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NHL midseason status report: The road ahead for Western Conference playoff favorites

How will the weak West be won?

NHL: Anaheim Ducks at Minnesota Wild Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

With the All-Star break behind us, the NHL will rev its engines and take off on Tuesday, hurtling full-speed down the final stretch to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

So it’s only right that we take a step back and assess where the playoff races are at, and how we got there. The first of our four status reports begins with the eight teams currently holding down playoff spots in the Western Conference. A few of them are just hanging on by a thread.

Read on to find out how the NHL Western Conference contenders got here and how they can hold off all comers down the stretch.

Central Division leaders

NHL: Nashville Predators at Chicago Blackhawks Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

Minnesota Wild (32-11-5, 69 pts)

Status: First in the Western Conference. First in the Central. Clear of the final Wild Card spot by 16 points.

Outlook: Well, Bruce Boudreau can still coach during the regular season. With Devan Dubnyk playing in Vezina Trophy form — more scoring depth than usual and a more robust defensive presence — Minnesota is the class of the Central and ready for a deeper playoff run than ever.

Second-half goal: Prove that the first half wasn’t a fluke. Minnesota’s remarkable win streak in mid-December happened because the Wild’s scoring finally caught up to the high play of their defending, special teams, and goaltending. The key is to keep that coalescence going for another three months.

Trade deadline plans: Now is the right time for the Wild to swing for an impact player, whether that’s a scoring forward or a playmaking defenseman. Bet that GM Chuck Fletcher will be busy trying to give his team an extra something before the playoffs.

Chicago Blackhawks (30-16-5, 65 pts)

Status: Second in the Western Conference. Second in the Central. Clear of the playoff bubble by 12 points.

Outlook: Even when Chicago doesn’t feel that strong, they still wind up near the top of the Western Conference with a playoff berth all but assured by midseason. Marian Hossa hasn’t slowed down, while Jonathan Toews is starting to emerge from hibernation. This is a team primed to succeed in the second half.

Second-half goal: Keep integrating their young players with their established stars until you find a nice balance. Vinnie Hinostroza, Tanner Kero, and Nick Schmaltz have shown glimpses of their potential. Let them nail it down.

Trade deadline plans: One of those youngsters will probably head elsewhere at the deadline when the Blackhawks acquire a forward. Like they do every season, with varying degrees of success.

Nashville Predators (24-17-8, 56 pts)

Status: Sixth in the Western Conference. Third in the Central. Clear of the playoff bubble by three points.

Outlook: Rounding into form. Nashville earned 18 points after the holiday break with seven wins in their last nine games before the All-Star break. The reason? They’ve gotten back to good old Preds defensive hockey, dropping a 2.25 GA/G down after averaging about 2.75 GA/G before the holiday break. They’re rolling.

Second-half goal: Keep enabling the Arvidssance. How nice must it be for the Predators to rely on three forwards to score instead of one? Viktor Arvidsson is developing into a playmaking hassle for opponents, and Nashville should keep leaning into that.

Trade deadline plans: But they could still use an extra hand up front. If there are goal-scoring wingers or centers to be had (see: Matt Duchene, Thomas Vanek, or Patrick Sharp) then Nashville should inquire.

Pacific Division leaders

NHL: San Jose Sharks at Edmonton Oilers Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

San Jose Sharks (31-17-2, 64 pts)

Status: Third in the Western Conference. First in the Pacific. Clear of the playoff bubble by 11 points.

Outlook: Nice to know that Peter DeBoer’s first run and near-Cup win as Sharks coach wasn’t a fluke. This is the best team in the Western Conference until proven otherwise.

Second-half goal: Identify the biggest fish at the deadline and toss a mile-wide net at it. This could be the last shot for Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. Swing hard at Gabriel Landeskog, Matt Duchene or anyone else made available at the deadline who can make a real different in a playoff series.

Trade deadline plans: See above.

Edmonton Oilers (28-15-8, 64 pts)

Status: Fourth in the Western Conference. Second in the Pacific. Clear of the playoff bubble by 11 points.

Outlook: Wow. The team that drafted Connor McDavid is suddenly a playoff contender two years later. Amazing. That’s selling Peter Chiarelli short, though: moves like the Hall-for-Larsson trade have helped the blue line, while Patrick Maroon and Milan Lucic are bringing an Oilers scoring edge most are unfamiliar with. Not to mention Cam Talbot’s play in net.

But let’s be honest. This has a lot to do with McDavid.

Second-half goal: Enjoy the ride and see where it goes. The window is just opening.

Trade deadline plans: Edmonton could be a Kevin Shattenkirk player, but who knows if he’d agree to head to Edmonton over the East Coast. Especially if the Blues are battling the Oilers for a Wild Card spot by late February.

Anaheim Ducks (25-15-9, 63 pts)

Status: Fifth in the Western Conference. Third in the Pacific. Clear of the playoff bubble by 11 points.

Outlook: Well, that Randy Carlyle hand-wringing sure died down quickly. And so did the Cam Fowler trade talk. Just like last season, Anaheim’s special teams (both in the top 10) are carrying them even as their stars struggle to play well. And faith in John Gibson is paying off: he’s 8-2-0 since Christmas, and only Ryan Miller has a better save percentage than Gibson’s .938 in that span.

Second-half goal: Find whoever owns the Corey Perry voodoo doll and exile them to Mars. The man who once scored 50 goals on his way to a Hart Trophy hasn’t even hit double-digits yet.

Trade deadline plans: This seems like the kind of team ready to make a depth-boosting trade rather than a swing for the fences. They’ll go bargain hunting, and only for the right fit at the right price.

Wild Carders

NHL: St. Louis Blues at Calgary Flames Sergei Belski-USA TODAY Sports

St. Louis Blues (24-20-5, 53 pts)

Status: Seventh in the Western Conference. Fourth in the Central. Claiming the first Wild Card seed by one point.

Outlook: Scuffling a bit, trying to find their identity without David Backes, Troy Brouwer, and Brian Elliott and knowing coach Ken Hitchcock is retiring after this season. Goalie Jake Allen is suffering the worst stretch of his young career (1-4-0, .837 save percentage since Christmas). The playoffs are still within reach, but does anyone believe the Blues are Stanley Cup contenders right now?

Second-half goal: Pray that Jake Allen rediscovers his game and that someone not named Vladimir Tarasenko steps up and starts delivering points more consistently.

Trade deadline plans: Get as much value for Kevin Shattenkirk as you can. The talented blue liner wants to hit the free agent market this summer, and why hold on to him if you doubt the team can make a run this season anyway? Best to cash in with the biggest fish on the deadline market when you can.

Calgary Flames (25-24-3, 53 pts)

Status: Eighth in the Western Conference. Fourth in the Pacific. Claiming the second Wild Card seed by one point.

Outlook: What a season of ups and downs in Glen Gulutzan’s first season behind the bench. Calgary survived Johnny Gaudreau’s injury, but enters the second half with three wins in their last 10 games. The good news is that Sean Monahan is heating up, Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Bennett are thriving in their assigned roles and the West is up for grabs.

Second-half goal: Get what you paid for out of Brian Elliott. The $2.5 million goalie has given them one good month: a 4-0-0 record and .919 save percentage in December. Other than that? A 5-12-2 record with a .887 save percentage and a 3.08 GAA.

Trade deadline plans: ... Marc-Andre Fleury, anyone?