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Monday, November 29, 2010
Five things: Detroit's Howard not fading, West is best, Blackhawks' goaltending

By Scott Burnside

1. Model for stopping staged fights

Funny how sometimes it's the kids that get it right while the NHL dawdles. And once again it is major junior hockey that provided what should be a model for the NHL by moving to eliminate so-called staged fights. The Ontario Hockey League has introduced a midseason rule change to punish fights at the start of a period or before the start of a game that calls for offending players to be tossed out of the game in question and be suspended automatically for the next game. Teams are also subject to a $500 fine with increased sanctions for repeat offenders. The Western Hockey League has had a similar rule for the past two seasons and has practically eliminated the so-called staged bouts.

The NHL's GMs tried to stamp out this nonsense that regularly drags out NHL games and has zero impact on the outcome of contests. But the NHLPA, after impassioned pleas from thugs like Georges Laraque (now out of the game and deputy leader of the Green Party in Canada), balked at the change and the competition committee squashed the idea. How forward-thinking. No wonder NHL GMs in general believe the competition committee is irrelevant. Speaking of fighting, wonder how the Colorado Avalanche like the age-old manner of resolving a dispute now that star forward Chris Stewart is out indefinitely with a fractured hand thanks to a pointless fight in Saturday's 7-4 rout of Minnesota.

2. Howard still providing quality starts

Not so fast for those who were prepared to anoint the Columbus Blue Jackets this year's dark horse contender a la last year's Phoenix Coyotes. The Blue Jackets have been impressive, no doubt, but the Detroit Red Wings served notice that the old dogs can still hunt by sweeping a home-and-home affair from Columbus over the weekend.

It was an interesting clash given some of the parallels between the two teams.

Two years ago, Columbus netminder Steve Mason jumped from junior hockey to NHL stardom, winning the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year and adding a Vezina Trophy nomination to his youthful resume. Last season, Mason imploded and the Blue Jackets faded back into obscurity.

Last season, Detroit netminder Jimmy Howard emerged from a four-year apprenticeship in the AHL and shocked many by leading the injury-plagued Red Wings from deep in the standings into the playoffs for the 19th straight season. Howard was nominated for the Calder Trophy and received our top vote, although he was bested by Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers (by the way, how's that sophomore season going, Tyler?).

Unlike Mason, though, Howard has continued to provide both consistency and quality between the Detroit pipes in his sophomore campaign.

Although peers Carey Price, Michal Neuvirth, Tim Thomas and Sergei Bobrovsky have received most of the goaltending attention through the first quarter of the season, Howard has quietly compiled a sparkling 13-2-2 record and the Wings are considered by most to be the best team in the Western Conference at the quarter pole (and among the top two or three teams in the league).

"He's earned the right to feel confident about himself," head coach Mike Babcock said recently.

Now, there is a fine line between confident and cocky, something Mason learned the hard way last season.

Howard, perhaps because he is older at 26, is quick to deflect praise for his play and just as quick to accept responsibility when he doesn't play well.

Babcock said that when he meets with the media after a game, "if he [Howard] hasn't played well he's already told the press he wasn't very good."

"He's accountable," the coach said.

For his part, Howard said it's easy not to become complacent in a dressing room with guys like Nicklas Lidstrom, having a Hart Trophy kind of season at age 40, and hard-working stars like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

But here's the dilemma for the Wings: With Chris Osgood trying to rehab a lingering groin issue and not having played well when he was healthy, there are issues about the team's goaltending depth.

"He can't play every night," Babcock said of Howard.

With the Wings hard against the salary cap, it's going to present a dilemma for GM Ken Holland moving forward. That's to say nothing of the fact that Howard can become an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Stay tuned.

3. West remains the best

It is generally accepted that once again the Western Conference boasts the greatest concentration of talent in the NHL. While teams like Pittsburgh, Washington and Philadelphia have established themselves as the crème de la crème in the Eastern Conference, it's fair to ask whether their records are skewed by regularly beating up on some of the worst teams in the league like the New York Islanders, New Jersey Devils and Toronto Maple Leafs.

In the Western Conference, there are far fewer patsies as just nine points separated first-place Detroit and 13th place Nashville as of Monday morning.

