Nathan MacKinnon still sees a path to the top.
Such is Western Conference life in 2022-23.
MacKinnon and his Colorado Avalanche — the reigning Stanley Cup champions pummeled by injuries in the first half of NHL the schedule — currently sit right at the playoff cutline.
But unlike the East, where the Boston Bruins have separated themselves from the pack, the West remains relatively wide open with just a 10-point gap between the conference’s top seed and the second wild-card spot eight rungs below.
“We can definitely come out of the West again,” MacKinnon said during the NHL’s all-star festivities in South Florida. “We need to get some healthy bodies, but I feel like it’s definitely there for the taking.”
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The Dallas Stars led the conference with 68 points, three up on the Winnipeg Jets and four better than the Vegas Golden Knights, heading into Wednesday’s action.
At the other end of the table’s top-8, the Edmonton Oilers occupy the first wild-card with 62 points — four better than Colorado and the Calgary Flames.
The Avalanche are also even with the Minnesota Wild for third in the Central Division behind Dallas and Winnipeg.
“A great sprint to the end,” Stars head coach Peter DeBoer predicted. “There’s a lot of teams — including us — that really have to find another level.”
Edmonton captain Connor McDavid said the salary cap ensures tight races every year.
“That’s what the league wants,” said the NHL’s overall leader in goals and points. “They want parity. Well, they definitely got it in the West.
“Seems teams are going on seven-game winning streaks, and then the next week they’re losing three and four in a row.”
“It seems to be pretty wildly up and down.”
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Vegas Golden head coach Bruce Cassidy’s club endured a recent 2-6-2 stretch to tumble down the Pacific Division standings following a torrid start.
“It’s game on,” he said. “I don’t think you can have a bad stretch. We’re in one right now that we’ve got to work our way out of. But it’s good for hockey and it keeps you on your toes.
“It’s probably more normal for most teams to have to play well down the stretch to get in.”
Dallas forward Jason Robertson likened it to last season when the East’s top-8 seeds were realistically set months before the playoffs as a fight down to the wire waged in the West.
“Hard-fought conference,” Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck added. “You’ve got to dig in.”
Boston is cemented at the top of the Atlantic Division, while the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning appear set to once again meet in the first round of the playoffs. In the Metropolitan Division, the Carolina Hurricanes have a decent cushion on the second-place New Jersey Devils, who are comfortably in the No. 2 slot.
Boston, Carolina, New Jersey, Toronto and Tampa all have better records than West-leading Dallas based on points percentage.
Calgary centre Nazem Kadri said a West playoff race with all sorts of scenarios on the table will make for appointment viewing.
“The most fun that way,” he said. “We haven’t even played close to our best. That’s a positive sign.”
Oilers centre Leo Draisaitl is looking for his group to make a second-half push to create separation.
“You’d like to be the team to nail that down a little bit,” he said. “It’s open, but I think we’re gonna be the (one) that’s gonna close it down.”
MacKinnon feels the same about his championship-calibre group.
And once the West’s is set, the road to the Stanley Cup final should be equally wide-open as the East’s heavyweights slug it out on the opposite side of the playoff bracket.
“We can actually still win the West — somehow,” MacKinnon said. “We get hot, we could win it.”