The Western Conference has turned into one of the bigger enigmas of the 2009-2010 NHL campaign. I know we still have a good amount of hockey left, but take a look at the standings in the West. You will find a couple familiar faces, namely Chicago and San Jose, at the top as expected. Vancouver and Calgary are also still in the thick of things with the sixth and seventh spots, respectively.
But as teams begin to cross the 50 game threshold, playoff whispers are growing more audible, and the West Side is full of more surprises than that drawer in my fridge that I have neglected to open in seven months.
Just like a true old western movie, the underdogs have fought their way back into the picture. Two of the biggest shockers come in the form of Phoenix and Colorado. The sage fortune-tellers over at ESPN had these two losers pegged at 14th and 15th in the Western Conference before the season began.
It is over halfway through the season, and Colorado has the third playoff seed, while the apocalyptic Phoenix sits firmly in fifth place.
Colorado’s success can be linked to pleasant rookie surprises like Duchene and O’Reilly and superb goaltending from USA snub Craig Anderson. The upstart Avs are presently enjoying a four game winning streak, with nine of their next 12 before the Olympic break on home ice.
In Phoenix, a prophetic Shane Doan uttered these words the beginning of the season: “As bad as everything you hear about us, we just don't think we're that bad. We don't think we're the worst team in the league even though everybody seems to be picking us to finish last." He was right. Behind all that excess baggage, the 'Yotes are a solid team that could win playoff games in front of a shut down goalie like Ilya Bryzgalov.
The current fourth seed is the Nashville Predators, another team that many predicted would be watching the playoffs on TV. This is a team that is getting balanced offense from a variety of good but not great players. If the Preds continue their current roll, they could find themselves not just making the playoffs, but winning their first ever playoff series.
Perhaps the biggest shocker of all is that the old western favorite Detroit Red Wings would be on the outside looking in if the playoffs started today. This would end a remarkable playoff streak of 18 seasons, the longest active streak in the NHL. Detroit is accustomed to fighting for home ice in the regular season, not a measly eighth seed in the playoffs.
This team must resolve their goaltending issues and rebound from injuries to Holmstrom, Franzen, Williams, and Kronwall to keep their playoff streak intact. Hopefully for Hockeytown, coach Mike Babcock is still focused on the Wings and not that other red-jersey team he will be coaching in February.
While teams like the Red Wings have faltered, on the flipside you'll find the Kings, who are hoping to break their own streak of six straight seasons without a playoff berth. Right now, they occupy the eighth seed. With players like Anze Kopitar and the young Olympian Drew Doughty, this current Kings' roster is turning into one of the most exciting since the days of Wayne Gretzky and Mullet Man Melrose.
Many analysts (myself included) won’t give these new Western heroes much of a chance in a seven game series against powerhouses like Chicago and San Jose. But these are teams that weren’t even supposed to make the playoffs. They rode into the west with nothing to lose, and when the show's over, one of them just might ride off into the sunset.