For the early portion of the 2015-16 NHL season, the Pacific Division was considered one of the weaker factions. This is partially because it stands up against an incredibly fierce Central Division. It's also in part because the Los Angeles Kings jumped out to a ridiculous lead in the standings while every other team was losing one-goal games and not able to rack up any points.
But as the All-Star break gets underway and we sit back to obsess over the standings, it appears the Kings might not be as untouchable as previously thought. The Anaheim Ducks have gone 10-3-1 since Christmas. The Coyotes have continued to show resiliency and flirt with the top spots in the standings. And the most recent meeting between the Kings and Sharks felt more like a playoff game than a midseason matchup between the first- and second-place teams.
Don’t look now, but Left Coast hockey is making things interesting.
The strides that Anaheim made through the month of January were made on home ice against some tough competition, from the high-scoring Dallas Stars to the stymying Petr Mrazek and the Detroit Red Wings. Anaheim has found a way to win games, even if the Ducks can’t put their finger on what went wrong those first few months of the season.
“I wish we knew what happened at the start of the season,” Corey Perry reportedly told the Orange County Register. “You know we dug ourselves a hole and we have to get out of it and we are starting to play the right way and doing a lot of the good things. We haven’t been scoring a lot of goals but you know our checking has been there and holding teams to two or less in a lot of games. And that’s been helping us out.”
That effort has helped them crawl their way out of the cellar in the standings. Anaheim heads into the All-Star break in fourth place in the division with 51 points, coming up on the heels of the Arizona Coyotes.
January had a mixed bag of results for the Desert Dogs, who won just five of their last 10 games and head into the long weekend on the losing end of the ice. But they have also shown that they have a knack for overcoming obstacles, as is shown in their 10 wins on the season when trailing the opposition first. This ability to continue grinding must be why captain Shane Doan seems confident that Arizona will get back on the right track after heading into the break with a disappointing 6-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
“We’ve played a lot better than that in the past,” Doan told Sarah McLellan of AZCentral. “Can’t do anything about it now, so we need to have a break and get ready for the second half.”
If there’s a team that maybe doesn’t want to take a break it’s the red-hot San Jose Sharks, who have a 10-game points streak. While their 6-1 victory over Colorado headed into the break was convincing, the Sharks really showed they’ve become an improved product in the “Sunday Night Special” when the Kings traveled upstate to visit. Unlike the last time San Jose hosted the division-leading SoCal foe, both teams played a tight-checking full 60 minutes of hockey — right up to L.A. winning in overtime. San Jose, after struggling on home ice and having trouble solidifying a team identity, is playing good hockey again.
“When you’re playing this (well) you almost don’t want a break,” Joe Thornton said heading into the All-Star recess. “You just want to play every other day like we have been doing, because it feels so good. We’ve been playing a lot of minutes, and if the guys use the rest the right way we’ll be fine coming out of the break.”
Granted, a big part of the Sharks' success has a lot to do with Logan Couture. His return from a rough string of injuries has given San Jose the opportunity to shuffle lines and create depth scoring. In addition, the Sharks have a healthy and stable defensive corpse for the first time in two seasons, giving Martin Jones help in front of the net.
“We’re competing hard every night,” Thornton said. “Every line’s contributing. Jones has been great. Hopefully we’ll come back refreshed and focused and stay this hot.”
Now, it should be kept in mind that these teams putting on the pressure isn’t a guarantee that L.A. is going to slow down. The Kings have reached 30 wins in 48 games, which is a team record. The stretch has members of hockey media thinking this Kings team is already making another Stanley Cup run. Others, however, are embracing that the division has become more competitive.
The teams in the Pacific certainly think they can catch up to the Kings. Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer said after Sunday night’s game, with a sideways smile: “They didn’t lock up the division tonight that I know of. Did they?”