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Inside the NHL: Little middle ground in West

It started Nov. 7 with the dramatic last-second win over Vancouver and ended with Saturday’s visit by Chicago. It was a 21-game run for the Buffalo Sabres that featured 15 games against the Western Conference, and Buffalo was a decent 5-7-3 in those. Saturday’s game means the Sabres will have already played 11 of the 14 teams in the West in an odd schedule that has seen them yet to play Boston at all, or to travel to Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

One thing that’s become pretty obvious is the West is very split. The Pacific Division, albeit tightly bunched, has proved to be the weakest in the game while the Central looks like it’s once again the strongest. From what we’ve seen, the teams rate like this:

• The Elite: Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis.

• The Hopefuls: Minnesota, Nashville, San Jose.

• The Builders: Colorado, Calgary, Arizona, Edmonton.

• The Disappointments: Vancouver, Winnipeg.

• The Disaster: Anaheim.

That grouping would have changed even from the start of the season. Minnesota, Colorado, Calgary and Edmonton were all clear disappointments over the first 20 games, the Oilers in part because of Connor McDavid’s injury, but have started the road back. Nashville, Vancouver and Winnipeg have been sliding.

Here’s a look around at some points to ponder out West:

• Dallas: It will be interesting to see if Lindy Ruff’s grind for perfection will dog the Stars and wear them down, like it seemed to at times with the 2007 Sabres. Dallas blew out Columbus, 5-1, on Tuesday in a game that prompted a players-only meeting in the Blue Jackets’ dressing room – and some frustration from Ruff in the postgame interview room.

“I’m pretty frustrated with the way we played,” Ruff said after that game. “We had a total lack of mental focus. I know we won, 5-1, but we’ll lose games if we play like that. I thought we looked pretty sharp in the morning. We did not look sharp” in the game. “We had guys overstay shifts, little things that are on my shoulders.”

Now, before you accuse Ruff of excess crabbing, it should be noted the Stars yielded 33 first-period shots on goal in back-to-back games and their starts had not became an issue only because of the work of goalies Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. And their power play was in a 2-for-27 slump. Still, at 23-6-2, the Stars look good for a trip deep into the spring. And maybe even to Ruff’s first Cup final since a certain Dallas team did something you might remember in, oh, 1999.

• Los Angeles: As the season goes on, you will get more and more impressed by the Sabres’ win over them here. You can easily make a case they’re best set up for a long playoff run. They play heavy, heavy hockey. Milan Lucic and Anze Kopitar are in contract years, with chatter growing Kopitar may be close to signing a long-term extension. Jonathan Quick and old friend Jhonas Enroth form a terrific goaltending tandem. And there’s this point: Maybe they’re the San Francisco Giants of hockey, as in even-year champions (2012, 2014) whose time might be coming again this spring.

• St. Louis: The Blues haven’t made the Western Conference final since 2001 and this looks like the last ride for coach Ken Hitchcock and his current core. Think Sabres of 2010-11. The last two years have resulted in 100-point seasons and first-round exits. But there is an evolution on the roster with the emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko into stardom and the growth of goalie Jake Allen and rookie defenseman Colton Parayko.

Hitchcock, by the way, was duly impressed with the improvement he saw in the Sabres during their two meetings. Said Hitchcock of Buffalo after his team’s 2-1 win here last month: “They’ve got great structure, they’ve got speed, they’ve got tenacity, they’ve got size, and they are starting to mature. So you’re going to have to pay a price to beat them. They are not going to give anything easy.”

• Chicago: This is not 2011, where the Hawks disassembled a Cup team and were left with a shell that was knocked out in the first round. They can go deep again because their stars have matured and because GM Stan Bowman had retooled very well. KHL signee Artemi Panarin is the current favorite for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year, and who would have thought that after a full year of McEichel talk? Just last week, Bowman traded ill-fitting defenseman Trevor Daley to Pittsburgh for Rob Scuderi, a two-time Cup winner with the Penguins and Kings. And through all their personnel losses, they still have Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook and Corey Crawford. Nobody else has a group like that.

• Winnipeg: A report in the Winnipeg Free Press last week said it would take upward of $152 million to meet the asking prices of captain Andrew Ladd and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien and Jacob Trouba. That report was quickly shot down, notably by Trouba’s agent, Kurt Overhardt. But that may be just a quibble. There’s no doubt it’s going to take big bucks for the Jets to keep their core together and they have some hard decisions to make, especially if they don’t make the playoffs. The season spun off the rails when Ondrej Pavalec was lost to a knee injury and Michael Hutchinson couldn’t replace him in goal.

