TORONTO -- The holiday season is in full swing, meaning the NHL will take a few days off before starting up again with a full slate of games on Dec. 26. This little break marks a perfect time to evaluate what might be one of the tighter conference races in recent memory. With only five points separating the top six spots and six points separating the top eight, the Western Conference is as wide open as it's been in years. Here are a couple reasons why the West is loaded and ready for one of the most exciting finishes in a long time.
Wings at it again
In the midst of a streak of 10 straight seasons finishing with 100 points or more the Detroit Red Wings have been the most consistent winning franchise of the last decade. Finishing fifth in the Western Conference last year and bowing out in the second round of the playoffs could have been interpreted as a downturn for this group, but this year they look ready to reclaim their winning form.
Their depth up front is astonishing, they're goaltending is solid enough with Jimmy Howard between the pipes and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom continues to play at Norris Trophy levels at the age of 40. On pace for 67 points and playing some of the best hockey of his career, the resurgent season by Lidstrom could mean something special is brewing in Hockey Town once again.
Losing their points leader Pavel Datsyuk for four weeks with a broken right hand will be a hurdle, but Henrik Zetterberg will be able to fill the scoring void along with the five other skaters who have posted over 20 points so far including Lidstrom, Johan Franzen, Daniel Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi and Brian Rafalski. If healthy, it's conceivable that this group of veterans could finish atop the West, while making a run at another Stanley Cup title come spring time.
Stars turnaround for real
Last year the Dallas Stars were toiling around near the bottom of the standings clawing at a playoff spot, right now they share the Western Conference lead with the Red Wings and are looking more like contenders with every passing game. The first-line combination of Brad Richards between Loui Eriksson and James Neal has provided aggressive offense and with Richards being one of the more talented playmaking centers in the league, it looks like this trio could become one of the more potent scoring lines out there.
Eriksson who sits second on the team in scoring with 37 points is on pace for a career high 87, while Neal is starting to reach his enormous potential with 29 points through 35 games. The 23-year-old power forward is on pace for over 30 goals and nearly 40 assists, a mark that would blow away his previous career highs he set last season.
Another key component of the Stars early success has been the goaltending of Kari Lehtonen, who has exceeded expectations since joining the Stars via trade from the Atlanta Thrashers. Lehtonen, who has an extensive injury history, has shown durability by starting 26 of Dallas' 35 games this year, while his solid play has made the departure of Marty Turco to the Chicago Blackhawks a distant memory for Stars fans.
Although Dallas ranks near middle of the pack in many important statistical categories, they've risen to the top by way of clutch goaltending and timely scoring. While a spot in the playoffs is almost a given at this point, it remains to be seen whether they will sustain their current first place spot in a very competitive conference.
It's hard to believe that a 19-14-3 team that's only five points out of first place in the Western Conference could be characterized as struggling, but the defending Stanley Cup Champions haven't quite been the same powerhouse this year. Key injuries to Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa have contributed to some inconsistency, but it's the goaltending that has become the biggest question mark in Chicago.
Picking up three-time all-star Marty Turco via free agency after letting Antti Niemi walk away seemed like a good move at the time due to salary cap implications, but Turco has struggled mightily. When the 35-year-old was brought to Chicago he was seen by some as a possible upgrade over the outgoing Niemi, but with only eight wins in 20 starts that clearly hasn't been the case.
Recently, the Blackhawks have recovered some confidence in net by riding the shoulders of a little known 25-year-old goaltender that was given the starter's job named Corey Crawford. Crawford, who has led the Hawks to a three-game win streak heading into the break could be a viable short-term solution, but the fact he started only five games for the club over the previous three seasons makes him a relatively unknown commodity. The slightest digression by the Montreal native and the Blackhawks may become suitors for a capable replacement by the trade deadline.
As the underwhelming Washington Capitals have shown in the East this year, even the most potent offense can't sustain a team with weak goaltending. This group of proven winners led by captain Jonathan Toews will be in the hunt for one of the top five spots in the West by springtime, but questions in net could make the goal of a repeat title nearly impossible.