With just a few weeks to go in the 2013-14 regular season, teams are starting to hit their final 10 games. Even with so little time left, so much remains to be decided. That doesn't mean some teams haven't separated themselves and others haven't fallen back to the pack, though.
Here are some things I'm noticing as the season hits its home stretch.
SHARKS COMING OUT OF THE WATER
All season long we've talked about the Chicago Blackhawks or the St. Louis Blues or the Anaheim Ducks as teams to beat out in the Western Conference. We haven't talked very much about the San Jose Sharks, but they've been there lying in the weeds the whole time. Well, they aren't lying in the weeds anymore. San Jose has now jumped atop the Pacific Division and it's pretty clear they'll be a factor in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and may even be the team that wins the West.
There's no doubt this is a great team, and it's been a great franchise for 10 years now even as it's watched its rivals in the West win the Stanley Cup while San Jose hasn't gotten past the conference final. But this year the Sharks are loaded. Logan Couture is emerging as a star, Joe Pavelski is having a great year, Joe Thornton is having the quietest great year in the NHL, Patrick Marleau is having a tremendous season, Antti Niemi has a championship pedigree in net and they've got some great defensemen. Marc-Edouard Vlasic has turned into a world-class defenseman and Dan Boyle is still Dan Boyle. Having all of that talent and not all of the attention has been a great situation for them. The Sharks are sort of like a horse in the pack that's a great finisher. The pace is slow and all of the sudden it's a sprint to the finish line. Right now the Sharks are out-sprinting everybody.
It also helps that they're in first place now. The West is so good that you need every advantage you can find, and having home ice in the postseason would be huge for San Jose. Anyone who has been to SAP Center knows that's a huge home-ice advantage. The Shark Tank rivals Chicago for its atmosphere and that building can get rocking as the weather heats up.
I still don't think the Sharks are the team that will come out of the West, but with a conference that competitive and that good it's hard to pick any one team. Given its postseason history, San Jose still has to show me it can win in the spring, but if the Sharks do, it wouldn't surprise me one bit with the team they've got.
NO ONE'S BETTER THAN BOSTON
As you watch the NHL right now, there is just no way you can say the Boston Bruins aren't the best team in the League. I don't know how you can say they're not. There are just no weaknesses on this team and it's won 12 games in a row, which is historically good. Those wins haven't been tight ones either. With the exception of a shootout win in Tampa Bay earlier this month, the Bruins have been completely dominant over their winning streak, outscoring their opponents 47-17.
It's just unbelievable how they're dominating. They give you nothing, they come from behind, they get leads and you're done, they score shorthanded goals, and they're doing all of it without Dennis Seidenberg. Add into that Johnny Boychuk has been a little hurt, Adam McQuaid has been hurt and they're suddenly playing a hodgepodge of young defensemen like Torey Krug and Dougie Hamilton and it doesn't matter. They're throwing in young kids and still getting the job done.
Right now this team expects to win every time it plays and there's no reason to think it can't. If you love watching hockey and love watching it played well, the Bruins are a team to watch. Are they the most exciting? Probably not, because they don't get into shootouts or run and guns. But if you just watch them play, they're amazing in how complete and dominant they are right now. You can't take a shift off against Boston, and right now they're playing the game the way it's supposed to be played.
TROUBLE IN TORONTO
Plain and simple, things aren't looking good for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Right now this team has lost five games in a row in regulation, which is its longest pointless skid of the season, and in the competitive Eastern Conference playoff race, that will hurt you and hurt you quickly. There are some teams where when they get to a certain point in the game, they make the play to win. Right now Toronto makes the play to lose.
The Maple Leafs are a very fragile team right now. The goaltending situation is a mess, they're taking bad penalties, they're undisciplined, and they give up too many easy chances and breakaways. That shouldn't happen at this point of the season. When you're a playoff team those kinks should already be out of the system. It they are going to make the playoffs this season, it looks to me right now like someone else is going to have to falter.
This team doesn't look like a typical Randy Carlyle team either. Carlyle's teams, when they're on a roll, they're very aggressive, they're very physical, but they're smart and don't take bad penalties. When you watch the Maple Leafs play right now, the penalties they take aren't tough penalties. They're cheap or lazy ones like slashing, hooking or holding. Those are the types of penalties that kill you. This isn't the team we saw in Toronto for most of this season, and if the Leafs don't turn things around right now, we won't be watching them for much longer in 2013-14.