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Things just got interesting for the least-interesting division in hockey.
There hasn't been much of a reason for anyone to care about the Northwest Division for a couple of years now. Calgary has been shambling from abject mediocrity to outright terribleness for the better part of half a decade; Edmonton couldn't stop losing if it tried; Colorado snuck into the playoffs that one year and regressed immediately thereafter; and Minnesota has always been reliably bad.
Meanwhile, the Vancouver Canucks almost couldn't stop winning despite brewing goaltending controversies, a rotating cast of defensemen who infuriated the fanbase and major injuries to top players.
Things are obviously different this season, with the Wild having made just enough strides in personnel moves over the last two years to get back to Vancouver's level, even as the Canucks shrank from their traditional spot atop the Western Conference as the team's infirmary filled up more than it really ever has.
And now, these two teams sit locked in each others' grasps in the final weeks of a battle for the top spot in the suddenly up-for-grabs division. The winner gets the third overall spot — since neither is going to catch Anaheim or Chicago — while loser mires in uncertainty, given the way spots Nos. 3-7 are so tightly packed in the West.
Both very clearly saw the trade deadline as their last best chance to get a leg up on the competition; and while Vancouver's opening volley of acquiring Derek Roy was certainly a nice enough one to give them a little forward help, Minnesota's answer looks like it could very well be enough to give them the juice to pull ahead as the season draws to a close.
Getting Jason Pominville without surrendering a roster player is a tidy little move — albeit with a lot going back to Buffalo, including the Wild's first-round pick —that turns their offense from one of the better ones in the league to being potentially lethal. Last night's result notwithstanding.
Even before the season started, Dany Heatley never seemed like the top-line right wing answer he was propped up as in the early days of Parise's partnership with Mikko Koivu; and indeed, that experiment didn't last long. Once Charlie Coyle came aboard, he's proven a better option, picking up six of his eight points with those two players.
But still, that isn't good enough, not if you're trying to get the power play to start functioning at least at league average. Or get those possession numbers on track. Not that this really addresses the Wild's actual problem, which is that they give up a few too many goals, in part due to a somewhat rough start. But when you have the puck more, which they very well might with Pominville getting big-time minutes in place of either a rookie or a past-it scorer, that obviously helps sort out defensive liabilities.
Let's not forget, headed into last night's game, the Wild lost three of their last four games, conceding three or more in all of them, and the only one in which they picked up two points ended in a shootout.
The Canucks, meanwhile, have rebounded nicely from that late February/early March stretch of Flames-like play, in which they won three of 11, and ripped off six in a row before losing twice on the road to playoff teams Edmonton and San Jose.
What's a bit unfortunate, I suppose, is that these two teams play every other division rival in the season's remaining games, except for each other. Which certainly serves to make things interesting. Looking at the Wild's remaining slate, I see just five of their last 11 games coming against playoff teams, compared to just three for Vancouver (a murderer's row of Detroit, Chicago and Anaheim all coming to town in a five-day stretch), so it would appear the harder road is Minnesota's.
But there's something to be said, I think, for having a better-constructed roster as well, and in this regard to you have to think Vancouver has the better chance to close out relatively strong. Certainly, you'd rather have either of Cory Schneider or Roberto Luongo in net on a nightly basis than Nicklas Backstrom, who's been just okay this year. Likewise, the defense and forward groups certainly seem to lean in Vancouver's favor, at least on paper. Getting any of Kesler, Raymond, or Ballard back would certainly be a help.
And here's the other thing about the Northwest: The Oilers could end up having a major say in how everything shakes out. Not that I think they're going to catch either the Canucks or Wild, obviously (though they're seven points back of Vancouver and five from Minnesota with 11 games to play), but what they are doing is playing some incisive, punishing hockey right now. When I read yesterday morning that Taylor Hall, on the strength of a 1-4-5 performance against the dead-in-the-dirt Calgary Flames, had 15 points in his last six games, I just about choked.
Thursday night's game snapped their streak of five straight wins, and the offense has completely come alive: Three against St. Louis, six against Columbus, four (and a shutout) against Vancouver, then 12 in two against Calgary. The Oilers play the Wild two more times, and the Canucks once more, on the last day of the season. That's going to cause a little more havoc than either contender for the division crown would probably like, especially with the way that top line is playing these days; it's almost like they're stocked with high-first-round picks.
The fact is that the Canucks have to be disappointed to find themselves in this position, while the Wild likewise probably couldn't have reasonably been expected to hang around here for this long. Seeing how these deadline acquisitions shake out with their new teams will probably matter more for these two teams than any other two in the league; Montreal didn't do much as Boston stocked up for a low cost, while Carolina, Winnipeg, and Washington seem to be playing checkers against each other in an effort to figure out which will have the most embarrassing first-round crashout at the hands of a six-seed.
At the same time, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Anaheim are all more or less untouchable, nursing division leads of 16, 17, and 10 points.
It's going to be a fascinating few weeks left, which is probably more than the Northwest deserved.
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