Divisional Leaders; Will they last? Part 2 – Western Conference
As of this point in the season, there is no tougher spot to be in than 1st place in the Pacific Division. The Anaheim Ducks currently sit in the hot seat recently vacated by the San Jose Sharks, but they better not get too comfortable, as there are 4 more teams nipping at their heels. With 31 points in 19 games, the Ducks have been on a roll, even though they are missing a lot of top 6 talent with injuries to Koivu, Selanne and Silfverberg. Many billed the Ducks to suffer when standout backup goaltender Viktor Fasth went down with a lower-body injury; however rookie Frederik Andersen has stepped up and won all four games he’s been in. Anaheim already had a solid pair in Hiller and Fasth, but this shows just how talented their goaltending depth really is. Coach Bruce Boudreau is known for his fast paced, high scoring offense, and he has the team that can do it. Defense remains a shaky part of the overall Ducks team, but they’ve been making up for it with stellar goaltending.
If the Ducks were in an easier division, they could probably sit back and hone their game, or try out some different line pairings, but the Pacific is brutal, and one bad game could drop you out of first. The San Jose Sharks have been another team that has started hard out of the gates and hasn’t looked back. With outstanding performances from Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and rookie sensation Tomas Hertl, the Sharks are the #1 contender to the Pacific throne. Phoenix and Vancouver are both thriving in front of some stellar goaltending, and either team could have a quality shot at taking the division crown at the end of the season. You also can’t count out the LA Kings, who surprised everyone with the bounceback they had after last season’s poor start. The Kings are ultra competitive, and also benefit from the goaltending of Jonathan Quick. Calgary started the year looking like they were on fire, but it turned out they were just blowing smoke. Edmonton is a sinking ship, and may already be so far behind that the playoffs are a pipe dream.
The Pacific has the strongest top batch of teams in the league, and unless one team goes on a lengthy unbeaten streak, the lead is going to change more than Philadelphia changes goalies.
The Central is another tough western division that is up for grabs. How good is the Central? Even the last place Winnipeg Jets would be in 3rd place in the struggling Metropolitan Division. You can bet the Jets miss the tepid waters of the old Southeast division, as now they face much stiffer competition. The Colorado Avalanche are off to the best start in franchise history, handily beating some tough teams and giving up very few goals against. Even with the controversy surrounding goaltender Semyon Varlamov, the Avs haven’t skipped a beat. While many are waiting for Colorado to hit the wall, and become the mediocre team the pundits expected them to be, they continue to defy the naysayers and play some impressive hockey. While Head Coach Patrick Roy is a rookie NHL coach, it isn’t his first time behind the bench. Whatever changes he’s made seem to be sticking, and this enthusiastic team is buying what he’s selling. The Avs’ impressive start is very similar to their closest rival; The Chicago Blackhawks. The Hawks are a team that will make you pay for your mistakes, and with only two points separating them, Colorado needs to watch over their shoulder. The Blues are another team many have pegged to make a deep Cup run this season, and with Alex Steen quietly leading the scoring race, and a solid crop of goaltenders, the Blues could just as easily sneak up to the top. You also can’t count out Minnesota, who always seems to be one or two players short of being a real contender.
There is much more parity in the West, and therefore, much less chance that any of these teams will dominate all season. Unlike Pittsburgh, who is pretty comfortable at the top of the Metropolitan, Colorado and Anaheim can’t afford to have a losing streak, or even more than one or two bad games without losing ground in the standings. The West is a battlefield, and at the end of the season, the team on top will likely be hardened enough to take on the best the East has to offer.