Still plenty of uncertainty in the Western Conference

The Vancouver Canucks, the team that recently went on a stellar 14-0-3 run, have lost two of their last three. During that 17-game points streak, the Canucks looked like an absolute machine, rolling over the opposition high and low. Their two recent losses? Shutouts, including the latest one against division rival Minnesota.

Is it time for "uh oh" in Vancouver? No, of course not. However, the Canucks may have experienced a similar problem to plenty of teams over the past few seasons: peaking too early. The Washington Capitals and San Jose Sharks can tell you about this.

Still, you can't really read too much into it either way. The unbeaten streak was remarkable, yes, but it's no indicator of playoff success. And getting shut out twice in three games doesn't mean that the scoring has dried up.

No, what this means is that the Western Conference is still up for grabs. Let's not forget that the Canucks had their share of problems before going on their torrid run through December and January. In fact, pretty much every team in the Western Conference has had its share of ups and downs; the Detroit Red Wings have probably been the most consistently successful team, and even then, they've hit their spells when inconsistent play and injuries have affected them.

The Dallas Stars -- currently the third seed -- have spent a good chunk of this season the outside looking in while also holding on to the Pacific Division lead. Let's not forget that there was a time when both the 12th seeded St. Louis Blues and the 13th seeded Columbus Blue Jackets were the hottest teams in the league.

NHL coaches often like to talk about how they evaluate their teams in five- or ten-game segments, and there's about 35 or so games left for each team. 

The x-factor to all of this is the ramping up of divisional games as the playoff races hit their stride in February and March. Suddenly, everything becomes a four-point swing.

Prolonged winning streaks, like the kind Vancouver hit upon, create a bit of a cushion that allows for the inevitable stumble to not impact playoff chances too much. However, things like that mask the heart of the problem facing every team in the Western Conference: every team has the capability to turn into world-beaters for a few weeks.

Think of all of the ups and downs we've seen in the standings. Can you really pick favorites when looking at these teams? Each team has its share of strengths and weaknesses, and for the most part, we've seen both sides for each team. 

There are plenty of reasons to think that Vancouver and/or Detroit will keep pace and slug it out for the top spot in the west, but I think we've seen enough this season that it wouldn't be a surprise to find either team mired in a slump for a weeks. At this point, every conference game -- and especially division game -- is essentially like a playoff game, with teams slugging it out to avoid the dreaded three-point game.

The good news is that it provides compelling games to watch every night. The bad news is that there are no sure bets. Unless something drastic changes, things should remain quite unpredictable out west until, oh, around mid-May.

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