The NHL's Pacific Division is unimpressive, yet competitive
Los Angeles Kings left wing Milan Lucic (17) and center Anze Kopitar, center, of Slovenia, celebrate a goal by center Tyler Toffoli, second from right, with defenseman Jake Muzzin (6) and Jamie McBain (5) looking on against the Anaheim Ducks during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Anaheim, Calif., Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016. (AP Photo/Alex Gallardo)
ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) Bruce Boudreau never thought his Anaheim Ducks would struggle so profoundly in the first half of the season.
The veteran coach also never imagined he would be grateful to be in the Pacific Division when it happened, since it means they're still right in the playoff race.
''Yeah, we've been fortunate in that regard,'' Boudreau said. ''You don't expect the teams in this division to help you out, given the competition that we've had out here recently. That's hockey. Sometimes it doesn't make a lot of sense.''
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The combined struggles of the NHL's westernmost division have been among the bigger surprises of the hockey season.
The Pacific was an intimidating bastion of hard-hitting, fast-skating teams not too long ago. But for long stretches of this season, the Los Angeles Kings have looked like the only playoff-worthy team west of Denver.
Thanks to fan balloting, the Pacific's captain at the All-Star Game will be now-former Arizona enforcer John Scott. There are still great players out West, from $80 million Kings center Anze Kopitar to Edmonton's revitalized Taylor Hall. Their teams, though, are having a tough time getting much momentum.
Five of the seven Pacific clubs began the week with losing records when extra-time losses are combined with regulation defeats. The Ducks, Canucks, Flames and Oilers have all underwhelmed, while the Sharks only recently snapped into form.
That's left the Kings with a double-digit lead over Arizona atop the Pacific – a development that's a historic shocker in itself.
Los Angeles has claimed two Stanley Cup titles in the past four years, but the franchise won its division only once in its first 47 seasons of existence, and that way back in 1991.
''The standings are showing that we're playing better than everyone right now, but there's so much left that can happen,'' Kings star defenseman Drew Doughty said after Los Angeles' 4-2 win over the Stars on Tuesday night. ''At one point, Dallas had a big lead on Chicago, and now look at the (Central) standings. You can never be comfortable. All those other teams in our division want to catch us and do whatever it takes. We need to keep winning games and get even more ground.''
While the Kings have been largely outstanding, their Southern California archrivals have been one of the NHL's biggest puzzles. The three-time defending Pacific champion Ducks have forgotten how to score consistently, ranking dead last in the league in goals since the opening week.
Captain Ryan Getzlaf's meager goal production has been magnified by several major puck blunders, yet almost every one of his teammates has underperformed. Those individual struggles are the reason Boudreau kept his job during the Ducks' horrific start, which has largely turned around since Christmas.
The only pleasant surprise in the Pacific has been the Coyotes, who have hung tough in second place for much of the winter.
The Desert Dogs began the season as a popular pick to finish dead last in the NHL, giving them a chance to draft local product Auston Matthews next summer. Instead, ever-resourceful coach Dave Tippett has fashioned a tenacious lineup with solid veterans augmented by breakout rookie Max Domi.
Calgary and Edmonton have the Western Conference's two worst records, while Vancouver only recently pulled back into contention. The Sharks made a move up the standings shortly after Christmas, but they remain the conference's worst home team, winning just eight times in 21 games amid declining crowds at the Shark Tank.
The bright side to the Pacific's mediocrity is the competition created. There's even a chance that the Pacific could have four playoff teams this spring, given the relative lack of strength in the middle of the superior Central.
''We're aware we're in first place,'' Doughty said. ''It's hard to not know that, but at the same time, everybody can play so much better.''
Speaking of first-place teams, the Blackhawks have the longest winning streak in the Original Six franchise's history after beating Nashville 4-1 in their 12th consecutive victory. The defending Stanley Cup champions could have taken a step back with their offseason roster retooling, but they look stronger than ever.
Speaking of Chicago, Patrick Kane is roaring away with the NHL scoring lead while his two closest competitors are struggling to keep up. Dallas captain Jamie Benn has been shut out in five of the Stars' past eight games, while Tyler Seguin hasn't scored in six of eight. ''It's tough on the rest of the lineup when they're not on the scoresheet,'' coach Lindy Ruff said.
And speaking of teams that can't score, the Canadiens' slump stretched to 4-16-1 with a 4-1 loss to Boston this week. Montreal has just 10 goals in its last six games while plummeting out of first place and into the bottom half of the Atlantic Division in MVP goalie Carey Price's absence.
LEADERS (through Tuesday's games)
Points, Patrick Kane (Chicago), 71; Goals, Kane (Chicago), 30; Time on ice average, Erik Karlsson (Ottawa), 28:42; Penalty minutes, Derek Dorsett (Vancouver), 112; Games played by goalie, Corey Crawford (Chicago) and Cory Schneider (New Jersey), 39.
GAME OF THE WEEK
In a Stanley Cup Final rematch, the Blackhawks put their streak on the line Thursday night at Tampa Bay against the revitalized Lightning, who have won six straight.