row. The 28-year-old has been streaky this year, but that has also been a factor of Vancouver’s scoring, which has been volatile.

The only Canucks skater to play in at least 20 games and have a CF% above 50 is defenseman Michael Del Zotto (51.36), though he has served as a healthy scratch since early December. As a team, the Canucks rank 26th in CF% (46.60) and 27th in HDCF% (44.75). But the team is 7-4-1 in December and is somehow just one point out of a playoff spot.

That being said, the Canucks, who are 5-5-1 against Pacific Division teams, are not expected to hang around with the other teams in the division/conference when push comes to shove. It’s certainly possible they’ll be in the running until the end, but a playoff berth seems unlikely. Even so, it’s becoming more and more clear that this team could be a powerhouse down the line.

Quick Hits

Best record: Calgary (23-12-3)
Goals leaders: Joe Pavelski (23), Monahan (21), Gaudreau (19), McDavid (19)
Assists leaders: McDavid (35), Gaudreau (32), Burns (31)
Points leaders: McDavid (54), Gaudreau (51), Draisaitl (45)
CF% leaders (> 20 GP): E. Karlsson (60.10), Joe Thornton (60.03), Kevin Labanc (59.32)
CF% leaders (teams): San Jose (55.62), Vegas (54.05), Calgary (53.02)
GF/GP: Calgary (3.45)
GA/GP: Calgary (2.68)
SF/GP: San Jose (35.0)
SA/GP: San Jose (28.3)
SV% leaders (min. 15 GP): Gibson (.927), Rittich (.926), Koskinen (.918)
GAA leaders (min. 15 GP): Rittich (2.22), Koskinen (2.52), Gibson (2.53)
Wins leaders: Marc-Andre Fleury (20), Markstrom/Jones/Gibson (15)