The Chicago Blackhawks and San Jose Sharks have been as explosive and dynamic as expected, and they have created what amounts to a different level for themselves in the standings by midseason. But in many ways, their efforts have been overshadowed by the exploits of the league's biggest surprise teams, all of whom happen to be in the same conference.
If nothing else, the play of the Coyotes, Kings and Avalanche does seem to lend credence to the notion that the NHL's best hockey this season is being played out West.
• Eastern grades: Caps, Devils, Sabres not your average teams
The upstarts are bunched closely together near the top of the pack, and have more points than all but four teams in the East. So do several other Western teams that are at or just below the playoff cutoff line, including some good ones that will miss the postseason because they happen to be in the wrong geographical conference.
Here's a graded look at the first half in the Western Conference.
Anaheim Ducks: A few months ago, they came within a win of bumping Detroit out of the playoffs. And that was after the Ducks eliminated the Presidents Trophy winners from San Jose in the opening round. Now at midseason, Anaheim is last, yes last in the Pacific Division, and seems to have a better shot at winning the draft lottery than getting back to the playoffs. This is a different team clearly with Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin no longer on the blue line, and Scott Niedermayer having a middling season at best. The goaltending hasn't been very good either, and if weren't for the offense coming from Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan, all of them Olympians, Anaheim would probably be bringing up the conference rear. Grade: F
|Patrick Kane, with 18 goals and 31 assists, is one of 13 Blackhawks with double-digit points. (Getty Images)|
Chicago Blackhawks: Could anyone beat this team in a best-of-7 right now? It wouldn't be easy considering the way this team has played since it dropped a shootout to lose the opener in Finland. The Blackhawks are a top three team in offense and defense, and they've been nearly invincible in their own building. Chicago is balanced too with 13 players already having double-digit point totals. The biggest concern about this team coming into the season was goaltending, but Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi have done a solid job, in large part because their teammates give them fewer shots to face than anyone. Grade: A-plus
Colorado Avalanche: This was supposed to be a rebuilding year after Colorado finished 28th overall. Or at least a transition season with franchise face Joe Sakic hanging up his skates, and a rookie coach and general manager who came from the system taking over. But instead, the Avs have gelled remarkably under coach Joe Sacco and finished the first part of the season holding down first place in the division. Colorado's fortunes have changed quickly because of how well free agent goalie Craig Anderson has played and the ease with which some of the kids, including 18-year-old rookies Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly have fit into the system. Kyle Quincey, who was acquired in a trade last summer, has been a revelation too. Grade: A
Columbus Blue Jackets: The first half was a major step backward for an organization that took a very long time to show hints of progress. Columbus made the playoffs for the first time in its eight seasons, and looked like it might be ready to go deeper than simply the opening round this time. But Rookie of the Year goaltender Steve Mason has endured a heavy sophomore slump, scoring star Rick Nash has had only a so-so year and inexplicably for a team coached by Ken Hitchcock, the overall team defensive play has been abysmal. Grade: F
Dallas Stars: The Stars have been the kind of team that few people really notice until they sneak up on them. Dallas has had a steady, if unspectacular season, losing more often than it has won, but picking up points in overtime or shootout losses and staying in striking distance of the playoffs as a result. The Stars are getting a great season from Brad Richards and six other players including defenseman Stephane Robidas have at least 20 points. But the truth is that Dallas would be better off in the East where mediocrity goes a little further. Grade: C
Detroit Red Wings: A glance at the standings might suggest the end of the Red Wings dominant era is at hand. This lineup is certainly weaker than last season's after several key free-agent defections, but the bigger problem has been a spate of long-term injuries suffered by several important players so far. Together, it should have been enough to sink Detroit for at least this season, especially with its remaining core contributors Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nick Lidstrom not putting up overwhelming numbers. And yet the Red Wings are at the playoff cutoff line and looking forward to getting several of the players back before the real season begins. If they get there, the end of the era might not yet be at hand. Grade: C-plus
