Thursday February 10th, 2011

Mike Fisher (12) brings playoff experience and solid two-way play to the Predators, who are in a Western Conference race made hotter by the Flames' sudden improvement. (Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

By Stu Hackel

Enough of head shots, goalie fights and TV deals! Let's talk about hockey for a change.

Specifically, let's talk about the wild Western Conference, where the Predators, fresh off administering two spankings to the Red Wings that were sandwiched around a loss to the Oilers, strolled into the trade market today and came home with the Senators center Mike Fisher.

Now, this is good in a few ways. Nashville needs more consistent scoring and Fisher can provide it. The Preds have never replaced the concussed Matthew Lombardi, and in Fisher they get someone Barry Trotz can use in all situations, who has playoff experience and plays with the kind of consistent intensity that earns a letter on his sweater.

It's also good for Fisher because he's married to American Idol/country music star Carrie Underwood, so the Nashville connection is a natural (the jokes are flying on Twitter in part because The Tennessean's headline on the deal reads "Predators acquire Mike Fisher, Carrie Underwood's husband"). And it's good for the Sens because they're getting a first round draft choice this June and a conditional pick in 2012, so their rebuild can begin (although it will likely be a pick late in the first round; still it's a good asset). And, if Sens GM Bryan Murray wants to keep his job, or some job with the team, the trade shows owner Eugene Melnyk that he can pull the trigger on deals to facilitate that rebuild.

The Preds are lurking in the ever-expanding group of sardine-packed teams in the West. Right now there are 13  -- from Dallas in the third spot (barely) to Colorado in 14th -- separated by only 10 points. A few weeks ago, the division leaders, Vancouver, Detroit and Dallas, all seemed comfortably above the pack, but the Stars have fallen and even the Wings aren't flapping. They're only four points ahead of the pack now.

Detroit has long been one of the best defensive clubs in the NHL, but when you look at the goals they gave up to the Preds last night (video), they're getting beat to pucks and caught standing around in front of their own net. They're not getting great goaltending, either, although Jimmy Howard was quite good on Monday night against the Rangers. Getting Brad Stuart back will help, but it's unclear how long it will be until that happens.

Even Vancouver has to be a bit jittery. Vancouver Province columnist Ed Willis has written more than once in recent weeks about how unaccustomed Canucks fans are to having their team play this good this late in the season. "Things are going too well for the Canucks and it can't continue because, well, it never does for this team. Something will happen. It always does. You just wait," Willis wrote last week.

Well, not only have the Canucks lost their best defenseman, Alex Edler, who had back surgery and is gone for at least the rest of the regular season, but in successive games they also lost Keith Ballard for about a month after he got tangled with Ottawa's Milan Michalek...

...and messed up his knee during a play that left Canucks GM Mike Gillis yelling slewfoot. Two days later on Wednesday, Dan Hamhuis went down after this hit by Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf:

(We're trying to avoid rule debates in this post, but it seemed to The Vancouver Sun's Cam Cole that Getzlaf left his feet after he made contact with Hamhuis, contrary to what John Garrett said on the telecast). In any case, no word yet on Hamhuis, but Sami Salo could be ready to return this weekend after missing the entire season thus far.

Calgary ignites: One reason the Western race has tightened up is because the Flames are on fire. They're 12-3-4 since Darryl Sutter stepped down as general manager, and when was the last time a team turned it around because the GM left? A new coach, you could understand that, but the GM? The atmosphere around the team certainly has improved, though. Bob McKenzie pointed out on Montreal radio Team 990 earlier this week that the Flames success actually proves Sutter was right. This is the team that he thought could do well in the West this season. That it has climbed over five teams into eighth spot after being so close to the basement is truly impressive.

The Sharks, too, are swimming along nicely, winners of five straight, and nine of 10 with that one loss coming in a postgame skills competition against the Kings. San Jose has tied Dallas in points and not long ago, the Sharks were also below the playoff cutline. They had lost six straight prior to their current hot streak, but suddenly all the things that were not going right for them are working, starting in goal where Antti Niemi, who got hot around this time last year for the Blackhawks, has found his game. Niemi made 42 saves on Wednesday against the Blue Jackets in a 3-2 win. He had shut out the Bruins and Caps on the road, and after the Caps game, his teammates awarded Niemi their version of the hard hat -- a miniature baseball bat -- and, as David Pollok blogging for The San Jose Mercury News reported, they chanted and rhythmically clapped "Hey, hey, hey, hey — way to go Nemo."

It's always fun to win.

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