I did the Eastern Conference yesterday, here is the Western Conference. Same thing, who is getting hot and who is slowing down and what that may mean for the playoffs.
Jonathan Toews: At the midpoint of the season, it looked as though the summer salary purge had crippled the Chicago Blackhawks. Their goaltending was inconsistent without Antti Niemi and the teams lacked the character and grit that took them to the Stanley Cup last season. They appeared ready to become just the third team since 1995 to win the Cup and miss the playoffs the next season until Toews decided to go on a tear. In the 20 games since Feb. 1, Captain Serious has 13 goals, 18 assists and 31 points and has played to a +18 over that span, leading them to a 12-4-4 record. They are now in sixth place in the Western Conference, just one point out of fourth where I predicted them to finish in the summer. The 22-year-old, who has already won the Conn Smyth Trophy as playoff MVP and named the top forward after winning the gold medal at the Olympics, has entered the Hart Trophy debate as well. With Toews playing so well and Corey Crawford settling in as the team’s netminder, a third consecutive trip to the Western Conference final could be in the cards.
Vancouver Canucks: It’s a scary idea that the best team in the league is actually getting hotter, but such is the reality in southern British Colombia. An 8-2-0 record in their past 10, the Cancuks have an 11 point lead over the Detroit Red Wings in the West and an eight point lead over the Philadelphia Flyers in the race for the Presidents Trophy. Whether or not that ends up being a good thing remains to be seen, but Roberto Luongo is having his best season, Ryan Kesler is getting hot again and their secondary scoring is giving support to the Sedins. Defencemen Kevin Bieksa, Andrew Alberts and Alex Edler could all be back by the playoffs, making the league’s top defensive team even better. The past two Presidents Trophy winners have lost in the first round, but I feel this Canucks team is deep enough and has all the right pieces to become the eighth team since 1989-90 to reach the Stanley Cup final after recording the best regular season record and not one of the fie teams to go out in the first round.
Henrik Zetterberg/Johan Franzen: Zetterberg’s production has come to a near halt recently. One goal and four points in his past ten games and zero points in the past six, the usually defensively responsible Zetterberg has also played to a -10 over that span. Franzen scored five goals against the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 2 and has just one since then. The Mule has started picking up points recently, but needs to return to the form that has seen him go through stretches as one of the top goal-scorers in the league. His points-per-game is much higher in the playoffs (59 points in 51 games, 1.16 PPG) than the regular season (118 in 170, .69 PPG) the past three seasons, so maybe the Wings just need to wait until the end of April rolls around before he really catches fire. Detroit is just 4-4-2 recently while giving up 30 goals and are now just six points above the surging Blackhawks for the Central Division lead. Going into any sort of slump can cause a team to fall fast in the ultra-tight Western Conference, so Zetterberg and Franzen need to regain their form before the Red Wings squander their home-ice position.
Nashville Predators: This is a scrappy team that always seems to over-achieve, but if they keep going the way they are now, they may miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons. They are one of the best defensive teams in the NHL and have been for years. They have three wins this month, two by shutout and one against the Colorado Avalanche, and four in the past 12 games. Five of the eight losses in that stretch have come by one goal. They need more goal support as Pekka Rinne can’t brig them to the playoffs by himself. In the past 10 games, Sergei Kostitsyn has one assist, Patric Hornqvist, David Legwand and J.P. Dumont have one goal each and Colin Wilson has two points for a team that is already ranked 26th in offense. Missing out on the playoffs may also make it tougher to re-sign stud defenseman, franchise player and captain Shea Weber who is an RFA at the end of this season. Unless he signs before July 1, it is a safe bet one team will get his signature on an offer sheet at a price the Preds may be unable to match.