How the West will be won?

RANDY SPORTAK

, Last Updated: 2:57 PM ET

So, who's the NHL's Western Conference power? Tough call, eh.

Some call it parity. Some call it mediocrity. Either way, it's impossible to say any one team in the conference is head and shoulders above the pack.

The way San Jose has finally found another gear probably puts the Sharks the closest to that spot, but it's hard to say they've been all that impressive in their series with the Calgary Flames.

Had the Flames not melted down in Game 4 and been able to better finish its scoring chances last outing, the Sharks would again be answering those same old questions that have dogged them during other playoff failures.

Even if the Sharks dispatch the Flames tomorrow night, they're far from a sure thing to make the Stanley Cup final, especially if their opposition down the road has any scoring depth.

From there, it becomes even harder to say who the West's best bet is.

Let's look at the other first-round playoff favourites:

The Detroit Red Wings have finally hit that point where "experienced" has become "too old," especially Dominik Hasek, and don't look anything like the team the Flames faced in the opening round of last spring's tournament -- especially in the grit department.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild can't decide if they're a goon squad or a finesse team and haven't done all that good of a job at either.

As for the Anaheim Ducks, they look nothing like defending Stanley Cup champions -- unable to score and receiving pedestrian goaltending from Jean-Sebastien Giguere.

From the bottom half of the West's playoff teams, the Dallas Stars have become a surprising darkhorse considering the way they crawled into the playoffs. The Stars have been superior against the Ducks, thanks, in large part, to a good powerplay and better offence than people realize, but now Philippe Boucher will join fellow d-man Sergei Zubov on the shelf, and that could be costly.

The Colorado Avalanche are doing what the Flames could have done to the Wild had the Flames not blown just one of those late-season games, but they are still being held together by Jose Theodore -- and that shouldn't exude all that much confidence.

The Nashville Predators are giving the Wings a run, but it's hard to believe the Preds have the depth up front to win.

Should the Flames manage to come back against the Sharks -- certainly not impossible if Miikka Kiprusoff can steal a game and the second-tier players find their scoring touch -- they have just as good of a chance of going on a real run as anybody else.

FLAMING C-NOTES

One of the positives for the Flames this playoffs is Dion Phaneuf has taken his play to a new level this post-season. Offensively, he's been the best defenceman in the series -- notable when you compare to what Brian Campbell hasn't accomplished for the Sharks. When Phaneuf fine-tunes his decision making and defensive game, he will become a true difference-making blueliner in the playoffs ... Calgary is not a very good passing team, and it's especially noticeable when it comes to breakout passes. It's hurting the Flames against the Sharks. That said, it sure looks like the forwards aren't doing their defencemen any favours by staying too far up ice.

RINK RANT

Ask any of the poor souls who have to sit near me during games, this has been a beef espoused all season, so don't call this a case of homerism.

Question: Why is it OK for players to hook in the offensive zone? Case in point came just before the Sharks scored their first goal Thursday. The Flames' Owen Nolan was hooked at the hands and couldn't clear the puck out of the zone. The turnover helped lead to San Jose's tally.

Players are called for weaker hooks than that all the time in the defensive zone, but a hook is a hook is a hook, regardless of where it happens, and should be called accordingly.

HOCKEY TALKY

Sean Avery's screening antics -- facing the goalie and waving his hands in the face -- is not a penalty, and it's an over-reaction by the league to call it a penalty. Gesturing with his stick as if about to poke the goalie in the face is out of bounds, but the rest is not an infraction. Stupid -- especially since you could get hit in the back of the neck and not see it coming -- but not a penalty ... Let's see, Vancouver Canucks GM Dave Nonis magically turned Todd Bertuzzi into super-goalie Roberto Luongo, has a good defence corps and finally can work without the contracts of underachieving Markus Naslund and the suddenly oft-injured Brenden Morrison but gets fired? The Canucks are much better positioned than they were when Nonis took over, but the owner wants his guy in place, so Nonis walks ... Even if the Flames bow out to San Jose, at least they didn't bail like the Ottawa Senators. Now that's a team with serious character and chemistry issues.

YOU DON'T SAY

"Guys really like each other on this team. Anything I saw (in the media) was, 'The goalie's a cancer. The goalie's a cancer to the team and the room.' I love the guys on this team. If they say anything different, they're smiling to my face and talking behind my back. That's a raw deal if they're calling me a cancer."

-- Sens goalie Ray Emery


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