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The Western Conference Contenders

As we skate headlong into the new year, it's worth pausing for a moment to examine the current playoff-worthy teams in the Western Conference.  Which teams are solid?  Which teams are improving?  Which are falling apart?

At the top of the standings are the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks, both sitting pretty with 55 points and 24 or more wins.  At the bottom of the pile, clinging to that little line that divides the eighth team from the ninth, are the ever-improving Vancouver Canucks.

Below is a team-by-team assessment.

  • Chicago Blackhawks: Currently on a three-game winning streak, the 'Hawks have only lost three games in December.  They've won ten.  They've been hammering their divisional rivals, most recently beating the Detroit Red Wings on December 23, then winning both games in a home-and-home against Nashville.  Goalies Cristobal Huet and Antti Niemi are having stellar years, and the 'Hawks have a +38 goal differential against opponents.
  • San Jose Sharks: Despite a rough patch at the start of December (1-2-3 from the 1st to the 12th), the Sharks have made the necessary corrections and are now on a five-game win streak.  Joe Thornton is leading the league in points and Evgeni Nabokov is up to his usual consistent, iron man hijinks.
  • Colorado Avalanche: As we all know, the only problem the Avs have is consistency. Some nights they're stellar.  Others, embarrassing.  Regardless, the team is still third in the West in the standings as well as in goals scored. Both goaltenders are solid with periodic streaks of amazingness.  Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski lead in points but Chris Stewart is carving a name for himself as the best young power forward in the NHL.
  • Phoenix Coyotes: As big a surprise as the Avalanche, Phoenix continues to defy critics by winning consistently.  They've lost just two games in regulation in December.  Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov is proving himself to be no flash in the pan, and has most certainly established himself as one of the best starting netminders in the NHL.  The 'Yotes are 15-5-0 at home.
  • Calgary Flames: The Flames have been their own worst enemies this year, struggling to find consistency.  They are 3-5-2 in their last ten games and can't seem to gain ground on the Avalanche in the Northwest Division. They've only won four games in December. Miikka Kiprusoff has a winning record, a solid GAA and a super save percentage, but he's still carrying all the weight and the team's lack of depth at center is costing them games.
  • Nashville Predators: The upstart nobodies in Nashville looked to be a serious challenger for the top spot in the Central division, but their hot December run has cooled off considerably.  After winning four straight between December 14 and 19, they've lost their last three, including two critical games against Chicago.  The platoon of Pekka Rinne and Dan Ellis seemed to be working for a while but the duo has cooled off.  Nashville is the only playoff team in the West with a negative goal differential.
  • Los Angeles Kings: Like Nashville, the Kings started December well but have since struggled.  They've lost their last three.  Up until recently, they've been chasing the Sharks for the Pacific lead, but now they've been usurped by the Coyotes and the Dallas Stars are nipping at their heals. Goalie Jonathan Quick has had a good year with a great win-loss record, but his GAA and save percentage are mediocre. It doesn't help that Anze Kopitar has lost his scoring touch as of late.
  • Vancouver Canucks: Plagued by early-season mediocrity, the Canucks have turned things around.  Roberto Luongo has been his usual amazing self and Vancouver has won three straight.  The offense has been clicking, too.  They've scored three or more goals in ten of thirteen December games.  Henrik Sedin is second in the league in points and recently-injured brother Daniel is back to form, scoring 20 points this month.

Not on the list?  The Detroit Red Wings, who have not gotten a goal from any player but Todd Bertuzzi since December 19th.  They've been shut out in three of their last four and still sit outside the post-season cutoff line.  That really breaks my heart.