The NHL’s Pacific Division is packed tight with four of the five teams within two points of first place, but none really part of the Western Conference’s upper crust, as the highest team is tied for fourth in the conference overall and the lowest in a four-way tie for seventh. With the Pacific looking like the NHL’s version of Big East football it at least promises an interesting race through the winter months, so let’s take a snapshot look at the four contenders…
Dallas (31 points): The Stars are in the lead, but they really have no discernible strengths. None of their team stats really stand out, whether it be general offense and defense, power play work or 5-on-5 play. Nor is there any individual who makes you go “Wow”. They need production out of the center position, be it through goals or assists and the goaltending is subpar. It all boils down to the fact that the city has to be glad the Mavericks are coming back on Christmas Day.
Los Angeles (30 points): LA plays great defense and goalie Jonathan Quick is the kind that you could ride in the playoffs. But the “ride the hot goalie” only works if you get at least minimal competence and offense in front of him. The Kings 5-on-5 play is mediocre and their offense terrible. The one positive is that they are well-balanced offensively and they get their goals and assists across the spectrum, from center to the wings, but balance in mediocrity is something that can be done without.
San Jose (29 points): Last year’s runner-up in the Western Conference is the best bet to get on a good run. Center Joe Thornton, one of the league’s best players, is off to a slow start and the team’s penalty kill is absolutely awful. Otherwise, a broader view look at the Sharks shows a team that’s in the upper part of the league both offensively and defensively. Their power play is excellent, as is 5-on-5 play. They’re getting offensive help from Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau. As Thornton gets into gear San Jose should move into first place, but they need improved goaltending from Antti Niem if a real run at the Finals is in the cards.
Phoenix (29 points): The Coyotes are a mostly decent team, but their own power play is 29th in the NHL. They get some good work on the wings from Radim Vrbata and Ray Whitney, but there’s no solid center to run everything through and Mike Smith’s goaltending isn’t bad, but nor is it outstanding. The Coyotes should stay in the playoff chase all year, but it’s tough to see them rising above the bubble from 7th to 10th place in the conference (the top 8 make the postseason cut) that they’re in right now.
Key games coming up within the division are Dallas-San Jose late on Thursday night (10:30 PM ET) and Dallas-Los Angeles (10:30 PM ET). You have to be in the local areas or subscribe to the hockey package to see those games, but Phoenix’s visit to Chicago on Monday night will be nationally televised (8 PM ET, Versus) as a fallback option if the San Diego-Jacksonville MNF clunker in the NFL doesn’t float your boat.