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.
Compared to a year ago, this team is much deeper, its younger players are playing better and it's getting great play from its veterans. The Wild's only problem is the rest of the conference is so great. Minnesota is going to be there right until the end, and we've been saying all season the race in the West would be fantastic, but I think it's going to be even better than we thought.
INJURIES IN HOCKEYTOWN
Pavel Datsyuk missed the Detroit Red Wings' game on Sunday against the Buffalo Sabres after taking a hit to the head Saturday night against the Ottawa Senators. His return has not been announced, although Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said he "seems to be doing fine," but if this ends up being a prolonged absence, it is a huge loss for Detroit. There are no two ways about it.
The Red Wings are lucky in that they're in the Eastern Conference. If they were in the West they would already be on the outside looking in with the inconsistent season they've had. I do think Detroit will be in the mix for the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the season goes on, but if Datsyuk is gone for any considerable length of time that will spell trouble. They don't have many guys scoring consistently, and to lose a guy that not only can score, but also plays against the other team's best players and shuts them down, could be a big problem for a team that doesn't look like it has the depth we once thought it had.
In addition, the Red Wings are managing a big loss on the blue line now that Danny DeKeyser is out 3-6 weeks with a left shoulder injury. Losing one of their top four defensemen will put more pressure on Niklas Kronwall to play bigger, more important minutes. At the same time, Jimmy Howard, who should be one of the top goalies in the NHL, has been good, but I don't think he's been great. That leaves a number of games that should be wins for Detroit that haven't been.
Injuries are a part of the NHL, and they're going to be worse than usual this season because of the congested schedule with the Olympics, but that won't be an excuse in Detroit. Losing Datsyuk and DeKeyser could have an enormous impact on the Red Wings, but overcoming injuries is going to be pivotal throughout the League this season. The Wings are just one example of it.
TRADING PLACES IN THE METROPOLITAN
Before this season began, the New York Islanders looked to be a team on the cusp of turning the corner after years of struggling, while the New Jersey Devils, after two decades as one of the top teams in the League, appeared to be headed for a very tough season.
That hasn't quite been the case.
The Devils just completed an impressive road trip, with wins against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings, and they're a great story right now. New Jersey's forwards are among some of the oldest in the League with guys like Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias, but each has played very well this season. At the same time, the goaltending has been very good and defensively they've been awesome lately, giving up nothing and keeping themselves in every game. To do what they're doing with the ages of their forwards is pretty fantastic. It's pretty clear the Colorado Avalanche are the biggest surprise in the League this season, but right now, I'd have to say the Devils' recent success has them right there.
As for the Islanders, there is no doubt that they've been a disappointment so far, but we need to wait until we see them with Thomas Vanek playing normally before we make any judgments. The Islanders basically traded Matt Moulson for Vanek, so having him out of the lineup basically means they've lost one scorer and they've lost the player they expected to replace him with. Even without Vanek in the lineup I thought the Islanders would be winning consistently, especially in the East, which has shown itself to not quite be on the same level as the West this season. So far, though, that hasn't happened, and while the Metropolitan is the division you want to be in if you're struggling, their competition is starting to get its act together.
New York has got to get things straightened out and it's got to get them straightened out quickly, but the Isles are still in the hunt for the playoffs if they can do it. Once you get past the Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and maybe the Tampa Bay Lightning, no team in the East has established itself as a surefire postseason contender. Because of the Islanders' talent and the competition they'll be facing, they could easily win five games in a row and pull themselves right back into the chase.