Resetting the Western playoff race

A healthy Jonathan Toews is paramount to the Chicago Blackhawks' postseason success. Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

As typically happens after most borderline hits, the debate following Brooks Orpik's hit on Jonathan Toews, one that knocked Toews out of the game, centered on the legality and the potential suspension of the offender.

For Chicago Blackhawks fans, none of that should matter. Sure, retribution from the league office might be nice, but the most important comment on the hit and its result came from Joel Quenneville after the game.

Quenneville declined to judge the hit, then passed on news that the prognosis for Toews was pretty good.

“We’ll know more tomorrow. We’ll call him day-to-day and get a better assessment tomorrow,” Quenneville said. “I don’t think it’s serious, no.”

The injury may even get Toews some rest heading into the playoffs in what’s been a grueling schedule for the Blackhawks, coming off a short summer and the Olympics.

“We’re going to have to find out about other guys. Maybe somebody steps up in the middle,” Quenneville said. “That’s quality and quantity ice time down there.”

This injury is a reminder that the Blackhawks are in a group of teams in the West that are ready for the playoffs to get here now. Teams like the St. Louis Blues, Anaheim Ducks and Minnesota Wild would be more than happy if the playoffs started today, to secure health in some cases and their current standings position in others.

This week ahead is as critical in the West as any all season, and it’s a different race than in the East, where most of the focus is on the bubble teams fighting to get in. In the West, it’s a two-tiered race: one a wild-card battle, and more importantly because of its Stanley Cup implications, the race to win the Pacific Division. Let’s start there:

Pacific Division title

This two-horse race between the Ducks and San Jose Sharks is so important because the loser projects to get the Los Angeles Kings as a first-round opponent. The Kings have won six consecutive games and have benefited from the addition of Marian Gaborik (eight points in 12 games) to their lineup. As good as the Ducks have been this season from start to finish, it would be hard to pick them to beat the Kings in a seven-game playoff series.

I posed the question of a Ducks-Kings first-round matchup to a Western Conference scout on Sunday, and he leaned towards L.A. as the winner. “Kings beat the Ducks,” he said. “It boils down to goaltending. I have to go with [Jonathan] Quick.”

Jonas Hiller isn’t doing much in March to inspire confidence, with an .889 save percentage in eight games this month. Frederik Andersen has been better, with a .922 save percentage in five starts. In 11 March starts, Quick is 9-2-0, with a .924 save percentage.

It makes winning the Pacific absolutely paramount to Anaheim’s postseason hopes, and things are shaping up in that direction.