But things have turned around with top prospect Connor Hellebuyck manning the nets, and Hellebuyck is clearly making a case to join Anaheim’s John Gibson as the favorites to be in the net for Team North America, the under-24 squad at next year’s World Cup of Hockey.

• Nashville and Vancouver: Both teams seems to have missing pieces. The Preds are built from the back like the 2010-12 Sabres with a goalie (Pekka Rinne) and a heavy defense core. We’ve seen how that doesn’t really work. They need a No. 1 center. The Canucks are 0-7 in overtime, still relying too much on the 35-year-old Sedins and are thin on defense.

• Calgary: I saw them twice on the Sabres’ road trip, once against San Jose, and they are absolutely flying right now as a seven-game winning streak brought them back into contention after a troubling start. Their top line of Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau and David Jones is almost unstoppable and No. 1 defense pair Mark Giordano and T.J. Brodie is soaking up minutes and dominating puck possession. Now about replacing the Saddledome so the media doesn’t have to climb a catwalk to access the press box ...

• San Jose, Colorado and Edmonton: These three have plenty of hope if it can fix what ails them. The Sharks have just four home wins, tied with pathetic Columbus for fewest in the league, but an NHL-best 12 road wins. Same for the Avalanche, with just five wins in Denver but 11 elsewhere. The Oilers are the opposite, with a 9-5-1 home record including their first perfect five-game homestand since 1987 but just a 5-12-1 road mark heading into Saturday night’s game at Colorado. You can’t have that big of a home/road disparity, no matter which way it goes, and expect to last in a playoff race.

• Anaheim: The Ducks are absolutely baffling to watch. Thursday’s 3-0 loss here made the count 8-1 in back-to-back losses to the Sabres and Carolina in games played six days apart. Ryan Getzlaf has one goal, that into an empty net, and took a hideous interference penalty in the game here. His head is somewhere else. Corey Perry had no goals in the first 11 games. Ryan Kesler looks slow. Who kidnapped the speedy version of Carl Hagelin we saw with the Rangers? The losses to free agency of winger Matt Beleskey (Boston) and minutes-lugging defenseman Francois Beauchemin (Colorado) have not been overcome.

The players seem to be waiting for GM Bob Murray to fire coach Bruce Boudreau. The Carolina game would have been a perfect time to reset before nearly a week off and the game here. It didn’t happen. And the team still didn’t respond. Murray seems to be sending a message that some players will be out the door first but realistically in the cap era, the coach goes. They can’t possibly keep Boudreau much longer, especially with former Ottawa boss Paul MacLean on the bench as an assistant and ready-made replacement.

Scrap the format

While I’m on record that the NHL should rid itself of its terrible new offside challenge rule, be on the lookout for another growing chorus this corner will join this spring about the flaws in the playoff format.

Just watch what happens in the very weak Pacific. It would appear right now there’s a good chance five teams from the Central will qualify and only three from the Pacific, thus meaning no wild-cards. Los Angeles is a heavy favorite to walk away with the division title and what will the Kings’ first-round reward be? A series against a tough team from the Central. If the season ended through Friday’s standings, for instance, the Kings would meet Chicago while San Jose and Calgary – two teams with more than 10 fewer points – would play each other with one guaranteed to move to the second round.

Frankly, the best playoff spot in the West this year looks like the No. 2 team in the Pacific. And that’s just plain terrible. You grind through 82 games and finish first or second in your conference and there should be some reward.

There was no reason to drop the 1-8/2-7/3-6/4-5 matchups in the conferences. Promotion of rivalries? You do that in the playoffs with matchups and if they cross division lines, so be it. Fans in Buffalo, for instance, don’t want to relive the 1980s and early 1990s when it seemed they played Boston and Montreal in the first round every year. St. Louis could see Chicago again in the first round.

Around the boards

• The Ryan Johansen drama is growing in Columbus. The Blue Jackets’ top center was benched for the third period of a game last week in Dallas and then got healthy scratched by coach John Tortorella during Thursday’s 7-5 win at Arizona. Something has to give there. Teams are already lining up to see if he’s available. He’d look awfully good in Nashville, among other places.

• The NHL’s holiday roster freeze went into effect Saturday and lasts until Dec. 27. Teams are not allowed to practice or travel on Dec. 23-24-25. That means the Sabres will take an early-morning flight to Boston on Saturday, likely head right to TD Garden for their morning skate and then play the Bruins that night before heading back home.

• We entered Saturday with 78 of 115 overtime games ending in the 3-on-3 portion, a 67.8 percent clip – far above the 44.4 percent we finished with last season. That means more games ended in shootouts last year (55.6 percent) than with a goal. How much more effective has the new OT been? Until Friday’s Vancouver-Detroit shootout, 10 straight games that had gone past regulation had not extended to the shootout.