Can the West get any wilder?
Ten weeks into the 2010-11 season, the top team in the conference (Detroit) and the last-place team (Edmonton) are separated by only 14 points -- less than half the 30-point margin from first to last in the East. Even wilder, the gap from second-place Dallas to 13th-place Calgary is just eight points. Four teams begin play Friday tied with 38 points, and five more start the weekend even at 35. Two of the five 35-point teams -- Chicago and Phoenix, both among the top four teams in the conference last season -- are on the outside looking in.
"Every night is a playoff game," said San Jose coach Todd McLellan, whose team climbed into seventh place with a 4-3 overtime win at Dallas on Thursday. "It can come back and bite you if you don't realize that."
It's the second year in a row that the gap from top to bottom in the West has been just 14 points as we reach the week before Christmas. Last season, Los Angeles was on top with 47 points on Dec. 17, while Anaheim was last with 33. In contrast, the top-to-bottom gap ranged from 25 to 36 points on the same date in the three previous seasons.
One reason the West is so competitive is that while Western teams take turns beating each other up, something they have in common is the ability to beat up the East. Through the first 130 interconference games, Western teams have won 71, a .546 winning percentage, and have failed to get a point only 40 times in those 130 games; teams from the East have gone home empty 53 times. That's a big reason why 12 of the 15 Western teams have more wins than regulation losses -- and none of the other three is worse than two games below .500 in regulation. In contrast, six teams in the East have fewer wins than regulation losses, and two (New Jersey and the New York Islanders) are 10 games or more under .500.
Last season, 100 points was only good for seventh in the West, and the eighth-place Colorado Avalanche had 95. The 11th-place Anaheim Ducks (89 points) would have made the playoffs in the East. Only five teams in the West are on target to hit the century mark this season -- but 10 are on track for 92 or more points, meaning the scramble for playoff berths is only just beginning.
In contrast, the East has a four-point gap between eighth-place Boston (36) and ninth-place Carolina (32), and the Hurricanes are the only team outside the top eight in the East that has more wins than regulation losses. Four teams in the East are on track to reach the 100-point mark, the same number as last season,
Fast starts pay off -- How important is it to be in the top eight this early in the season? More than you might think.
Of the 40 teams in the West that have been in the top eight on Dec. 17 during the past five seasons, 33 (82.5 percent) have gone on to make the playoffs. No more than two of the top eight in any season have missed the postseason. In the East, 32 of the 40 teams (80 percent) of those who were in the top eight at this time in the last five seasons still were playing hockey in the middle of April. The biggest turnover was three teams in 2006-07.
While making up a deficit is difficult, it's not impossible. Washington went from last in the East to the Southeast Division championship three seasons ago, and St. Louis made the playoffs despite being last in 2008-09.
Nick has the knack -- One reason the Red Wings are first in the West is the blue-line brilliance of Nicklas Lidstrom, who's playing well enough to engender thoughts of winning a seventh Norris Trophy.
Through the first 1,441 regular-season games of a career that's sure to land him in the Hall of Fame, he had 241 goals, well over 1,000 points and four Stanley Cup rings. But there was one thing Lidstrom never had done -- score three times in one game.
The 40-year-old scratched that off his to-do list Wednesday, scoring three times in the Wings' 5-2 victory against St. Louis. He set a couple of records in the process. He easily surpassed 36-year-old Scott Mellanby as the oldest first-time hat trick scorer in NHL history. He also became the oldest defenseman in League history to get a hat trick, easily surpassing 37-year-old Mathieu Schneider who accomplished the feat in October 2006.
Lidstrom joins a pretty elite group as the third 40-something to score a hat trick. Gordie Howe did it three times with Detroit and Boston's Johnny Bucyk had two. Howe's last NHL hat trick came when he was 41 -- Mr. Hockey remains the oldest player to score three times in an NHL game.