The Vancouver Canucks have been so good for so long that when they drop out of first place in the Northwest Division, like they did on Sunday evening, it seems strange not to see them on top.
After all, they have won four division titles in a row and back-to-back Presidents' Trophies. But the Minnesota Wild's 4-2 victory at home against the Canucks pushed the two teams into a tie at 28 points. The Wild own the first tiebreaker (wins in regulation time plus overtime victories) so Minnesota gets top spot for now. Vancouver, meanwhile, drops to sixth in the Western Conference.
The Canucks have an excuse with injuries to Kevin Bieksa and Ryan Kesler, who has played in only seven of Vancouver's 24 games this year due to his health. But on good teams, somebody usually steps up to fill the void. Nobody has stepped up in the absence of Kesler and Bieksa.
The Canucks have looked awful recently. The effort just doesn't seem to be there. They've gone a listless 1-4-2 in their past seven outings.
Their usually productive power play now sits 24th in the league without Kesler. Meanwhile, there is more uncertainty in the injury department. Henrik Sedin and Chris Tanev went down in Minnesota. Tanev blocked a shot with his hand. Sedin suffered a leg injury after he was slashed.
It certainly will be interesting to see what will be in store for the Canucks in the final seven weeks of the regular season.
East vs. West
The Canucks used to be the pride of the Canadian clubs in the NHL. But not this year. In fact, through the first half of the lockout-shortened season, the balance of power in Canada has shifted to the East.
The Montreal Canadiens occupy the penthouse. The Ottawa Senators have persevered through an injury epidemic to remain in the hunt. The Toronto Maple Leafs have been surprisingly sound and appear destined to end their seven-year playoff drought.
The Winnipeg Jets have skated back into the playoff picture with an impressive 7-3-1record in their last 11 games.
In Western Canada, we documented the Canucks' recent woes. Despite a 6-5 win in Chicago on Sunday, the Edmonton Oilers have gone 2-4-2 on their Brier road trip that finishes up in Colorado on Tuesday.
Maybe the return of Shawn Horcoff, who was back on Sunday, will help. But projections indicate it will take 56 points to finish eighth in the West. That means the Oilers will have to lasso 33 points in their final 23 games and that's a tall order.
Ditto for the Calgary Flames. After their dreadful trip to California, which resulted in losses to Anaheim and Los Angeles, the Flames will need 34 points in 25 games.
Remember the days the Pittsburgh Penguins always seemed to be scouring the trade market to find a winger to play alongside Sidney Crosby? Well, No. 87 seems to be just fine with long-time linemates Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
With the 25-year-old Crosby reclaiming his place as the game's best player this season, Kunitz has gone on a career-best goal-scoring spree. Dupuis would be on track to easily surpass his career high of 25 goals this year had this not been a lockout-shortened season.
Their play together gives them the undisputed title belt as the most productive line in the NHL these days:
In today's NHL, lines are altered late in games, different combinations are used on the power play and some coaches constantly mix and match new groupings. Take a look at all the different linemates sniper Steven Stamkos has had this year. But the top five lines listed above have stayed together for the most part this season.
Crosby, Kunitz and Dupuis have developed their wide gulf over the Islanders trio and the Hurricanes threesome thanks to an incredible run recently. Crosby, the league's scoring leader, is on an eight-game point streak that has seen him score five times and register 20 points, including a five-assist game on Sunday.
Dupuis has four goals in his last three games. Kunitz has checked in with 11 goals in nine games after his hat trick on Sunday.
Canadian Olympic consideration
With realignment now needing only approval from the NHL's board of governors to be implemented for next season, the league will turn its focus to its participation in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. They hope to have an arrangement in place with the IOC and IIHF by the end of the month.
When there is an agreement in place, Canadian men's team executive director Steve Yzerman will be swift to put a coaching staff together for 2014. Presumably, Yzerman will not want to tamper with success and will have Mike Babcock return as head coach for a shot at a second consecutive gold medal.
But Babcock will need to find an assistant coach to replace the retired Jacques Lemaire. Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett would be a good addition. He was the captain of the 1984 Canadian Olympic team and returned to win a silver medal in 1992.
The 51-year-old from Moosomin, Sask., has his financially strapped club in a position to make the playoffs for a remarkable fourth consecutive season. If a playoff spot is in the cards this season, that will make nine in 10 years for Tippett.
Music City mocks
Nashville Predators fans gave Ryan Suter a rather harsh reception in his first game back at the Bridgestone Arena on Saturday since bolting for greener pastures last summer.
The boisterous crowd of 17,113 jeered, hissed and booed the defenceman who departed via agency to sign a mammoth 13-year, $98-million US deal with the Minnesota Wild.
Suter and the Wild got the last laugh with a 2-1 shootout victory, but the Predators chose not to honour their former defenceman with a scoreboard tribute like they did with ex-Predators in the past like Joel Ward, Steve Sullivan and Jordin Tootoo.
Suter played in Nashville for seven years. But Predators head coach Barry Trotz said the organization decided against a tribute because they felt the fans still had ill will toward Suter and would react viciously to any sort of scoreboard homage.
By the numbers
10 -- Goals in 24 games this season for Anaheim's Ryan Getzlaf, who signed a whopping $66-million US, eight-year extension last Friday.
11 -- Goals in 82 games for Getzlaf last year.
13-3-4 -- Record for the Canadiens with defenceman P.K. Subban (six goals, 18 points) in the lineup after his contract dispute ended with the club last month.
16 -- Goals in 13 games for Mark Scheifele since the Jets returned him to the OHL's Barrie Colts last month.
32 -- Career shootout goals in 69 attempts for Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk. He became the NHL's all-time leader with a shootout goal against Columbus on Sunday. Minnesota's Zach Parise is next at 31.
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