Puck Daddy - NHL

We're fairly convinced that the Chicago Blackhawks are the best team in the Western Conference this season; yet every time the standings are checked, the San Jose Sharks appear atop them.

That the Sharks are leading the NHL during any segment of the regular season isn't surprising, considering their domination in 2008-09 before adding Dany Heatley's(notes) 30 goals (so far) to the mix last summer. Nor would a Sharks' win over the Blackhawks on Thursday night at the Tank be a surprise, because the teams are at a 1-1-1 stalemate and San Jose needs to atone for that 7-2 emasculation the last time the teams met on the West Coast.

But at this point, seeing the Sharks advance farther than the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup playoffs would be a surprise for a number of reasons. Here are a few:

1. Defense means more than offense.

As currently configured, the Sharks are the better offensive team. They've scored more goals (179-174, in 53 games), they outrank the 'Hawks in Top 10 scorers (3-1), they've got a slightly better power-play (21.6-21.3) and are the better team in goals for/against at even strength (a ratio of 1.37 to the Chicago's 1.28). Could the argument be made that the numbers would even out had Marian Hossa(notes) been able to play a full season? Yes, we think, but it's still close.

But there's no question that the Blackhawks are better defensively. Second in GAA (2.23) while San Jose is third (2.30). Winning at a .923 clip when leading after two periods, while San Jose is at .871. True, the Sharks have the advantage in penalty killing (87.8-85.6) and in the faceoff circle (55.8-52.8), but Joel Quenneville's team defense combined with a Norris candidate on the blue line in Duncan Keith(notes) and better than expected goaltending. Which brings us to ...

2. It's OK to admit we were all wrong about the Chicago goaltending.

It was a fairly simple assessment to make before the season: That the Blackhawks were a Cup caliber team but that the shaky pairing of Cristobal Huet(notes) (2.25, .900 but 23 wins) and Antti Niemi(notes) (1.99, .920 in 16 starts) was a fatal flaw that would cost them dearly when the games counted more. Recently, noted goaltending expert Jeremy Roenick(notes) opined that the duo wasn't good enough to win, and the Blackhawks closed ranks because neither goalie has been outright awful this season overall. 

Jesse Rogers of ESPN Chicago sees the goalie situation like this:

Between Jeremy Roenick's comments on ESPN 1000 and Cristobal Huet's recent struggles, the goalie controversy reared its ugly head again. I completely understand, as you do too, what Roenick is saying, but I'll say this: The Hawks have been ranked first almost all season (2nd right now) in goals against average. I would bet Marian Hossa's paycheck it would be the first time in NHL history a team that led the league in GAA would go out and trade for a goaltender. I realize their style of play has to do with their defensive rankings as much as anything, but that's the point. If the Hawks play their game, they won't need a goalie to steal a series. Maybe a game, but is Huet or Antti Niemi really going to play so poor in four out of seven games? I could be wrong but I don't think so.

Neither do we, and we also know that neither Huet or Niemi will play over 70 games plus the Olympics, which immediately means they'll be more well-rested than Nabokov. And yes, the whole "but they've never won a playoff series" is an important argument ... right up until the point they win one, which is approximately the first round in April.

3. The Blackhawks are deeper and more versatile than the Sharks.

According to Dobber's site, Patrick Sharp(notes) has played at least 1 percent of his total ice time this season at even strength on 15 different line combinations for the Blackhawks.

Some of this is out of scrambling to find something that works through injuries to the lineup. But mostly, it shows how diversely talented a player like Sharp is, and he's not alone. Troy Brouwer's(notes) another guy who has ping-ponged through the lineup, and there are others. Secondary scoring and contributions throughout the lineup are not, and will not be, a problem for the Blackhawks.

The Sharks? Calling them a one-line team is stereotypical at this point after this season's collapse against Anaheim, but their secondary scoring has been a point of concern all season. They're grittier and, frankly, better down the lineup with players such as Manny Malhotra and Scott Nichol(notes). But for all their offense, they don't have the depth the Blackhawks have or will have at forward. Which brings us to ...

4. They're just going to get better.

Remember how we all though the Blackhawks are going to be handcuffed financially and unable to add anything to their roster this season? Well, much like a restricted free agent and his qualifying offer from Chicago, GM Stan Bowman didn't get that. As he told the Daily Herald in a question about Ilya Kovalchuk(notes):

"I'm not going to comment on individual players, but what we're going to do over the next few weeks is meet and figure out where we think it makes sense to add, whether it's that type of a player or a different style or a different position," Bowman said.

"At that point we'll see what the price is to get that guy, and we'll see if it's going to make our team better. I don't want to rule anything in or rule anything out because we really haven't gotten down the path that far."

According to Bowman, the Hawks have enough money under the cap to add a player without giving up one. "It depends on how much the player makes," Bowman said. "At that point in the season there's only 40 days to go on his contract so if you have cap space you sometimes can afford a more expensive player."

There's every reason to believe the Blackhawks are in on Kovalchuk as a rental should the Atlanta Thrashers trade him. Even if the prize isn't that big, it would appear Chicago is willing to add another piece at the deadline.

Their eyes are squarely on Stanley. San Jose? They still have those postseason struggles on their minds, as Scott Burnside wrote:

The Sharks, of course, are cognizant of the fact that finishing the regular season ahead of the pack guarantees exactly nothing. They were the Presidents' Trophy winners last season, finishing five points ahead of Detroit in the West and one point ahead of the Eastern Conference's top team, Boston. The Sharks were then dispatched in six games by the eighth-seeded Anaheim Ducks in the first round. See ya. Thanks for coming out … again.

If anything, one would imagine the Sharks would be in a hurry to get back to the playoffs, to rush through the final 29 games of this regular season in an effort to begin the task of redeeming themselves after another disappointing playoff turn. But Pavelski said they're still aware of the importance of finishing first and earning home ice, even if it didn't matter much last spring.

San Jose might win the battle tonight -- with the Blackhawks distracted by those limo photos, after all -- but it's hard to imagine the Blackhawks not standing tall at the end of the battle for the Western Conference.

Unless, of course, they meet a fully armed and operational Detroit Red Wings team in the 1-8 or 2-7 series. Because wouldn't all bets be off in that one?

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