The Western Conference is dominating inter-conference play, as well, with a 150-127-37 record as of Monday. Only Edmonton and Calgary have managed to compile a losing record against the 15 Eastern Conference teams.

Meanwhile, almost half of Eastern Conference teams (seven) had a losing record or were .500 when playing their western confreres.

What does it mean?

In general, it means teams in the West can expect to pay more dearly for losing streaks and inconsistent play.

As of Monday, the San Jose Sharks, considered by most a Cup contender at the start of the season, were in 10th place even though they were 5-2-3 through their past 10 games.

Disappointing? Yes. But the Sharks were also just one point out of the Pacific Division lead heading into play Monday.

4. Top eight tough to crack

The first quarter of the NHL season is in the books and the consensus among many hockey folk is that cracking the top eight in either conference becomes increasingly difficult through the balance of the season with the number of three-point games going up as the season moves along. Interesting to compare the standings on Dec. 1 last year to how things looked when the dust cleared last April 11 at the end of the regular season.

Over that period of time, just two teams per conference shuffled out of the top eight over the last 4½ months of the regular season.

In the Eastern Conference, the Atlanta Thrashers (fifth place as of Dec. 1) and the Tampa Bay Lightning (eighth) were the two interlopers who could not hang onto a postseason berth through the final three-quarters of the schedule. Atlanta and Tampa were replaced by the Montreal Canadiens, mired in 12th place in the conference at the start of December, and the Philadelphia Flyers, who were on the verge of making a coaching change (Peter Laviolette was named to the post on Dec. 4).

Of course, the Canadiens and the Flyers didn't just qualify for the playoffs, they ended up facing off in the Eastern Conference final.

In the Western Conference, the Calgary Flames were actually leading the Northwest Division on Dec. 1 before free-falling out of the playoff picture altogether. And the Columbus Blue Jackets were holding onto the eighth and final playoff spot at the start of December 2009. Detroit, which hit December in 10th place in the conference, and Vancouver (11th) supplanted those two teams.

What of this season?

Given the tightness of the standings (see above) it's not hard to imagine even more fluidity in the Western Conference standings between now and April. It would be shocking if the Sharks don't right the ship and make the playoffs. Likewise, the Los Angeles Kings, surprisingly in ninth place as of Monday, should be a playoff team given their talent.

Who would fall out?

We'll fall back on our preseason predictions and suggest that Dallas and Columbus may have the most difficulty sticking with the top eight in spite of impressive first-quarter starts.

In the Eastern Conference, we're not sure there will be any movement whatsoever given the inconsistency that has plagued New Jersey, Ottawa and Buffalo, three playoff teams from last season. Boston is currently in eighth place but has played fewer games than any other team in the conference, so that skews its current placing. In the end, it will come as little surprise if the current eight are the final eight come April in the East.

5. Hawks hope to rewind last season

Fans of the Chicago Blackhawks are hoping there is a sequel in the making as far as the team's goaltending situation goes.

After an up-and-down start to the season, the defending Stanley Cup champs are starting to round into form, but they are doing so with rookie netminder Corey Crawford backstopping the club instead of veteran free-agent acquisition Marty Turco.

Crawford was riding a four-game winning streak as the week began and has played in three of the past four games for the Hawks, including back-to-back victories over Los Angeles and Anaheim last week. Crawford, who started the season 1-4, has allowed just five goals in his past four starts and has stopped 98 of the past 103 shots he's faced.

Turco, meanwhile, has failed to find a groove since coming over from Dallas in the offseason. The veteran netminder has just one win in his past five starts and overall has a pedestrian 2.90 GAA and .904 save percentage.

Of course, Blackhawk fans have seen this movie before, and everything certainly turned out OK in the final reel last season.

Last season, Antti Niemi nudged Crawford out of the backup role during training camp and then supplanted veteran starter Cristobal Huet as the go-to guy for the Hawks midway through the season. Niemi and the Hawks, of course, ended up carting off Stanley Cup rings. Niemi signed with San Jose when the Blackhawks wouldn't agree to an arbitrator's ruling on salary, and Crawford, a 25-year-old Montreal native, was handed what was expected to be a supporting role behind Turco.