As the NHL season rolls on, there are only a handful of teams that are talked about when the subject of winning the Stanley Cup arises.
The Detroit Red Wings (24-9-3) are playing better than any team and have the coach and experience to win their third title in four years.
The Philadelphia Flyers have overcome a terrible 0-5-1 start and now lead the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division with 49 points.
The Dallas Stars have had some recent success, but they are playing in the Pacific Division in the Western Conference, where if the playoffs started today, all five teams would advance.
Two teams that absolutely nobody is talking about are the Toronto Maple Leafs and the St Louis Blues. The Leafs are leading the Northeast Division of the Eastern Conference by nine points and have amassed 52 points themselves, matching Detroit for the league high.
Two years ago, the Leafs traded some prospects to the Edmonton Oilers to obtain goaltender Curtis Joseph in hopes of bringing the Stanley Cup back to Toronto. Joseph quickly paid dividends, as the Leafs made it to the Eastern Conference finals last season.
Joseph has more wins (18) than 21 teams on the league, including the entire Northwest Division. His goals-against average is 2.01, and his save percentage of .927 is third among goaltenders.
The Leafs are not loaded with talent or high-priced players, which is evident in the fact that they do not have a top-20 scorer. What they do have is a proven winner in coach Pat Quinn to go with perennial all-star Mats Sundin.
Last year the Leafs relied heavily on Joseph to stop 30-40 shots a game and hoped that they were able to score three goals and win. This year, they have the second most goals in the league, once again second only to Detroit, and have given up the second fewest goals behind St. Louis.
The Eastern Conference started out the season looking as if its teams would once again play second fiddle to the Western Conference, but with Toronto and Philadelphia playing like they are, don’t be surprised to see an East team makes a real run at the Stanley Cup.
St. Louis, on the other hand, not only has the chore of keeping up with the Red Wings in the Western Conference’s Central Division, but it also gets the undaunting task of playing Detroit six times a season.
The Blues parted ways with goaltender Grant Fuhr and now have a true (not to mention young) No. 1 goaltender in Roman Turek. Turek and reserve Jamie McLennan have been magnificent, with GAAs right above 2.00.
The offense has improved dramatically since last year, and even though the Blues lost future Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine to retirement, players like Pierre Turgeon and Pavel Demitra are showing the younger players what it takes to win. The Blues have the best tandem of defenseman in the league in Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis. Pronger is a natural defenseman who hits and checks as good as anybody in the league, and MacInnis is an offensive-minded defenseman who just happens to possess the fastest shot in the league.
Watch for these two teams as the season rolls on.
n The Colorado Avalanche are one game over the .500 mark almost halfway through the season. Very mediocre for a team which won the Stanley Cup in 1996 and has made it to at least the conference semifinals every year since.
However, injuries to Peter Forsberg and Joe Sakic have made it very difficult for the Avs to get any kind of streak going. Last Monday marked the first time that Forsberg and Sakic have been in the same lineup the entire season. The result was a good one, as the Avs were able to beat a very good St. Louis Blues team 5-2 and remain in first place in the Northwest.
The Avs have stayed above water without their superstars and a mediocre Patrick Roy, not to mention a departed Claude Lemieux. Now that they have Forsberg and Sakic back, they should inspire what is still an above-average hockey team to run away from the also-rans of the Northwest Division.
n Hockey players, like the rest of us, have been known to digress when it comes to New Years resolutions. Therefore I feel obligated (that’s a 4-syllable word for all of you basketball fans) to discuss a few of my own that I will in no way break in the year 2000.
1. I will not say anything derogatory about the Detroit Red Wings.
2. I will not throw anything at my television set when the Colorado Avalanche lose in the Conference finals.
3. I will show an overabundance of glee when Dominik Hasek comes out of retirement.
4. I will not laugh out loud when the New York Rangers miss the playoffs after shelling out $100 million dollars in the free agent market.
5. I will not be extremely happy if the San Jose Sharks win the Stanley Cup.
6. I will get a plate surgically implanted in my head the day Scotty Bowman retires.
7. If Mike Keanan needs a place to live, I will invite him into my home with open arms.
8. I will watch many games involving teams from the Southeast Division.
9. I want Mark Messier to continue playing in Vancouver.
10. I hope that Reno Professional Hockey never returns.
Trevor Smith is the Nevada Appeal hockey columnist.