USA TODAY Sports
After three weeks of NHL play all the rust has come off as the season is now in full swing. Rivalries have been renewed and new ones are springing up around the league. It doesn’t get better than this, does it?
Without further musings, let's get down to it!
Chicago 9-0-2… 20pts
Anaheim 8-2-1… 17pts
San Jose 7-2-2… 16pts
Nashville 5-2-4… 14pts
St. Louis 6-4-1…13pts
Dallas 6-5-1… 13pts
Phoenix 5-5-2… 12pts
Minnesota 5-5-1… 11pts
Edmonton 4-4-3… 11pts
Calgary 3-4-2… 8pts
Los Angeles 3-4-2…8pts
Colorado 4-6-0… 8pts
Columbus 3-6-2… 8pts
Things have really tightened up in the West as two points separate the bubble teams above and below the line. The trade winds are starting to blow strong as some teams will look to improve their rosters before playoff time. As crazy as it sounds, we are already a quarter of the way through this truncated season. The West is still wild, however, as teams battle to put their claim on a playoff spot.
Division Leaders: Chicago, San Jose,Vancouver
Will the Chicago Blackhawks ever lose in regulation? Nashville Predator's fans sure hope so, as they welcome the Hawks to Bridgestone arena later today. The Chi City train is on a roll, winning three consecutive games and having a +14 goal differential. Patrick Kane continues to shine this and is only behind Thomas Vanek in scoring this season with 18 pts in 11 games. Chicago won both of their games this week, including a trouncing of Phoenix that closed the Torres-Hossa incident from last year's playoffs in the Hawks' minds. Corey Crawford is 6-0-2 in his appearances this season, boasting a 1.82 GA (5th in NHL) and a .930 save percentage. History says Crawford may be playing well over his abilities, but right now he is keeping the Blackhawks steady and not giving up any soft goals. This is a really good team that has a healthy mix of grit and skill. Chicago has a challenging
week ahead of them, though, as they are at Nashville before returning to the Windy City for matchups against San Jose and Anaheim.
Speaking of Anaheim, who would have guessed the Ducks would be leading the Pacific Division at any point this year? Anyone? The Ducks continue their surprising success with a win against Divisional rival San Jose last Monday, a dismantling of the Colorado Avs on Wednesday, losing a tightly contested game to Dallas on Friday, and winning in a shootout against St. Louis last night. They have won five of their last six. The ageless Teemu Selanne leads the team with 14 points in 11 games and is currently hotter than a Finnish sauna, with four points in his last two games. Fellow Finn and ageless wonder Saku Koivu is equally as hot, with 13 points in 11 games so far. The real story for Anaheim, however, is the emergence of 30-year-old rookie goalie Viktor Fasth, who is undefeated in his five starts this season. The Swedish netminder is having an incredible campaign, with 10 GA in six games, good for a 1.72 GAA and a .932 save percentage. There was some speculation whether the Ducks would be able to re-sign captain Ryan Getzlaf and linemate Corey Perry at the end of the year, but a little success may convince the superstars to stay. Anaheim has a difficult week coming up, a Central Division fiesta with Chicago, Detroit, and Nashville on the docket.
The Vancouver Canucks are also on a hot streak, winning five in a row including a dominating victory over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday. The goaltender odyssey continues as Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider continue to split starts, with both netminders making strong cases to be the starter for the Canucks this year. At this point, bench boss Alain Vigneault might as well flip a coin, as there is very little difference between the two goalies' performance. Vancouver has a light week ahead of them, with home tilts against the Wild and the Stars.
San Jose had a rough week, as the Sharks dropped all three of their decisions. The offense has dried up for the black and teal as San Jose was only able to put up four goals in the three games. The Sharks have now lost four in a row after going 7-0 to start the season. Patrick Marleau has cooled off considerably as he has a big goose egg in San Jose's last five games. The Sharks should be able to bite back with a long road trip to the Central Division this week as they square off with the Blue Jackets, Predators, and Blackhawks.
The Nashville Predators climbed above the playoff line as they roughed up St. Louis and Los Angeles before falling in OT to Minnesota last night. Nashville is currently enjoying a hot streak as they have collected points in their last five games. Barry Trotz is pushing all the right buttons for this team as the Predators have surrendered five goals in as many games after giving up 18 in the first six games of the year. The Preds are currently running seven defensemen, which has really helped veterans Hal Gill and Scott Hannan stay fresh while allowing youngsters Ryan Ellis, Jonathan Blum, and Roman Josi to play in favorable situations. It would be remiss of me to not give a stick tap to Colin Wilson, who has collected five points in his last three games. Wilson is really playing up to expectations this year and has been a force in the offensive zone. Nashville will need to continue their strong play as they have a grueling schedule ahead: a four game home stand against Chicago, San Jose, Phoenix, and Anaheim this week.
Remember all the hockey pundits earlier this year saying how bad the Detroit Red Wings were going to be? Forget about it. The Winged Tires are flying high right now with back-to-back wins against St. Louis and Edmonton. Despite having a weak blueline, Detroit's offense and the coaching genius of Mike Babcock are keeping the Wings in the hunt for a playoff spot. The biggest knock on Detroit was their scoring depth, but they seemed to put that speculation to rest on Thursday as their bottom lines combined for four goals and a plethora of assists against the Blues. While I still question their blueline depth and their bottom lines, Detroit is hard to bet against making the playoffs. The Wings have a three game home stand at the Joe this week against L.A., St. Louis, and Anaheim.
