The annual "Circus Trip," in which the Chicago Blackhawks go on a long road trip so Barnum and Bailey's can occupy the United Center, is a rite of fall for the Hawks. Trips that long are not easy. Just two years ago Chicago had a lengthy road trip that coincided with a nine-game losing streak which led to rumors coach Joel Quenneville's job was on the line.
This season, Chicago's "Circus Trip" pitted it against stiff competition, including the Colorado Avalanche, Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes, to add to the rigors of seven games and nearly two weeks living out of a suitcase. The Blackhawks may have dropped the first game, but they responded, amazingly, by winning the last six in a row, including a dominant 5-2 win in Phoenix against the stingy Coyotes to put an exclamation point on the trip.
To me, this says that not only are the Blackhawks a team you need to consider on the short list of Stanley Cup contenders -- after all, we already know that -- but this team is now a little tougher than it used to be. The Blackhawks are turning into the Detroit Red Wings of the late 1990s or the New York Islanders of the early 1980s. They expect to win every game and they expect to have a shot at the Stanley Cup every year. They've got that mentality where they think, "Why can't we win every year? Why should we have a down year?"
As if the Western Conference didn't have enough teams playing well lately, the Minnesota Wild over the last two weeks have played their way into the mix. I was very high on Minnesota last season after it added Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, but it looks like it took them a year to put it together and there are a few reasons why.
Obviously, a big reason is goalie Josh Harding, who has played exceptionally, and he did suffer an injury this past weekend, but the Wild have pretty deep goaltending with Niklas Backstrom behind him. Not many teams in the NHL have better goaltending than Minnesota.
Another big reason is their young players, especially Mikael Granlund. I thought Granlund was going to explode on the scene last season, and it's taken him a while, but he's playing very well this season, which makes the Wild a much deeper offensive team on the whole. Mikko Koivu is also playing better this season. I've been a fan of his for a number of years because he is immensely talented, but he hadn't quite put it together.
Then you look at Ryan Suter. It's hard to say this, but I think Suter is playing better than he did last season. Right now he'd be my pick for the Norris Trophy, and while he's putting up huge minutes every night, I don't think he's going to end up burning out. Suter plays huge minutes, but they aren't physical minutes. He doesn't pound his body like Zdeno Chara or P.K. Subban. He is such a skilled guy that he intercepts passes, he uses stick checking and he's a beautiful skater. He uses his body very well and cuts off angles, but at the same time I can't ever remember seeing him get drilled or drilling somebody else. Because of that, I don't think his body will wear down like someone else's might with those types of minutes.
We've reached the quarter-mark of the season and it has been a crazy 20 games so far. I think the most noteworthy and surprising thing this season, though, has been the total dominance of the Western Conference. You sometimes see a season where one conference is better than the other, but the way the West has just totally dominated inter-conference play is really amazing.
Obviously there are periods where one individual team is head and shoulders above the rest of the League. The Edmonton Oilers and New York Islanders both had stretches like that in the 1980s. We always have one team that is dominant for a period of time, but for the whole conference to be this strong is crazy. You could easily say the four best teams in the NHL all play in the West. The truly amazing thing is it's not just five or six teams, either. Teams competing for the eighth spot in the West now are on pace for 110 points. That's an amazingly high number. I know a lot of that comes out of three-point games, but we've had three-point games for over a decade now and we've never seen anything quite like this.
One of the big stories this past weekend came Friday when the Florida Panthers dismissed coach Kevin Dineen and replaced him with Peter Horachek. I think there were a lot of reasons this move came about, with the obvious one being that for the second straight season the Panthers are struggling. New Panthers owner Vincent Viola, I think to some extent, wants to put his stamp on the team by pushing general manager Dale Tallon to make a change, but it's important to show your fans you won't settle for what's happening on the ice, and that's what this move does.
In addition to that, though, it looks to me like the players had quit listening to Dineen. In recent weeks you started seeing veteran players like Kris Versteeg as healthy scratches. When you have to start doing that as a coach, scratching veterans and guys that are supposed to be your leaders, that tends to tell you there's trouble in the dressing room. This was Dineen's third year in Florida and that third year tends to be when the majority of coaches get fired. They run out of ways to say what they believe in and the players can get tired of hearing you. I think that's what happened with Kevin.
Of course, some things were out of Dineen's control. There were a ton of injuries last season and this season, a number of guys they were counting on are having terrible years and a lot of the young guys haven't progressed as quickly as the team would have hoped. Don't forget, the Panthers also lost Stephen Weiss and Jason Garrison to free agency over the past few years and you can't really replace those guys.
Right now the Ottawa Senators are sixth in the Atlantic Division, already eight points behind the division leaders. It's still early but this is not where we thought Ottawa would be. I don't know that I would say it's time to "worry," but I do think it might be time to be concerned.
In a lot of ways there are good things that are happening. Sunday, even in a loss, they caught some breaks -- literally in the case of Bobby Ryan's stick-breaking goal that tied the game in the final 10 seconds. In addition Erik Karlsson is starting to play the way we've envisioned and Jason Spezza has scored as well. Obviously there was a scary moment when Craig Anderson was hurt, but even if he misses extended time backup goalie Robin Lehner has been good.
I think they know they've got a good team and they're certainly not happy with the way they've played so far, but I also think when they start to watch the tape from this past weekend, when the Senators had back-to-back shootout losses, they'll see some good teams and manage to pull themselves together.
2014 Bridgestone Winter Classic rink build is underway. WATCH NOW ›
It was one of those spur-of-the-moment things you think of. I'm glad it went in because the guys would have given me a lot of flak if I didn't score that one.