You could be forgiven for feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the Western Conference yesterday, after news emerged that the NHL is nearing an agreement on radical realignment. The new setup is better almost every way: less travel, more geographic rivalries, the chance for every team to host every other team. But for those of us out east, the West always had an air of the exotic to it.
Hockey might be the perfect late-night sport. The susurrus of skates for a lullaby, the whiteness of the ice from your TV the only light in a darkened bedroom. We'll always have that. But the mystery will be gone. No more wondering, "who are these teams from far-off lands, whose games end after midnight and are often just box scores in the morning paper?" We'll get up close and personal with Edmonton's dynastic pretensions, Chicago's juggernaut, Los Angeles's magic formula, and a certain Vancouver franchise that can't quite seem to put it all together. The NHL had done a better job of keeping its conferences spiritually separate than the other North American sports, but no more. That's progress, I suppose. But let's pour out a Campbell Bowl in memory of the West, even as the conference offered up three marquee match-ups for its own tribute.
What's left to say about the Blackhawks? A toxic Superfund site as recently as the lockout, Chicago has become the NHL's model franchise. The salary cap forced them to part with valuable pieces after their Stanley Cup run three years ago, but they've retooled around Patrick Kane (our pick for the face of American hockey) and in front of Corey Crawford, emerging as the next great goaltender. Coming into the game with Edmonton, Chicago was 15-0-3—a still-growing NHL record for the longest point streak to start a season.
The Oilers aren't so shabby either, even though their window isn't supposed to open for another few years. Their young nucleus of Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Justin Schultz, Devan Dubnyk, and 2012 first-overall pick Nail Yakupov remind us of nothing so much as those post-lockout Penguins, who bided their time, drafted well, and emerged as a contender.
Said Patrick Kane: "The biggest thing is that we don't want to lose right now. We want to keep this thing going."
The Oilers have played Chicago tough over the past couple of seasons, and last night looked for a time like it might've been the end of the Blackhawks' streak. But Chicago quickly equalized after falling down 1-0 and 2-1, and Marian Hossa netted the extra point with this tenacious overtime score:
Despite the loss of Ryan Suter, the Predators are quietly winning the same way—strong defense and all-world goaltending from Pekka Rinne. Meanwhile the frisky Stars entered the game with a nine-game streak of scoring three goals or more. The irresistible force shoved the immovable object but couldn't topple it: Nashville came out on top in a wild game that featured four lead changes and three ties.
Second-year defenseman Roman Josi was the hero, scoring twice for Nashville including the overtime winner just 28 seconds in. Josi had his first four-point game since juniors, and more than doubled his point total for the season.
The final game of the night was a Southern California showdown, and the hot team with the hot goaltender wasn't the defending Cup champs. Anaheim entered the game with the second-best record in the league, and 30-year-old rookie netminder Viktor Fasth still had yet to lose an NHL game. (No wonder the Ducks inked him to an extension after just eight career games.)
The Kings reminded everyone who owns Los Angeles with three third-period goals for a 5-2 win, giving Fasth his first loss ever, and Anaheim just their second loss of the month. L.A. tied the game up on this Dustin Brown roofer, and never looked back.
The Western Conference offered up a spectacular night of hockey, and didn't even have to break out the re-emergent Blues, the steadily great Red Wings, or those enigmatic Canucks. Meanwhile in the East, the Penguins have lost another superstar to a concussion and the Canadiens top the standings with an unwatchable brand of anti-hockey. The West might not be the better conference, but right now it's hard to say it's not the more entertaining one.