Are the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues the NHL's 2 Best Teams?

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Are the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues the NHL's 2 Best Teams?
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Patrick Kane's game-winning goal in the final seconds of Wednesday night's game against the Calgary Flames had a lot of ramifications in the Western Conference.

It gave the Chicago Blackhawks the top record in the league with an 18-4-4 record. They are the first team in the league to reach the 40-point mark this season.

The Blackhawks needed that win to regain first place in the Central Division over the St. Louis Blues, who have an 18-3-3 record and 39 points.

The Blackhawks and Blues have the two highest point totals of any team in the NHL, and it begs the question if they are the league's two best teams.

Of course, nothing will be proven until the regular season ends and the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in mid-April. But right now, there seems to be five elite teams in the league, and they all reside in the Western Conference.

The Blackhawks, Blues, Anaheim Ducks, San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings seem to be the strongest teams in the league.  

The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins may be the best teams in the Eastern Conference, but both of those teams have weaknesses. The Penguins will always have the lingering issue of goaltending hanging over them until Marc-Andre Fleury can prove otherwise, and Dan Bylsma's team has not played with the consistency that is expected. The Pens are just 5-6-1 on the road and 5-4-1 in their last 10 games.

The Bruins have championship-level goaltending with Tuukka Rask, but they are showing some deficiencies on offense (2.72 goals per game ranks 12th in the NHL), and veteran defenseman Zdeno Chara (minus-three) has not been as dominant as he normally is.

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Western Conference observers may also want to include the robust Colorado Avalanche in a discussion of the league's elite because of their hot start, but they appeared to have goaltending and defensive weaknesses at the start of the season. While neither has been apparent yet, those are the issues that could slow them down.

Anaheim (17-7-3) has been powerful on offense through the first part of the season, but they have a few problems on the defensive side. The Ducks are giving up 2.56 goals per game, which ranks 14th in the league. That's definitely not elite.

Jonas Hiller has a 2.69 goals-against average and a .904 save percentage, and that's not good enough. Especially when backup goalie Viktor Fasth's lower-body injury is taken into consideration. He is likely to miss three weeks or more.

The Kings (16-6-4) have goaltending issues of their own. They have been riding with former Toronto goalie Ben Scrivens since Jonathan Quick suffered a groin injury in mid-November. Quick is out until late December at the earliest.

The Sharks (16-3-5) have a strong and deep team, and the presence of Antti Niemi (2.15 GAA, .920 save percentage) means they don't have any goaltending issues. Their only perceived problem is the past playoff failures that hang over them. They must prove they can beat outstanding teams like Los Angeles and Chicago in a best-of-seven playoff series.

The Blues can make a case for being the strongest team in the league because they are physical, skilled on defense and hungry in the offensive zone.

Offense used to be a problem for St. Louis, but it's second in the league in scoring with an average of 3.46 goals per game. It is also the best team in the league during five-on-five play, as it has a 1.73-1.00 advantage over its opponents on even terms.

Chicago is the best offensive team in the league. The Blackhawks are averaging 3.54 goals per game, and head coach Joel Quenneville's team always carries the belief that it can come back from a deficit or score that extra goal that puts a game out of reach.

The Blackhawks are not quite as strong as the Blues are in five-on-five play, as they have a 1.43-1.00 advantage in those situations.

The Blues have been dominating on special teams as well. They have the No. 1 power play in the league and the sixth-best penalty kill.

The Blackhawks struggled on the power play last year, but they rank 12th in that area this season. That does not offset the downturn they have had in penalty-killing. They were the third-best penalty-killing team in the league in 2013, but they are next to last this year.

The Blackhawks also have one major weakness that may have to be addressed by general manager Stan Bowman. They appear to be putting tremendous stress on starting goalie Corey Crawford because their backup situation is inadequate.

After losing Ray Emery to free agency in the offseason to the Philadelphia Flyers, they brought back Nikolai Khabibulin to serve in the No. 2 goaltending role. While Khabibulin is out now with a groin injury, he had a 5.00 GAA and an .811 save percentage before he got hurt.

The Blackhawks brought up Antti Raanta to take Khabibulin's place. While he may eventually become the team's goalie of the future, he is an unproven commodity. If Crawford has to play 60 or more games, he may not be at his best for the postseason.

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Based on those measurables, St. Louis has an advantage. However, Chicago can put Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook on the ice in key situations.

The Blues have top front-line players in T.J. Oshie, Alex Steen, David Backes and Alex Pietrangelo, but the Blackhawks have more star power.

These two teams are close enough that they should battle for the top spot in the Central Division and Western Conference all year.

They appear to be the best teams as the 2013-14 season takes shape. The Blues won the first two games this season against the 'Hawks (both 3-2 shootout victories), and the final three regular-season matchups should provide some memorable hockey.

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