While Devin Setoguchi and the Sharks have struggled to find their usual regular-season dominance, goalie Jonas Hiller has kept the surprising Ducks in the playoff hunt. (AP Photos)
By Stu Hackel
It's the All-Star break and the stretch run is nearly upon us. Each NHL team has played in the neighborhood of 50 games, a fairly strong sample to gauge what kind of club it has this season. The trade deadline is about a month away so things could change, but let's pose a simple question today: How happy are the fans of each NHL team at this point in the season?
Here's how the fans of the Western Conference teams might be feeling. (Click here for my take on the East.)
Anaheim Ducks: Their fans have to be happy. They also might be wary. Despite hot and cold streaks (the Ducks are currently hot), their team is in the thick of the Western Conference logjam and has done it lately without its captain and best player, Ryan Getzlaf, who is sidelined with sinus fractures. The Ducks' 17-3 record in games decided by one goal is the best in the league, all the more impressive because they surrender the most shots in the league. But Anaheim gets outstanding goaltending from Jonas Hiller, who keeps the Ducks in games. They've also been inspired by the ageless play of Teemu Selanne and by rookie Cam Fowler. They stumbled down the stretch last year as the Olympic break snapped their momentum and they want to avoid that now. But the All-Star break is not two and a half weeks long, so there may be little reason to worry.
Calgary Flames: Their fans have to be encouraged by their team's recent run of 24 out of a possible 32 points while drawing within two points of the eighth spot in the West. Of course, given the cramped conference, the Flames are still 12th, but it also means they're only six points out of fourth. Winners of four straight, they've been getting solid "all hands on deck" team efforts and have even had a few dominant performances. Miikka Kiprusoff seems to have shaken off a bad patch and is his old self. Same with captain Jarome Iginla, who has eight goals and six assists since Dec. 27. That has given rise to "Dancing Iggy" on the Saddledome scoreboard...
...which has even coach Brent Sutter is smiling, something you never see.
Chicago Blackhawks: Not a happy time. Robbed of important depth over the summer by salary cap-mandated trades, the inconsistent Hawks are the best first period team in the league (53 goals for, 39 against) but can't sustain it and are 16 points behind last season's pace. They've had to endure some key injuries to and inconsistency from their top players, and that has them in the logjam at the bottom of the playoff pool, uncomfortably close to the non-qualifier zone. They're only 16-13 at home, which is not championship caliber. The good news is that rookie goalie Corey Crawford has played well. The bad news is that he's one of the few Hawks who doesn't seem to have a Stanley Cup hangover.
Colorado Avalanche: Injuries and inconsistent goaltending have Avs fans concerned after their team enjoyed a strong start. Losing Tomas Fleischmann, Peter Mueller and Kyle Quincey long-term are is critical, so shorter term absences like Ryan O'Reilly's are magnified. Craig Anderson hasn't been the stopper he was last season, and Peter Budaj has never reached that status. But the defense corps, which features a lot of smaller puck-movers (other than Adam Foote, who is no youngster, and Ryan O'Byrne) struggles against physical opponents. Any team that has Matt Duchene, Milan Hejduk, Paul Stastny and Chris Stewart is going to stay in the hunt, but whether Avs fans will be smiling at season's end is uncertain.
Columbus Blue Jackets: An awful stretch from late November to early January -- 6 wins in 23 games -- turned smiles into frowns. The Jackets' 14-6 start had many fans thinking playoffs, but the team now sits below the pack that's clogging the middle of the West, five points below eighth with four teams in front of them. The Jackets have been lax and slow in their own end, and the goaltending of Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon have performed below expectations. Rick Nash remains one of the few things Jackets fans have to be happy about, and it's going to take a significant reversal in the next little while to remove the frowns.
Dallas Stars: Even though they were crushed by Vancouver, 7-1, in a yardstick game this past week -- after dropping a 7-4 match in Calgary -- much has gone right for the Stars, and fans in Big D have to be big time happy. Above the pack in the West along with the Red Wings and Canucks, the Stars have gotten very good goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, formed a solid defense corps and have gotten important contributions from big name guys like Brad Richards and Mike Ribeiro and lesser-knowns like Loui Eriksson and Jamie Benn. Captain Brenden Morrow has helped forge strong bonds among this group, and the team chemistry has produced a club that may be greater than the sum of its parts.
Detroit Red Wings: Any Wings fan who looks at the injured list and realizes this team is still quite competitive must be pretty happy -- or should be. Jimmy Howard's goaltending has been a bright spot, and Nick Lidstrom's Norris Trophy-caliber play along with Henrik Zetterberg's all-around excellence...
...have also helped carry Detroit. The extraordinary depth on this team is enhanced by players who don't take many shortcuts and play their roles to near perfection. When the likes of Datsyuk, Cleary, Holmstrom and Stuart (and perhaps Modano) returning, the happiness quotient should increase greatly.
Edmonton Oilers: They're last in the West, but fans who hoped for an entertaining season that would further the development of Edmonton's young players are getting just that. They can't be overjoyed that the Oilers have won just four times and gotten only seven of a possible 42 points since Dec. 12, but they're rarely getting blown out, they don't go down easily and, while losing with regularity is frustrating, coach Tom Renney is stressing the things that will make these players winners in the future. If the lessons are absorbed and lead to improvement down the road, the tempered happiness of this season will give way to something much more joyous.
