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.
The only downside to having so many teams in the chase is there might not be many sellers at the trade deadline.
Perhaps more crazy than how dominant the West has been, however, is how much action we've seen so far this season outside of the games themselves. We've already had three coaches fired, a major trade and a fired general manager this past week in Buffalo. We know how often coaches get fired in the NHL, but to have this many moves this early is pretty amazing. It's been an active and wild first 20 games.
I think in the hockey world the Phoenix Coyotes have been a very well-thought of team for a number of years. They've always been tough to play against, they've always been great defensively and they've always been tough to score on. Now, though, not only are they one of the best teams in the NHL, but they're a different kind of team. Unlike teams coach Dave Tippett has led in the past, this team scores goals and has some very skilled players to go with a great defense, and the most exciting goaltender in the NHL in Mike Smith.
This is a team that's fun to watch.
The real difference between these Coyotes and the Coyotes of the past is they've got newfound offensive success after bringing in guys like Mike Ribeiro. It also helps that Oliver Ekman-Larsson has gotten better and come into his own. All of this has made Phoenix not just a tough mark in general, but an extremely tough mark at home, where they're 9-0-1 this season. Now other teams look at a trip to Phoenix like a trip to Chicago or San Jose. The Coyotes are starting to get the respect they deserve for being such a tough team to face in their own building.
Ekman-Larsson might be the most exciting part of it all. Along with Erik Karlsson in Ottawa, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles and maybe one or two others, Ekman-Larsson is one of the next great defensive stars in the League. He's just fantastic. He's got good size, great skating ability, he's a great passer of the puck, he jumps into the play very well. He's the real deal. He's not just one of the best young defensemen in the League, he's one of the best young players. Period.
All of this adds up to a new, more dangerous team in Phoenix, and you're seeing it now. You're seeing a team scoring more goals and a team that is still very good defensively but will open up the gate a little bit and let players have creativity. Tippett has shown that with the right players he's ready to change his coaching style, and the numbers show the Coyotes have changed as well.
After an absolutely incredible start, the Colorado Avalanche have lost three in a row. This is a test, and we're going to find out just how good a team this is by how they respond to it.
I think they're talented enough that they'll overcome this and get back to playing well. Of the Avalanche's three losses, only the loss to the St. Louis Blues was a game where they were manhandled pretty badly. The other two were close games they were right in. A stretch like this is where you find out about your team. Colorado hasn't faced any pressure yet. They haven't had any problems or faced any adversity, so you don't really know much about them as a team. With three losses in a row, though, instead of everyone getting pats on the back in the morning, they'll get questions from the media about feeling pressure or playing must-win games. It's a test for all of those players and it's a test for Patrick Roy, who is in his first real struggle as an NHL coach.
Now that Colorado has lost these three games, they've dropped to fourth place in the Central Division, and that shows you not just the dogfight the Avs are in for the rest of the season, but the dogfight everyone in the West is in. The same thing happens with the Chicago Blackhawks. If they lose three in a row, they'll drop into third place. The same thing happens with the San Jose Sharks and Los Angeles Kings. That's going to happen all year in the Western Conference. If you have a losing streak for any length of time you're going to drop like a rock because every other team is winning.
All that said, I'm not that worried about the Avalanche. I didn't envision them finishing first overall to begin with, but I think they're a playoff team because of their talent level. That's what will get them out of this, their work ethic and their talent level. You're not going to win anything in the NHL without a test, and you need one to find out about your team. I'd much rather find out about it now than in March or April.
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