Ryan Kesler and Henrik Zetterberg will face off again on Saturday as the Vancouver Canucks host the Detroit Red Wings. (Rick Osentoski/Associated Press)
Read up on the latest tidbits and trends as Hockey Night in Canada's play-by-play voice Jim Hughson takes you behind the scenes and into Saturday's featured game.
This week's work: Detroit Red Wings at Vancouver Canucks (CBC, CBCSports.ca, 10 p.m. ET/7 p.m. PT)
In 16 seasons since the division's inception the Detroit Red Wings have topped the Central 12 times. The other four times they've been second and in 13 of those seasons the Wings have had more than 100 points.
Safe to say they have set the standard of excellence which has made the Western Conference remarkably deep and tough to win.
Few teams have been able to top the Wings because few have been able to match their depth and relentless commitment to play at a high level every shift, every game.
This edition of the Vancouver Canucks might be getting close.
Vancouver, much like Detroit teams we've seen for years, has star power. Three Canucks, Henrik and Daniel Sedin along with Ryan Kesler are in the top 25 in league scoring.
They have three lines that can score and a fourth line the coach actually trusts. The defence is 6 deep and the difference in minutes between the No. 1 defender (Alex Edler 24:08) and the No. 6 (Andrew Alberts 15:23) is closer than most teams and a lot like the Wings (Niklas Lidstrom is at 23:32, with Jonathan Ericsson playing 17:04).
The Canucks are even deep in goal where the backup Corey Schneider has only played 10 games but he hasn't lost in regulation with an 8-0-2 record after his win over Edmonton on Friday.
Beyond the stats and personnel the Canucks are starting to act like the Wings. They are very business-like and know when they've played well and when - like in Wednesday's 3-1 win over Calgary - they haven't and got away with a win.
And while every team that plays Detroit likes to gauge their game against them the Wings only worry about measuring up to their own standards. The Canucks are on that path but aren't at the same level yet ... because they still haven't won anything.
In the Spotlight
He's been traded without going anywhere more often than his name has been butchered but Kevin Bieksa is still a Canuck, and right now he's one of the best.
There is still some thought that the 29-year-old, who becomes an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, will have to go to make cap room for the return of Sami Salo but be assured that wouldn't be a popular move within the team.
Bieksa has had two major injuries in his short career and this is the first season in three that he's been fully healthy. He's playing big minutes with Dan Hamhuis on Vancouver's shutdown pair going a whopping plus-15 in his last 15 games, and now he's finding his offence again too ( 3-7-10 in 15 games).
Beyond that he's the only right-handed shot on the blue line, is a solid team player and is, pound for pound, as tough as they come.
The Canucks would do well to get Salo back on the roster while keeping Bieksa right where he is for the rest of this season.
On the hot stove:
When teams are playing well and at the top of the league, as Vancouver and Detroit are, the internal pressure is on every player to do his share and not let the team down.
The Canucks have gone 17-1-2 in their last 20 games. That's almost a quarter of the season at a very high level that's seldom attained without every one chipping in. Ten different players have scored game winning goals during the streak and the Canucks have outscored opponents 80-41.
The Wings are missing top players Pavel Datsyuk and Dan Cleary, but have still gone 6-2-1 without them. They lost another valuable player last night in Calgary when Brad Stuart took a shot to the head from Tom Kostopolous and Valtteri Filppula missed the game with a groin strain. The Wings have a great supporting cast but even they are getting a tad thin.
Still there's an expectation of performance that keeps everyone on their toes in both lineups.
Vancouver is the best face-off team in the league winning 56 per cent of its draws. Manny Malhotra is second individually to David Steckel of Washington, while Kesler ranks ninth in the league. If there's a face-off in the defensive end you'll almost always see Kesler or Malhotra on the ice if its in the attacking zone its more likely to be Henrik Sedin.
The loss of Cleary and Datsyuk can't be understated. It would be like the Canucks losing Henrik Sedin and Kesler for a time. They are trustworthy players who can score but are on the ice defensively in all key situations. The Red Wing who's benefiting most from the injuries is Darren Helm. The speedy 24-year-old from Winnipeg has seen his ice time go from 10-12 minutes up to 16 and 17 per game and he's thriving, with a goal and six assists in the last eight games.
From the stat pack
The numbers are staggering as the top two teams in the league meet head on.
It might not be a fair fight with the Red wings missing so many top players but that's life in the NHL and both teams have played a lot of hockey. The Wings are playing their eight game since Christmas, and sixth on the road. The Canucks are playing their fifth in seventh nights.
This is an NHL heavyweight tale of the tape. Let's hope it doesn't disappoint!
Record 27-8-5 59pts (1st) 26-10-5- 57pts (2nd)
Goals 3.48 (1st) 3.46 (2nd)
GA 2.41 (5th) 2.83 (17th)
PP 1st 4th
PK 3rd 15th
Last 10 9-0-1 6-2-2
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