It's hard to believe that teams are starting to already approach the quarter pole of the 2010-11 NHL season. But, with the Blackhawks' loss last night to the Coyotes, they have already played 18 games and are showing that they are worse for the wear of last year's Stanley Cup run and subsequent salary cap-induced roster purge. At 8-9-1, having lost seven of their last 10 games, the Hawks are settling into the vast middle of the very deep Western Conference and need captain Jonathan Toews to quickly find the form that made him last year's Conn Smythe winner.
We will try and take a more weekly look around the Conference and the Pacific Division, in particular, but for today, let's take a more general look at where teams sit as they close the first month of the season and which teams have been the biggest surprises and disappointments.
1. Los Angeles, 10-3-0, 20 points
2. Anaheim, 9-7-1, 19 points
3. Dallas, 8-5-0, 16 points
4. Phoenix, 5-5-5, 15 points
5. San Jose, 6-5-2, 14 points
This is almost the bizarro division thus far in the NHL, as the teams have almost completely reversed their position from a year ago, with San Jose and Phoenix occupying the fifth and fourth spots, respectively. On top of the division are the young, and very talented, Los Angeles Kings, who are not regretting missing out on Ilya Kovalchuk in the least as they have a healthy mix of scoring while having some of the best goaltending in the conference from Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier. The Anaheim Ducks have reeled off five consecutive wins to place them in the second position and are seeing ageless scoring from Teemu Selanne. Dallas has been a bit of a surprise, jumping out to a solid start behind inspired play from Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson. Finally, San Jose has played the fewest games in the division thus far, but have to be disappointed with the play of Chicago cast-off Antti Niemi, last year's cup-winning goaltender, who has been downright terrible early in the year and lost the starter's job (if it was ever really his) to fellow Finn Antero Niittymaki. This is a very competitive division and the Coyotes will have a battle ahead of them to get back into the playoff facing such stiff competition.
1. Vancouver, 8-4-2, 18 points
2. Minnesota, 7-4-2, 16 points
3. Colorado, 7-6-1, 15 points
4, Calgary, 7-7-0, 14 points
5. Edmonton, 4-7-2, 10 points
Other than Chicago, the Northwest division features the only other Western Conference team that is under the .500 mark -- Edmonton, a young club that is going through some serious growing pains under new coach Tom Renney. There is a bright future, though, with rookie phenoms Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle leading the charge; defensive help is needed before Edmonton will truly compete, though. Vancouver is off to a solid start with the Sedin brothers leading the charge as usual. A nice surprise has been the play of backup goaltender Cory Schneider, who has given up just three goals on the season through his first four games. Minnesota has been getting typically reliable goaltending from Niklas Backstrom while also having the league's second best power play unit, converting at over 27% on the season; perhaps they could give the Coyotes some pointers on how to get this done. Colorado is continuing to battle, despite losing starting goaltender Craig Anderson with a knee injury that (thankfully for Avs fans) doesn't appear to be too serious, i.e., not an ACL or MCL tear. Chris Stewart has also continued to develop into a world class sniper, building off a big sophomore season last year. Finally, the crazy house at the Saddledome in Calgary, Alberta have seen a mixed bag in the early season, but the Flames snapped a four-game slide by beating the Avs in their last game and will bring Olli Jokinen and his crew into Glendale on Friday night. It's been a disappointing start for Jarome Iginla, but Rene Bourque has picked up the offensive slack for the Flames.
1. St. Louis, 9-2-2, 20 points
2. Detroit, 9-3-1, 19 points
3. Columbus, 9-5-0, 18 points
4. Chicago, 8-9-1, 17 points
5. Nashville 5-5-3, 13 points
Not a real bad team in the bunch here. Nashville actually was the last team in the league to lose a game in regulation, getting out to a 5-0-3 start ... and then lost five straight. Former Coyote Matthew Lombardi has been out almost the entire season with a concussion and the Predators have struggled to find scoring recently. St. Louis was shellacked by Columbus last night, 8-1, and yet still have given up the fewest goals in the conference with 26 -- that's how good Jaroslav Halak and Ty Conklin have been for the Blues this season, which is good because only one Blues player has scored 10 points so far this season, so they are going to need to continue that trend. Detroit is showing little signs of not being their ever-annoyingly dominant selves with top-level offensive and defensive talent and pretty good goaltending, all while being well coached; it's a shame their fans aren't as classy as the organization or 40-year old uber-defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, who once again is having a fabulous season. The Blue Jackets are another team getting spectacular goaltending from Mathieu Garon and Steve Mason to supplement an offense that hasn't seen a single player reach double digit points. With talented forwards like Rick Nash and R.J. Umberger starting to put some more points on the board, Columbus may surprise some teams going forward.
As we can see, it's a pretty tough group of teams trying to make the playoffs in the Western Conference and there are very few pushovers among the group. Although the Coyotes finished fourth in the conference last year, the teams in the West keep getting better and will push the Desert Dogs to even make the playoffs this season unless they turn around their play. Next week, we'll take a look at what's going on in the Eastern Conference at the quarter pole and then we'll start to focus more on the week-to-week news and notes from around the NHL.