Edmonton Oilers: Edmonton is trying something different year with motivator Pat Quinn serving as head coach and X's and O's guy Tom Renney riding shotgun as an associate, but at midseason the Oilers seem to be fortunate that the focus is on a restaurateur they allegedly stiffed on New Year's Eve. The Oilers have been lousy on the road and not that good at home. Aside for the turnaround by Dustin Penner, the first half has been nearly forgettable for Edmonton. Grade: F-plus
Los Angeles Kings: They spent the first half writing the kind of script that turns into a movie. Los Angeles had the look and feel of a potential future powerhouse coming into the season, but the Kings have sped up the process to a remarkable degree under the patient tutelage of coach Terry Murray. Anze Kopitar and sophomore defenseman Drew Doughty have had breakout seasons, and young goalie Jonathan Quick didn't play his way off the Olympic roster. The offseason acquisitions of veterans Ryan Smyth and Rob Scuderi have made important impacts, and may have been most visible when both were hurt and the team stayed in the race for the Pacific lead. San Jose's recent winning streak makes winning that unlikely now, but at midseason, the Kings have made it clear they are for real. Grade: A
|Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar are showing the Kings are making a serious playoff push. (Getty Images)|
Nashville Predators: The Predators hit the halfway point with ownership issues again surrounding them. But a fragile future in Nashville goes with the territory for the team and may be a reason the Predators are usually competitive. Certainly this season has been a lot better than anyone might have predicted for coach Barry Trotz's charges. The Predators still don't score very much, but they've gotten decent production from a variety of players. A fair bit of it has come from a very good back end led by Shea Weber. The goaltending from Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis has been steady, and the Predators have always been a hard-working team under the only coach they've had. Grade: A-minus
Phoenix Coyotes: The Olympics are coming up, so maybe the Coyotes have been vying for the title of Miracle on Ice, Part II. It seems to fit for an organization that has been put through the wringer for a year, and has hit the halfway mark with one of the best records in the league. This, in a season when the current head coach took over a week before the opener, and the process of bankruptcy and its implications have never been clearer to the players. Phoenix hasn't done it with star power, in fact its marquee player Shane Doan has struggled enough to be left off Canada's roster for Vancouver. But the Coyotes are playing very good defensively and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has had a Vezina caliber season. Grade: A-plus
St. Louis Blues: Now it looks like the St. Louis Blues made last season's playoffs on an adrenaline rush. The ascension was actually a bit ahead of schedule for a roster made up of a lot of futures, but when the Blues had the league's best second half and got to the tournament after being last in mid-February, it was hard to suggest it was premature. So the bar was raised coming in. But St. Louis has been awful at home, and not much better on the road. The real problem has been the lack of expected progress by several young talents this season, something that cost Andy Murray his job as coach at the halfway mark. That won't help much this season, but the Blues are supposed to be thinking about the future anyway. Grade: D-minus
San Jose Sharks: One of these seasons, the Sharks will live up to their potential and win a Stanley Cup. The talent is there, it has been for several years, and the addition of Dany Heatley makes this San Jose's most dangerous lineup in team history. Heatley has teamed up with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau to form the most potent line in the league, but there is a lot of depth on the roster and it has been on display for most of the first half. The Sharks got off track for a couple of weeks in early December, but rebounded with a vengeance to pull away from upstarts Phoenix and L.A. in the Pacific Division. Thing is they have to prove it in the playoffs. Everyone knows they get it done in the regular season and this first half has been no exception. Grade: A
Vancouver Canucks: Vancouver lost Daniel Sedin for a long stretch early in the season and goalie Roberto Luongo for a little while later, but the Canucks held their own and never dropped out of sight in the West. Give a lot of credit to Henrik Sedin, who carried the mail while his twin brother was gone and put himself in contention for the scoring title. Daniel Sedin returned in mid-November which happens to be the time the Canucks began the run that has them within striking distance of the Northwest lead at the midpoint. The Canucks were very good at home too, and finished the first half looking much better on the road. That's critical because they'll spend a lot of time on it during the Olympics. Grade: B-plus