Ice Hockey

Goal Line Grumblings: Western Conference Division Races Heat Up

Nashville goaltender Juuse Saros in Saturday's 5-3 loss to Chicago (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Goal Line Grumblings: Western Conference Division Races Heat Up

Welcome to Goal Line Grumblings!  In this weekly segment, the major stories from the past weekend’s action will be reviewed and recapped.

There was plenty to talk about this weekend, with western conference divisional races heating up, a bright young star rising in Nashville, and Vegas becoming an official NHL team.  So, without further ado, let’s get into things.

Divisional Races Heat Up

It’s the homestretch folks.  The NHL regular season has come to its final month.  This is where playoff seeding is determined.  Divisional races are starting to heat up in the Western Conference more so than in the East.  In the Metropolitan, the Washington Capitals have a 7-point lead on Columbus with 18 games remaining for both clubs.  The Atlantic meanwhile, sees Montreal on top with Boston and Ottawa eight and six points behind respectively (though this could change after Monday’s action).

The Western Conference on the other hand, is as tight as ever.  San Jose maintains a five point lead on Edmonton, and an eight point lead on Anaheim in the Pacific.  In the Central, Chicago Blackhawks and Minnesota are trading shots for the Central Division crown and #1 overall seed in the Western Conference.

Chicago managed to come back from being down 1-0 to the New York Islanders Thursday night to win 2-1 in a shootout, then managed to put away the rival Nashville Predators 5-3 late in the third.  The win caused Chicago to leapfrog one point ahead of the Minnesota for first in the Central, but only temporarily.

Minnesota, likewise, responded with a win of their own over San Jose to re-take the division lead by one point.

It’s definitely going to be a very interesting last month around the league.

Bright Young Stars Shine in Nashville

Nashville is a very curious team.  Growing up Chicago Blackhawks fan (a fandom I’ve mostly succeeded to put aside for journalistic purposes) I’ve always thought of Nashville as a “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” team.  When Barry Trotz was head coach, they were a very rough team who beat you by literally beating you, which earned them their “Smashville” moniker.  They had a guy like Shea Weber, who’s known for bruising opponents with his pads as much as his 100+ MPH shot.

But, under new head coach Peter Laviolette, they’ve piloted a more modernized style, one predicated on a little more on speed and scoring, rather than physicality and defense.  This was seen when they dealt fan-favorite and longtime captain Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K. Subban.

With the emergence of Swedish left wing and scoring threat Filip Forsberg, the time is perfect for Nashville to switch styles completely.  Forsberg has been a scoring machine, having the first back-to-back hat tricks in Nashville history.  If Nashville and GM David Poile can fully commit to a speedier approach built around Forsberg rather than a physical approach or a blend of the two, Nashville will have taken the next step that can see them through to a Western Conference title.

Another concern of Nashville’s has been what to do when the aging Finn Pekka Rinne either declines or decides to hang them up outright.  From what I’ve seen, Nashville’s found their answer in Finnish goalkeeper Juuse Saros.  Like his elder statesman, Saros is Finnish, a country known for producing elite goaltenders.

Saros was thrown into the fire as longtime backup Carter Hutton left for St. Louis.  Saros beat out veteran Marek Mazanec for the backup role.  Now, Most prospect goaltenders are slowly developed in the AHL before being brought up to be an apprentice under the big club’s starter.  Saros is a bit of an exception.  Saros spent 38 games with Nashville’s affiliate, Milwaukee, before being called up.

Saros has shined against top NHL lines, and has often been key in games despite his youth.  He kept the Chicago Blackhawks at bay for most of the game on Saturday, and if you can fend off or even hang with the vaunted Panarin-Anisimov-Kane line, you’ve got a future in the league.

Vegas Hockey Becomes Official

Well, it’s official.  Las Vegas now has a hockey team that can wheel and deal.  Golden Knights owner Bill Foley made the final expansion payment that allows Vegas to make transactions.  In fact on Monday they signed their first player in history, WHL forward Reid Duke, to a three-year rookie contract.

Things are definitely going to heat up in the coming months with the Vegas Golden Knights and the expansion draft looming in the offseason.

 

 

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