The usual suspects are there in the Central Division -- the Chicago Blackhawks, the St. Louis Blues, the Colorado Avalanche -- but lately the Dallas Stars have been surging up the standings and playing extremely well. When you take into account how many games the Stars have played, they're right in the thick of the race and I don't see them going away.
I really like this team. I like their speed, and obviously Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have magic together. The Stars have a pretty good mobile defense, their goaltending has been very good and rookie Valeri Nichushkin has been awesome. He's a monster and he's got a huge reach that has made him very effective for someone new to the NHL. The Stars have some great young players like Brenden Dillon on defense, and if one of the teams above them falters, the Stars can catch them.
I don't think I see St. Louis and Chicago having a problem staying above Dallas. Colorado is a young team that will have its ups and downs and the Minnesota Wild have looked really good at times but they've also struggled at times. Dallas is going to have a lot of points even if it doesn't make the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Stars are going to force teams to play well. You won't back into the playoffs in the West. You're going to have to play well all season long, and teams like Dallas are proof of that.
Even if they don't make the postseason, the Stars have a bright future and they're one of the most entertaining teams to watch in the NHL. They fly, and Benn and Seguin score some of the prettiest goals there are in the NHL. They hit and they play really fast. If you've never had any reason or chance to watch Dallas, make sure you do because you'll really enjoy how they play.
We all knew at the beginning of the season that the Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins would be the big dogs in the Eastern Conference and that a few other teams might sneak into the conversation, but I'm not sure how many people would have tabbed the Montreal Canadiens. And yet here they are, battling with Boston atop the Atlantic Division after winning nine of their past 10 games.
In my opinion I could see the Habs winning the division or maybe even the conference, but I still would pick Boston to beat them in the playoffs. That said, they are one of the more surprising teams in the NHL and when you watch them it's easy to see why they are where they are. Carey Price has been excellent in net, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov have been great together on defense, and the team has added depth up front with Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. They've got two lines now that can score. Max Pacioretty when healthy is one of the best power forwards we have in the game and they're playing a good system.
This is a team that right now doesn't have a lot of weaknesses. Just look at the game the Canadiens played last week against the New Jersey Devils. They rallied from two deficits, tied the game in the final minute after falling behind with 1:05 to go in the third period and won the game in a shootout. Montreal's got a lot of firepower and a lot of players who can put the puck in the net, and they attack the net very, very well. We saw in that game how good Montreal can be and how deep they are. The Canadiens are a team that has sort of crept up on me, but I really enjoy how they play and they'll be a fixture in this Atlantic race.
NO BLUES FOR THE BLUES
The Blues have lost three of their past four games; it's not the losses themselves that have people wondering about St. Louis, it's who those losses are to: The San Jose Sharks, the Anaheim Ducks and the Los Angeles Kings. Those losses make it easy to think the Blues might not be able to tangle with the West's other big boys, but that's not the perspective I'm taking.
I think there's a clear five teams in the West that rank above the rest of the conference -- the three California teams, Chicago and St. Louis. I think the Phoenix Coyotes can be as good as those other five at times and so can the Vancouver Canucks, but to me those five are the cream of the crop. Yes, the Blues lost all three recent games they played against the rest of that group, but I think it just shows how good those five teams are. We know how talented St. Louis is, and the Blues might be in a bit of a slump right now, but these games just show that any of those five teams can beat the other four at any time. It shows the type of battle we're going to have the rest of the season.
I'm not worried St. Louis can't beat those teams. They aren't playing quite as sharply right now as they were a few weeks ago, but it's a long season and these kinds of dips happen over 82 games. In two weeks we'll talk about Chicago losing to the other four or the Ducks having a tough time. It just shows how tough those teams are and how evenly matched they are.
If anything, to me the Blues' recent struggles are just an indication of how great and unpredictable a race we're going to have out West, and it'll go right down to the wire.