2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs: Western Conference playoff picture still unclear for Golden Knights

Vegas will be clinching the Pacific Division at some point, so let’s start eyeing at the future.

Put down your torches and pitchforks, and refrain from writing your eulogies. The Vegas Golden Knights aren’t dead just yet.

After a post-trade deadline three-game losing streak that prematurely signaled that the end was nigh, the Golden Knights won four out of five on this east-coast road trip — capped off with a 3-2 win Monday in Philadelphia which was Marc-Andre Fleury’s 400th NHL win. Of course you knew that already.

Here’s the short of it: There are 13 games left in the regular season. Vegas leads the San Jose Sharks by 12 points in the Pacific Division and trail the Nashville Predators by three for the Western Conference lead. The worst-case scenario for the Golden Knights is they host at least two playoff series’. That’s not too shabby. Vegas has an upcoming five-game homestand that will provide opportunity to catch the red-hot Predators, who are on an 11-game point streak.

In order to weave through the giant cluster that is the Western Conference playoff race, one must be prepared to dive head first into the insanity that lies ahead. While the Golden Knights’ path to the playoffs is becoming clearer, a potential first-round opponent is not set in stone. If you’re ready for this madness, let’s take a look.

Wildcard Race

Dallas Stars — 82 points

If the playoffs began today, it’d be the Stars drawing the Golden Knights in the first round. My brain may not handle this.

The Stars are a weird team. They’ve been a weird team this entire decade. They’re either one of the last teams eliminated, a fringe playoff team, one of the best teams in the League or down-right bad. It’s like a giant bell curve with a few ridges in the middle.

Should Dallas want to make it back to the playoffs for the second time in three years, these next two weeks are crucial. The Stars began a six-game road trip Sunday with a 3-1 loss to Pittsburgh. They play Montreal and Toronto on a back-to-back, at Ottawa on Friday and Winnipeg on Sunday. Dallas wraps up the road trip at Washington on March 20. Dallas is 1-4-1 against the four Canadian teams and has lost all three meetings against the division-rival Jets.

Dallas will always be dangerous as long as Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov are able to skate, but John Klingberg is only one man and cannot play the role of six defensemen. Kari Lehtonen is also someone that can’t be trusted for an entire seven-game series (hurry back, Ben Bishop). The Stars have nine of their last 13 games on the road and might need to win about five or six of them to get in the playoffs. It’s really hard to think Dallas can do that at this moment.

Colorado Avalanche — 80 points

Remember when Matt Duchene was a thing?

No need to clean your glasses. The Avalanche are still very much a thing in the Western Conference playoff race with two games in hand over Anaheim (also with 80 points). Nathan MacKinnon has been the Mile High God (32 goals, 49 assists) and Mikko Rantanen has been really good (23 goals, 46 assists).

The Avs’ rebuild is one of the under-appreciated stories this season. It still seems like a mirage because they had 48 points last season, and we’re talking about a really young team that hasn’t been in such a position to clinch a playoff spot. Colorado has eight home games left, much more favorable odds than Dallas, but a tougher slate down the stretch with road games against Minnesota (3/13) and St. Louis (3/15); a home game against Nashville on March 16 (SEGABABA); a home-and-home against Vegas from March 24-26 and a road back-to-back at Anaheim and Los Angeles on April 1-2.

Colorado could surpass Dallas for the top wild card if the Avs string together a few wins. They could also fall out completely. Regardless, Avs fans have to be really happy with how the dominoes have fallen.

Pacific Division

San Jose Sharks — 83 points

Think of the teams that made playoff-push moves at the deadline — Pittsburgh, Vegas, New Jersey, etc.

Then you look at the San Jose Sharks and forget that Evander Kane is a thing.

San Jose is 3-2-0 since acquiring Kane from the Buffalo Sabres, so it’s not as if the Sharks are running roughshod at the moment. But Kane has six points in six games since relocating to the West Coast and looks like a seamless fit on the veteran-laden Sharks.

San Jose has a two-point lead for second place in the Pacific Division over the Kings with 13 games remaining (seven road, six home). The Sharks have a three-game Canada trip (3/14-17) and a four-game road trip (3/26-31) that includes games against St. Louis, Nashville and Vegas.

Before Kane, it might be too steep a hill to climb. But the Sharks might have enough firepower to make it in and host a playoff series.

Los Angeles Kings — 81 points

Those pesky Kings, man.

Los Angeles has won eight of its last 12, including that home-and-home against the Golden Knights at the end of February. Follow that with wins over the Blue Jackets and Capitals (before getting bludgeoned by the Blues on March 10), and the Kings have this vibe like its 2012 again.

Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty are the engines that make this train go, and those two are capable of winning a playoff series or two if the Kings get hot, which history tells us is possible.

L.A. has seven home games remaining to only five on the road. There’s a pivotal game at Anaheim on March 30 that could shake up third place in the Pacific Division. The key stretch to watch? A four-game road trip from March 19-24, which includes the road back-to-back at Minnesota and Winnipeg. If the Kings can escape from that unscathed, that might be the tipping point to keep them in the top three.

In the Hunt

Anaheim Ducks — 80 points

The goalie tandem of John Gibson and Ryan Miller makes Anaheim really dangerous.

St. Louis Blues — 79 points

The Blues got a big-time win in Anaheim on Monday, but it’s only their third win in nine games. But, hey, two in a row.

Calgary Flames — 78 points

No extinguishing just yet. Despite losing five of seven, Calgary is still in the hunt for a wild card spot. The ghost of Jagr lives.