November 09 2009 10:04AM
Here's a question for the new week: As we close in on the quarter-pole of the 2009-10 National Hockey League campaign, what Western Conference team scares you? And by scare, we mean what outfit creates genuine spine-chilling, blood-curdling, bowel-evacuating fear?
For the better part of two decades, Detroit has been an automatic answer to that query but these are not your father's Red Wings, unless your pa happens to be a tracer of lost persons (where have you gone Jiri Hudler?) or an orthopedic surgeon. While there's still that horror movie element to the Wings where the smart viewer is still wary about the seemingly dead monster coming back to life in the final act, the combination of defections, injuries and aging have gone a long way in declawing the beast.
Besides the Wings, Colorado, Dallas, Anaheim and San Jose have all filled the role of neighbourhood bully in the West in the past decade and change, although the Sharks almost always contained their intimidation tactics to the October-to-March period.
Their springtime failures notwithstanding, the Men of Teal at this moment are probably the conference's best combination of recent reputation and early-season performance.
The reigning Presidents' Trophy winners (although, as acerbic columnist Ray Ratto once pointed out, the only way that banner would be worth anything is if it was made out of ShamWow! material and there was spilled Diet Coke to be sopped up) lead the Pacific Division, are getting good mileage out of newcomer Dany Heatley and reaping the benefits of a nice bounce-back season by Evgeni Nabokov, a netminder who was thought to be nearing his expiry date. But can a Sharks team that counts Manny Malhotra, Jason Demers, Benn Ferriero, Scott Nichol, Kent Huskins and Jed Ortmeyer among its regulars really be considered fearsome?
After that, you've got a Northwest Division leader (Colorado) that still hasn't convinced all the skeptics, a defending Northwest champ (Vancouver) that is managing to keep afloat despite wearing matching anchor cuff-links, a Central Division leader (Columbus) that's last in the West in offence and has a negative goal differential and a Chicago squad that hasn't lived up to its pre-season hype and perhaps never will as long as long as Cristobal Huet is the gardien du jour.
Meanwhile, the Avs, Kings and Coyotes turned heads early but a combined 6-7-2 mark over the past 10 days or so is perhaps a sign those clubs (who started a cumulative 26-9-2) are ready to find their own level.
Now there's an awful lot of hockey to go and maybe by Christmas, the Olympic break or certainly early April we'll have a clear delineation of the haves and have-nots, the cream will have risen to the top and insert any other appropriate cliche here. But as of right now, it looks for all the world that the West is as wide open as it's ever been and any club with a reasonable number of attributes -- and yes, that includes the beat-up Canucks, the beat-up Oilers and the lead-the-West-in-offence-but-10th-in-defence Flames -- can dare to dream.
Just for chuckles, here's one shmuck's pre-season prediction for the Western Conference standings. Only a coward asks for a do-over less than a quarter of the way in but is it OK to ask for a recount at the Missouri polling stations?
3. San Jose
5. St. Louis
11. Los Angeles