Los Angeles Kings: One of the NHL's most enigmatic teams, the Kings' inconsistency has damaged their fans' hopes that last season's 101-point campaign was a sign of things to come. The Kings play well defensively, but they're only mid-pack offensively and have struggled on the power play. Losing 10 of 12 before winning three straight prior to the break left them in the lower part of the congested West. In those three wins, all at home, they played with the kind of intensity that was expected and they're going to have to continue that coming out of the break. They face a terribly-scheduled 10-game road stretch -- not good news for a club with the 25th-best away record in the league.
Minnesota Wild: A fairly good January (16 of 24 points) has their fans fairly pleased that their team is in the thick of the West's bulging middle, but Minnesotans have been raised on celebrating dominant hockey -- the kind they see in their high school and NCAA champions -- not the workmanlike clubs that seems to be the Wild's permanent identity. Some wonder if this team skates well enough (it doesn't score much in the second period when it has the long change). Still, coach Todd Richards has gotten his players to buy into what he's selling and they usually play a good team game with a different defensive scheme than the trapping Jacques Lemaire-era clubs. Closer than last season to the consistency they seek, with standouts like Brent Burns...
... Martin Havlat, Miko Koivu and Niklas Backstrom (just back from injury) all at or near the top of their games, the Wild can't be discounted in a conference where nothing may be decided until the schedule's final day.
Nashville Predators: Once again, very quietly, they've asserted themselves in the NHL with fine goaltending, a formidable defense and just enough offense to win games. So how can their fans not be tickled? A fine run in January (winning 11 of 13) was cut short when the Preds dropped a pair on the road to the Flames and Canucks, but they boosted themselves to fourth -- the top of the glutted middle of the conference -- and have two-thirds of their remaining schedule at home, where they've lost just four times (tied for the fewest home losses in the league). They lead the NHL in postgame skills competition victories (6), and in the West, every point counts. Steve Sullivan's return from injury would boost the offense, which has been led by defenseman Shea Weber's explosive shot.
Phoenix Coyotes: The cheapshot joke, of course, is "What fans?" But those who follow the Yotes have to be pretty happy this team is again in the playoff picture. Their fans also have to be concerned that the team's home record is not strong (10-9-5) although its play on the road (15-8-4, including five straight victories) certainly compensates. One advantage of being a Coyotes fan is knowing just how good Keith Yandle, the league's top scoring blueliner...
... and legitimate Norris Trophy candidate, has played this season. This is still a team that gets it done by committee (Scottie Upshall leads with 15 goals and seven others are in double digits). Without a consistent offense, goaltending becomes more crucial, and Ilya Bryzgalov has not played as consistently as last season, when he was the Vezina Trophy runner-up. Some of that has to do with injury, some with confidence.
St. Louis Blues: Injuries are the main source of frustration. Concussions have debilitated Andy McDonald and David Perron, Dave Scatchard is out with a knee injury, and T.J. Oshie missed a chunk of time with a broken ankle. Among the healthy disappointments, defenseman Erik Johnson, poised to become an elite player, has struggled at times. Brad Boyes can't recapture his offensive prowess of a few years ago, and Jaroslav Halak has been as inconsistent for St. Louis as he was for Montreal before his now-legendary stretch run and playoff performance last season. What makes Blues fans smile has been the strong defense corps led by Eric Brewer and Barret Jackman and, in his first full season, Alex Pietrangelo. If Johnson bounces back, he'll help give the Blues a defense to compete with the best in the West. Blues fans recognize this is still a young team, but one senses that impatience is setting in, at least in the media.
San Jose Sharks: After thinking they had a top team for years and now watching them struggle to stay in the playoff picture, Sharks fans can be forgiven if they're less than content. In some ways, this is not the same team. Rob Blake retired, Manny Malhotra moved to Vancouver and Evgeni Nabokov wasn't re-signed (he jumped to the KHL and is now in limbo with the Islanders). Minus lots of leadership and veteran goaltending, the chemistry has changed. Attention has been drawn to the Big Three up front -- Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley -- who haven't consistently dominated as they did last season. But others -- Joe Pavelski, Devin Setoguchi and Dan Boyle -- have not produced at the same rate they did, either. Setoguchi, especially, has fallen off from his 31-goal season of two years ago. GM Doug Wilson has given the coaches his support, but he reportedly told the players in early January that there will be consequences if things don't improve. They promptly lost four straight, then won four in a row before dropping the postgame skills competition to the Kings on Wednesday. Wilson has imported Ben Eager from Atlanta and signed Kyle Wellwood. It's hard to believe the Sharks would be sellers at the deadline, but you never can tell what might happen.
Vancouver Canucks: Daring to dream of a first Stanley Cup, their fans are not used to this sort of success. Tied for first overall, firing on all cylinders, depth throughout the lineup, grit on every line, strong goaltending from Roberto Luongo...
...and a team record 17-game unbeaten streak, why wouldn't be happy? And then comes word on Thursday, totally unexpected, that their top defenseman Alex Edler -- who was becoming Vancouver's version of Chris Pronger or Duncan Keith -- will have back surgery next week. So the smiles are a bit tighter now as offseason signee Keith Ballard gets extra work, and perhaps Sami Salo can return from his ruptured Achilles tendon to help lighten the load.