NHL West lookahead: Blackhawks reign again, but challengers are chasing

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Those off-season predictions of the Chicago Blackhawks' decline were a bit premature.

The Western Conference leaders and defending Stanley Cup champions still face a host of challenges to their reign when the West playoff race resumes Tuesday.

Chicago headed into the break with a conference-high 70 points even after a slew of off-season departures from the Hawks' third championship team in six years. With a recent 12-game winning streak and seven victories in 10 games heading into the All-Star weekend, they surged atop the Central Division past the slumping Dallas Stars, who lost seven of their last 10 after a fantastic start to the season.

The top of the Central isn't just a two-team race with St. Louis still lurking, but the Blackhawks could put some distance on the field if the Stars continue to struggle. The Stars must play seven of their next nine games on the road - and their only two home games in that stretch are against Chicago and Washington, likely the NHL's two best teams.

The Stars aren't Chicago's only conference challenge, however. The Los Angeles Kings have spent most of the season atop the Pacific Division, and the two-time Stanley Cup champs appear capable of meeting the Blackhawks in the conference finals for the third time in four years.

Los Angeles has been unusually consistent this season, calmly overcoming years of regular-season mediocrity to take a sizable lead in the Pacific. But that lead shrank last week with the rise of the San Jose Sharks, whose 10-game point-earning streak closed the gap to seven points at the break.

Here are five other story lines to watch in the Western Conference in the second half of the NHL season:

COYOTES CHARGE: The surprise team of the season has been the Arizona Coyotes, who have overcome years of franchise uncertainty and rebuilding to jump into playoff contention. Coach Dave Tippett's club played middling hockey leading into the break, and the Coyotes are facing surges from foes with more experience in a playoff race. The bottom could still fall out on the Coyotes, but they've already defied almost every prediction.

KING KANE: The NHL scoring race isn't nearly as close as the playoff race. Chicago superstar Patrick Kane scored 73 points in 53 games to open up a 15-point lead on Dallas captain Jamie Benn heading into the break. Kane has been the league's best player, but he would rather be part of the league's best team yet again.

FOURTH PLACE CENTRAL: While Chicago and Dallas chase the top overall seed, three teams hit the break separated by two points for fourth place in the Central Division. Colorado, Nashville and Minnesota all have endured rough stretches, with the talented Wild hitting a particular skid before the break. Even if they don't catch St. Louis, the three teams will be jockeying for both wild-card berths as long as they keep their long-standing lead on the Pacific's fourth-place contenders.

LURKING DUCKS: Anaheim might be the most dangerous team lurking on the edge of playoff contention. The three-time defending Pacific champions got off to a horrific start, and they're still the NHL's lowest-scoring team. But coach Bruce Boudreau has coaxed a 10-3-1 post-Christmas surge out of a talented roster that stretched the Blackhawks to the limit in last season's conference final.

WOE CANADA: None of the NHL's seven Canadian teams is currently in playoff position, and the West's four Canadian teams also hold the bottom four spots in the standings. The Canucks are the most realistic contenders from their 10th-place tie with the Ducks, who have three games in hand, but Vancouver probably would need a prolonged run of strong play to get back in the game.

Organizations: Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, NHL Los Angeles Kings San Jose Sharks Arizona Coyotes Canucks

Geographic location: Chicago, Pacific, St. Louis Washington Dallas Los Angeles Colorado Nashville Minnesota Anaheim CANADA Vancouver

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