Down to the Wire (Again): Never a Dull Moment in the West

Tim SteinContributor IMarch 24, 2009

TORONTO - MARCH 14:  Miikka Kiprusoff #34 of the Calgary Flames looks on against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the game at Air Canada Centre on March 14, 2009 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

Every hockey season, it's the exact same story for me. Come training camp, I am glued to my local sports-radio station daily, soaking in all they have to offer on the upcoming NHL season, The Northwest Division, and the Calgary Flames.

I am ravenous, listening intently to all the speculation on who has a shot to make the team, who has a chance to sign with the organization, who might make a good mid-season call up due to injury, etc.

I listen to all the exhibition games I can, and catch all the ones shown on the tube. Like all fans of "my team," I follow every deal, every line combination, every on- and off-ice happening.

Unlike some, I follow so intently as a result of my personal analytics of what I can expect for the upcoming season. One think I do not do is get too high with a win or too low from a loss.

In fact, I refrain from going to the extreme one way or the other in my thoughts of my team's chances through the first quarter of the season. The reason for this is quite simple: Its a long season, and October's play simply can never dictate January's play.

Take a look at the "class" of the league, the Detroit Red Wings. For the first half of the season, they looked every bit the Stanley Cup champs they are, neck and neck withe the Conference- and league-leading San Jose Sharks, even temporarily taking over that coveted top spot.

Recently however, cracks that have appeared in that armor over the season to this point have widened into definite fissures. The Wings' biggest flaw has been exposed. their goaltending is extremely suspect.

Not to take anything away from the accomplishments of Chris Osgood or to make light of Ty Conklin, but neither one can at this point be considered "clutch." Osgood's best days are behind him, while Conklin has not got enough experience to be able to shoulder the kind of workload Detroit will be expected to face come the post season.

Detroit's saving grace this season, just like seasons' past, is the explosiveness of its offence. This however has lately showed the signs of fatigue an extended previous season and short summer can have on a team in this era's NHL.

This is a team quickly tiring out. Wings fans should worry: This team is on track to have a scary first round against an opponent you can guarantee will be extremely hungry and opportunistic.

Additionally, it is still mathematically possible (however unlikely) that they can be ousted as second seed in the conference by the Calgary Flames, a team that was not too long ago only three points back of the Wings.

This is despite the fact that Calgary has to keep a constant eye on the rear-view mirror watching the Vancouver Canucks.

This is the time of the season to really pay attention the sport. Instead of watching your team blow a three-goal lead to win by the skin of their teeth, you wind up accepting that a win is a win, and that the boys found a way to hang on for that ever-so-important victory.

The way teams played at the beginning of the season is generally not indicative of how they wind up playing when it really starts to matter. This is the time it really starts to matter.

The most thrilling division right now to watch is the NHL's Northwest Division, currently led by the Calgary Flames. Certainly it's not the strongest division this year as in previous seasons, but nevertheless, it is still the tightest, toughest division in the league.

Currently only two teams in the Western Conference are absolutely, definitely guaranteed home ice when the first round starts, and those two are San Jose and Detroit.

It is very likely that Calgary will be the third team, but that is not a lock at all. The chances they could fall as far as fifth are very real, and the Flames will have to play their best hockey of the year in the remaining 10 games of their season to ensure third seed.

For them, the post-season warm-up began in earnest against the Red Wings on the 23rd , a game for which they were full marks for the win over Detroit.

One very possible scenario would see the Vancouver Canucks take over third spot, dropping the Flames to fourth, and still enjoying home-ice advantage. However, their likely opponent, should this happen, would be the only team in the West that scares me as a Flames fan: The Chicago Blackhawks.

It is most likely that things will remain status quo enough that Vancouver and Chicago will face each other in the first round, which should please most fans of all the other teams in the West.

The energy and enthusiasm of the Hawks will be enough to seriously push the Canucks to the brink at the very least, leaving whichever team winds up victorious an exhausted and spent bunch. The only real question mark here is who gets home ice advantage.

After the top five teams, the rest of the pack is the biggest question mark. Spots six through 11 are separated by a grand total of only seven points, with 12th place Dallas only three points out of eighth, and the LA Kings eight points out of eighth spot, the race to the finish should definitely be an entertaining one, barring a total collapse by any of the teams in spots 6 through 13.

As a Flames' fan, I am interested in the potential first-round match-up between Calgary and the Ken Hitchcock-coached Columbus Blue Jackets, though out of all the possible opponents at the onset of the second season, this is the team that worries me the most.

The only team I would really be afraid to see the Flames face happen to be the Hawks out of Chicago, which at this point is only likely if both clubs can make it to the Western Final. I have my doubts about the Hawks getting that far. But what about Calgary?

The Flames have been a hurting club since the last half of February, with several very key ingredients on the shelf due to injury. These injuries have sparked the call-ups of several of the kids available on the farm, the most impressive of which has been Jamie Lundmark.

He is certainly making the most of his time with the big club, being dubbed as the Wings' Killer by the hometown crowd for his performance in two games vs. the Wings.

That being said, it can almost be excused that the team has had such a so-so March, with the injuries being the final catalyst for GM Darryl Sutter to pull the trigger on trade deadline day to land Olli Jokkinen, widely regarded as THE trade of the season.

Now, imagine this club at the onset of the postseason: All members expected to be ready and available when called upon. The Calgary Flames will boast one of the most dangerous combinations of lines in the entire league, with four lines you would not want to face in a brightly lit street, never mind a dark alley.

This alone has to be enough to deservedly place Calgary among the biggest threats for the Cup. Throw into the mix this season's winningest goalie in Mikka Kiprusoff, and you can practically kiss the disappointments of previous years good-bye.

Absolutely, this is definitely the best time of the year to be a true hockey fan! The West promises to offer a very exciting finish. I can't wait!