No team has more than 16 games remaining in the regular season, and the Canuck's are down to their final 14. So I don't think it's too early for this thread to start and to begin looking at potential first round matchups. As it sits right now we'd get Phoenix, and that is actually a series I would like to avoid as Vancouver has always found ways to make those games closer than they need to be.
The top 3.
The Canucks are all but guaranteed to finish in the top 2 in the West, no team from the Northwest Division is going to catch them unless the Canucks completely tank and go less than 6-8 in the final 14.
The 3rd spot will end up going to a team from the Pacific Division, and it is looking more and more like it will be Dallas. The Stars are putting together some good games lately and have been getting some help from the officials. Not a surprise as the Stars are losing money hand over fist. That being said, it won't be a stretch for either Phoenix or San Jose to supplant them in that 3rd place finish as Phoenix has been playing some great team hockey of late and has a goalie in Mike Smith who can heat up and steal games. San Jose is a team that has some great pieces and can also go on a tear, the Shark's also currently have 2 games in hand on both Dallas and Phoenix.
The Central Division is where the real action is this season, and although Nashville has dropped off a bit in the race of late, they aren't out of it yet. However it looks like it will be a fight to the finish between Detroit and St. Louis. Who would have thought that the Blue's would be battling for to spot in the Conference back in early January? Of the two teams Detroit has the game in hand, but St. Louis has the easier schedule. The Blue's still have 3 games remaining against the lowly Blue Jackets, another against Anaheim, one with Tampa, and another against Carolina. That is 6 games that should be gimme's and an easy 10 points, all things being Murphy, chances are they will get 8 of the 12. Detroit only has 2 against Columbus, 1 with Carolina, and another against the Islander's. So that is 8 points that they should be able to take, and again, all things being unequal they will likely get 6 of the 8. So those are the bottom feeders remaining for both of those teams to go through. St. Louis then plays 7 games against teams that are either quite good or fighting for the final couple of playoff spots. Detroit has to go through 9 teams in that category. Then the final game that could possibly decide things is a head-to-head matchup between the Wing's and Blue's on April 4th. It will be an interesting finish, but I think that St. Louis has the overall edge, and certainly the youth to provide the energy for a final push in the late stages of the season.
Nashville probably has 5th place locked up with 4th place going to either Detroit or St. Louis. They are 6 points up on Chicago with a game in hand and, quite frankly, are a better team than the Blackhawk's right now. Chicago doesn't have the defense or goaltending to really push for higher than 6th now that they are 3 wins back.
So really that leaves the final 3 spots, and to be perfectly honest those are the one's that matter most to the Canuck's right now as that is who we would see in the first round, and possibly the semi-finals as well.
While I don't think Chicago will catch Nashville, I don't think they will surrender their current position to either of San Jose or Phoenix. They might be much depleted and much less threatening than they were a couple of years ago, but they still have some punch and can probably stay the course to finish the year. This puts them in an excellent place for the first round as they would draw the matchup against the Pacific Division champs, who will be the weakest of the top 3 teams and fairly easy for the Hawk's to matchup with simply by drawing on their playoff experience from the last 3 years, something that both Dallas and Phoenix cannot do, and something that Shark's should probably forget as they have always found ways to choke.
7th and 8th are a dog fight right now between 4 teams. San Jose, Phoenix, LA, and Colorado are all in the hunt with a spread of 2 points between the four of them. Calgary is 2 points back of Colorado, but I don't think they have what it takes to upset 3 of those 4 teams and sneak into 8th. The Shark's have been dropping like a stone of late, but I think they just have too much talent not to turn it around and fight for a playoff spot.
Of the 4 in the hunt the only team that I don't want as a first round matchup for Vancouver is LA. Quick is just too good of a goalie when he goes on a streak, and the Canucks just have too much difficulty with goaltenders that are standing on their heads. The King's also have more depth than the other potential opponents boast. They have some playoff experience in Carter and Richards, and while they gave up some defensive depth to acquire Carter, they still are a team that can do some damage and would give the Canuck's fits if Vancouver hit a dry spell, or even worse, when (not if) the officials put their whistles away and decide to help the American team along.
San Jose will never do anything in the playoffs while they are lead by Thornton and Marleau. Thornton is a choke artist who loses his composure and likely will be one of the best NHL players to never win anything (good quote Tort). Marleau simply doesn't want to lead, never has. He can play, but he would rather just fly under the radar. In net Niemi is only a problem when his horseshoe gets greasy, he doesn't track the puck well, he doesn't have great rebound control, and once he's been beaten early, often generally follows.
Colorado is too shallow, too young, and too inexperienced to be a real threat. The only way they pose a danger in the playoffs is if they pull the "too young to understand" playbook out and don't feel the pressure.
Phoenix is a bit of a dark horse this year. They play a very good team game, but they are only dangerous when Smith is on his game and keeping pucks out while channelling his inner Patrick Roy. They have some scorers, but ultimately not much depth and very little playoff experience.
On the outside chance that Calgary sneaks in I will say that the most they take from the Canuck's is a single game, and if they do it will be game 4 in Calgary in front of a desperate sea of red who manage to fuel Iginla and Kiprusoff into one final act of playoff heroics.
If the Canucks finish first then I am willing to bet that our second round matchup will be with Chicago. I don't see the Canucks screwing up against the Hawk's again. The experience and depth is now there, and Crawford won't be playing playoff hockey for the first time where he can just have fun and not feel the pressure, that series would go 6 games at most. The way the bottom 4 are shaping up this year in the West, a first place finish for the Canucks could mean only having to play 10-11 games before the real test in the conference final.