The Chicago Blackhawks see the gap in the Western Conference standings, but aren't falling for it. They look at successive 3-0 shutout wins over Detroit in December and now three-straight wins over the Red Wings following Sunday's 4-3 Chicago win and aren't buying in.
No, the Blackhawks know the Red Wings have gone through injuries like few other teams this season, so they aren't buying into any notion the Wings are in decline. As a result, we saw as good a hockey game as you'll find Sunday afternoon in a 4-3 Chicago win in a shootout in which the Hawks scored three times, the Wings twice.
"They've had some injuries and some tough breaks this year, and we've been playing well and have a lot of confidence," Chicago's Patrick Kane said. "Every game against these guys, no matter when you play it, is going to be a competitive game.
"I still think they're the team to beat until proven otherwise in the playoffs," Kane said.
On the flip side, one better believe these Blackhawks are for real. The Detroit lineup that took the ice at Joe Louis Arena Sunday afternoon had Henrik Zetterberg, Dan Cleary, Brian Rafalski and Jonathan Ericsson in place, so a Chicago win says a lot about these guys too.
"They got three or four players back from the last time we played them and obviously you could tell," Hawks winger and former Wing Marian Hossa told reporters. "They played really well. It was an even game and could go both ways, and we got lucky at the end.
"It's a great start for us going on the long road trip. We got the first two wins on the road and it always helps with the confidence."
Despite the loss, Wings coach Mike Babcock liked the way his team competed.
"I thought both teams played real well," he said. "Obviously their power play set us on our heels there a little bit in the first period, but I thought we started good and then I thought we responded and played a good game. We had two breakaways in overtime -- it would have been nice to score on one of those, but that's the way life is."
Remember the name -- In some quarters, goaltending is considered Chicago's albatross, but Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi continue to win, with the unheralded Niemi earning Sunday's win. He blanked the Red Wings earlier this season too.
Sunday, he made 35 saves and is now 12-3-1 this season.
"This is a good start on our road trip," Niemi said of wins over Columbus and Detroit before meeting the Senators in Ottawa Tuesday. "It's great to get points in the first games so you don't get stuck with zero points."
As for Niemi against the Wings, coach Joel Quenneville was bullish.
'He was great, spectacular," Quenneville said. "He was a new guy in the League, and we had to see how he'd handle it. I love how he's progressed."
"There were a lot of chances both ways, and he made huge saves all game long," defenseman Duncan Keith agreed. "He was quick on his feet."
And calm under pressure.
Homing in on wins -- With a 14-10-1 home record after Monday's loss to the Maple Leafs, the Nashville Predators know they need to make hay at home to be considered a serious challenger in the Western Conference.
"We've got to learn from this," Nashville captain Jason Arnott said after the loss to Toronto. "We know we are losing at home and we've got to change it quick. We played well on the road and then we come home and it takes us two periods to get going. By that time we were too far behind."
"We just play really loose on the road," goalie Dan Ellis told John Glennon of The Tennessean. "We're feeling comfortable in other teams' buildings. When we get on the road, there's a lot of team bonding that goes on. Guys get close to each other, have a lot of fun and it just seems to go well."
"I think we've been disappointed in some of our home games, the energy," coach Barry Trotz said. "We've always traditionally been a really good home team. We don't want that ever to slide. We know a couple of games we've lacked the element of emotion or focus or commitment, whatever word you want to attach to why we're a little off."
Clark finds a home -- It would have been understandable if Chris Clark was down in the dumps after being traded to Columbus. After all, he was captain of one of the NHL's elite teams when he got the word he was traded to a team that has been struggling mightily. But Clark isn't that kind of guy.
"He was speaking up on the bench and in the room that first night," Jackets captain Rick Nash told Tom Reed of the Columbus Dispatch. "You can tell by the things he says and the things he does he has been through this with young teams before."
"He is a quality guy, and you can tell that he does things right in life," Umberger said. "His attitude is so positive and he has good values, the kind that rub off on other players."
Clark also is a very smart player. Between 2005-07, he scored 50 goals for the Capitals while playing with Alex Ovechkin and Dainius Zubrus. Was the success due to a sizzling shot or tremendous offensive instincts?
"I figured out I just needed to get (Ovechkin) the puck anywhere in the neutral zone and head straight for the next because that's where the puck would wind up," he said.
Power surge serves Blues -- One of the changes in approach under Davis Payne in St. Louis is the Blues have been a more aggressive team in the third period.
According to Jeremy Rutherford in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Blues had been outscored 51-35 in third-period play prior to Monday's 4-2 loss in Columbus where they allowed 1 goal. St. Louis also had lost 11 games after being tied or leading after two periods and twice blew 3-0 leads.
But in the three games prior to Monday's loss to the Blue Jackets, the Blues outscored the opposition 5-0 in the third.
"And we won all three games," forward David Backes said. "We haven't been playing that prevent defense. The only thing you do is prevent yourself from winning. We haven't been on our heels."
"We're just sticking with the plan," Payne said. "We're not there to change our game in the third period. There will be some times when you have to, when you're chasing a lead. But when you've got one, it's about keeping your feet moving. It's about moving in sync.
"As of late, in the third period, we've come out with a lot more energy than we did in the past," Alexander Steen said. "Obviously, a big part of that is (Chris) Mason in the net. He's been great for us, making the saves when we need him to."
Mason's star status -- Chris Mason earned NHL Second Star honors Monday for his play last week. He won all three starts and allowed only 2 goals. He posted a shutout against the Wild as well.
He has come a long way since surrendering 10 regulation goals and 2 overtime goals in the third period during a seven game losing streak between Dec. 26 and Jan. 7.
"The last month, we talked about getting extra saves," Mason told Rutherford. "I wasn't doing it the last month. Games are so close, and every game we seem to play is a tight game.
"It just seems like everybody's in sync," Mason said. "Before, I think we were prone to breakdowns and get running around. We just don't seem to be running around as much. Our structure seems to be a lot better."
Mason earned his 100th career win Saturday with a win over the Rangers.
"I don't really take in personal milestones, especially when you're playing a team sport and we're in the position we're in right now," he said. "Maybe I'll look back and it'll be a little more special, but just winning games as a team is the biggest thing for me."
Around the Central -- The Blue Jackets put LW Fredrik Modin (foot) on injured reserve and activated D Marc Methot (shoulder). ... Columbus D Fedor Tyutin was scratched and missed his first game after 132 straight since being traded in the summer of 2008. ... The Blues' David Backes, an American Olympian, has gained some notoriety of late for fighting Rick Nash, Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry, three members of the Canadian Olympic entry. Backes told reporters there is no agenda, just a case of right place, right time. "No direct agenda there," Backes told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "They just tend to be the guys who are in my way and creating some havoc around." Backes and Nash did not meet again in Monday's 4-2 Columbus win. Aaron Portzline reports in the Columbus Dispatch that the Blue Jackets' amateur scouting staff is meeting this week to begin compiling a list of prospects for the 2010 Entry Draft. ... The Red Wings are pleased with the play of Patrick Eaves. He has been a top-notch penalty killer and a valuable member of the third line with Darren Helms and Kris Draper. "He's a gamer," Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom told the Detroit Free Press. "He isn't afraid to drop his gloves and get the team going." ... Nashville's Jordin Tootoo practiced for the first time since breaking his foot Dec. 12 on Monday, but is about a week away. ... The Blues recorded their 19th sellout on Saturday vs. the Rangers as another crowd of 19,150 filled Scottrade Center. ... The Blue Jackets are 19-3-2 when Raffi Torres scores.