Oh how the mighty have fallen! St. Louis, like San Jose, started the year unbeatable and looked like they had the Central Division in the palm of their hand but have been ruthlessly dethroned. The Blues have yet to win a game in February, giving up 21 goals in a four game losing streak. Things are not looking too good for the Notes as they have tumbled down the standings and do not look like the Cup contender I pegged them to be earlier this year. St. Louis is going to have to dig deep as they are without Jaroslav Halak for the foreseeable future. The Blues should get back on track this week with a home game against the struggling L.A. Kings before traveling to Detroit and Calgary.
The Dallas Stars continue their rollercoaster-like season with a bad end to January (lost four in a row) and a terrific start to February (won four out of five). The Stars are enjoying a three game winning streak, including a big win against the Anaheim Ducks on Friday. In case you missed it; you have to watch Loui Eriksson's sniper shot against Anaheim. That was a pure goal scorer's tally and one of the best goals scored this year. Kari Lehtonen has been strong between the pipes, posting a 6-2-1 record and a .928 save percentage. Dallas has a relatively easy schedule ahead of them this week with games against Edmonton and Calgary before having a tough one against Vancouver.
On the Bubble
The Phoenix Coyotes had a mixed bag of chocolates recently, going 3-1-1 in February. The return of goalie Mike Smith certainly helps the Yotes after he missed four games with a groin injury earlier this year. Phoenix needs more offense, as right now they are -1 in their goal differential. After a quick start to the year, Antoine Vermette has been unable to find the score sheet in his last six games. The Coyotes are a bit banged up, but they are going to need to get it together offensively if they are going to make the playoffs. This week is a great time to start as the Desert Dogs have Colorado, Nashville, and Columbus on the docket.
The Minnesota Wild are also on the bubble, dropping games against Phoenix and Vancouver this week before winning a very physical game against the Predators last night. The Wild's offense has completely dried up, as they have only recorded four goals in as many games this month. Ryan Suter remains hot and cold; recording six assists including two against his former teammates last night. But he remains a -7 on the year, so the big contract is not paying off yet. Devin Setoguchi finally found the back of the net, which is good news for Minnesota, as they will need him to contribute offensively this year if they are going to make the playoffs. Minnesota has an easy week ahead of them, visiting Calgary and Vancouver before heading home for a showdown with the struggling Avs. Interesting fact: the Wild and the Washington Capitals are the only NHL teams to be winless on the road this year.
I know the standings say differently, but I just can't put the Los Angeles Kings out of potential contention. Their team is way too deep and has too much experience for them to be out of the playoff hunt. The Stanley Cup champions made a low-risk, high-reward move this week in bringing in former first rounder Keaton Ellerby while only giving up a fifth round pick in this year's draft. L.A. is not getting enough out of their stars right now, as Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter have all really struggled so far this year. This team should not be averaging less than two goals a game with the talent they have, and the law of averages suggests they won't be there for long. Things don't get any easier for the Kings as they have back-to-back tilts against Detroit and St. Louis this week before returning to the Staples Center for a game against the Blue Jackets.
Maybe Next Year
I had a long chat with an Edmonton fan earlier this week about the state of the Oil and while we didn't agree on everything, we agreed that the Oilers do not look like a playoff team this year. The Oilers are kind of like a V-8 engine powering a little dune buggy: they have too much horsepower for their frame to handle. While the offensive creativity and pure skill is there, the maturity and attention to detail is not quite together for the young club. Sam Gagner has impressed this season; recording a point in every game he has played in and leads the Oiler's offense with 11 points. Rookie sensation Justin Schultz is proving he is the real deal playing a team-high 23:24 minutes a night and notching seven points in 11 games. To put that in perspective, Shea Weber plays 27 a night and Roman Josi plays 23 a night for Nashville. Trade winds seem to be circling around Edmonton as Ryan Whitney has not been living up to expectations and Magnus Paajarvi continues to struggle in his third NHL season. The Oil have dropped five in a row, but look to get back on track with games against Columbus, Dallas, and Colorado this week.
Colorado had a rough week, dropping their games against the Stars and the Ducks.The Avalanche are struggling in all aspects of the game, averaging just over two goals a game while surrendering an average of two and a half. The Avs have a solid young core, but they can't seem to figure out their blueliners and have a bad habit of not playing a full sixty minutes. PA Parenteau continues to be hot, with nine points in 10 games, but outside of him and Duchene, nothing is really coming together at the right time for the Avs. If Colorado were able to add solid a blueliner or two, they might be in playoff contention this year as the team simply has too much talent to be shutout for too long. Colorado has a big week as they face off against the Coyotes on Monday before a pair of divisional matchups with Minnesota and Edmonton.
Blow It Up?
Yes, I know Calgary is actually 12th in the West, but I am not buying Flames this year. They are a -8 in their goal differential and are struggling in net as Miikka Kiprusoff is giving up an average of 3.24 goals a night. Might this be the year we finally see Jarome Iginla traded? Time will tell about the captain's future, but this Flames team is not looking too hot (please excuse the pun) and Iginla would be a perfect trading chip for the Flames to start a dynamic rebuild. Center Mikael Backlund is injured and is not expected to return for a few weeks, furthering the Flames' woes. The Flames have a hard week ahead as they have a three game homestand against Minnesota, Dallas, and St. Louis.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have found themselves in a familiar, but unpleasant place: at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. They should, however, take heart in knowing that they are not the worst team in the NHL as the Florida Panthers and the Washington Capitals are fighting for that sad title. Columbus needs better goaltending, better offense, and more from just about everyone in the locker room. The Jackets have back-to-back games against Edmonton and San Jose today and tomorrow before having another back-to-back set against Los Angeles and Phoenix on Friday and Saturday. My other stick tap of the week goes to Columbus Blue Jacket fans that continue to support this franchise even with all the struggles and setbacks. It can't be easy enduring this kind of disappointment. While I will never like the Jackets, I have a ton of respect for their long-suffering fan base.