As we begin closing in on closing in on the mid-way point to the National Hockey League season it is time, once again, to contemplate how the teams are achieving. I’ll admit, from the pre-season analysis there’s been some headscratching on my part trying to determine what exactly is happening with some of these teams, I bought into the hype (Pittsbugh), I overestimated (Ottawa) and didn’t see it coming (Boston), but I also called a few of them fairly dead on and am all-in-all very happy that the 40 game mark finds the league’s teams and standings looking like they do.
Obviously, focusing on the Eastern Conference here are the teams in my analysis ranking, along with my predictions and their current status. Enjoy and keep a look out for the All-Star analysis and Bettmann bashing coming up soon
Brues – current 1 EC 1 NED
Beantown hockey is at its finest in years: first and first status plus second in the league in points, double digit win streak, lead in the league in goals for and have the lowest goals against in the east and the list of accomplishments goes on and on. What makes this team special is the fluidity in which they play. It’s smooth on the transition with a solid mind to the defense and a smart offense (with the top three guys in plus/minus in the league) that focuses on taking advantage of mistakes and relying on Tim Thomas’ unorthodox netminding. If they can solve Buffalo in the east they should have a good run in the second half, including a huge homestand through January.
Caps – current 2 EC 1 SED
The most impressive thing in Washington right now is the other man with the O, Ovechkin. After a slow start to the year, the streaky Russian winger has put on a show on the ice, tied for most goals, second in points, among the lead for assists and even when he’s not on the puck he’s throwing the big check and leading the team by example. Take into account just before New Years the Caps were without 9 of their starters (and are still missing the services of Poti, Federov, Ernskine, Pothier and Fleishmann) they are finding ways to overcome adversity. If they can overcome the holes in the defense and play a complete sixty minute game with focus and intensity they might ne’re be unbeatable coming off the best first half in team history.
Flyers current 3 EC 1 AD
The city of Philly cannot be prouder right now, they have most of their pro-sports set up and the Flyers are more than holding their own after a long climb to the start after a 0-3-3 start to the season. The league’s leading scorer, Jeff Carter, is holding his own while captain Mike Richards is providing the leadership to overcome the injuries which have continued to stack up on the team (8 guys out over New Years including Simone Gange, Daniel Briere and Derian Hatcher). The physical play has picked back up but it’s more than the hard checking, it’s the timely scoring and the resurgence in the netminding that’s really helped. With the rest of the division struggling with its identity, the Flyers are coming together at the right time.
Habs current 5 EC 2 NED
Despite the crazy All-Star voting that allowed an excessive number of Canadians players to appear on home ice for the event, the Habs are not the powerhouse they could be this season. Carey Price has done well in goal despite nagging injuries, but the real story for Montreal will be how they continue to deal with injuries to captain Saku Koivu as well as Alex Tanguay, Chris Higgins decimating their top lines. Thus far, the answer has been defense, which has kept the goals against down, but the need to stay fresh and complete games is still a concern. Streaky in nature they are right up there with the Caps when it comes down to getting lost in their own gameplan and not playing with intensity and focus for every game, every night.
Devs 6 current EC 3 AD
New Jersey is contending with the loss of Martin Brodeur by proving inspiring defense still wins games. What’s more impressive about the Devils this season however is they didn’t fall back into a completely defensive minded trap and are relying more and more on their ability to control the puck and create scoring chances, netting among the top ten goals for in the Eastern Conference, a situation they are unacustomed to, led by the youthful Zach Parise and a resurrgent Patrick Elias. They are still underrated in the standings comparred to what they have going for them, but playing the least number of games in the first half means they will face the denser schedule later on.
Rangers current 4 EC 2 AD
It was only a matter of time before teams caught up to the Rangers in the schedule and that points lead was flattened out. Despite the hot start, the questions about how this newly recrafted team would ultimately gel are best presented by the higher goals against than goals for demonstrating the holes in the defense as well as the lack of a definitive plan for an offense that is missing a game changing forward. The blueshirts need the pieces to start to come together in the second half and find their team identity or it could be a long road to the playoffs.
Sabes current 8 EC 3 NED
When there is focus on fundimental hockey the work ethic of this group of players can help dominate a game, but when they try to do to much and forget the basics of solid hockey, especially on defense things still seem to fall apart. The team is riding Thomas Vanek so far, but he can’t carry them alone and the rest of the forwards need to step up with intensity and win the battles on the boards, especially through the neutral zone to control the puck. There’s still a lot of potential for the Sabes and those bottom spots for the playoffs are anything but secure with 10 points separating the 5-11 teams.
Canes current 7 EC 2 SED
The coaching change seems to be having its desired effect creating a more centered and focused team that plays tighter and more secure with the puck. If they can continue to generate scoring chances when necessary using the skills of Ray Whitney and Eric Staal there is a good foundation to work with while they transition to being a more defensive minded unit, which will help sheild the occasionally shakey Cam Ward. Once the ‘Canes settle into the Paul Maurice style again they will provide the East with a much needed defensive thrust, but the question is can they find the balance this season to remain competitive.
Pens – current 9 EC 4 AD
My, how the mighty have fallen. The lack of leadership is glaring on this team and the fustration is starting to become a plague in the lockerroom and on the ice. Just ask Sidney Crosby who’s scoring production has fallen off as of late while his questionable fighting techniques (a shot to the family jewels and a sneak attack on a guy with his head down for a faceoff) have some wondering why Bettmann has yet to call him out for dirty plays. The littany of issues is astounding, from a lackluster powerplay to no transition springboard from the defensive zone. It isn’t a lack of tallent, it’s the lack of continuity that created this skid to medocrity. The real question now is if their youthful leader can inspire them back to greatness before season’s end or if the post-Cup appearance slump going to be a burden as they slip and slide into the playoffs.
Fla current 10 EC 3 SED
The Cat is out of the bag, the Panthers are definitely a better team than what they are given credit for as they continue trying to build a team out of nothing. It might be time to bring back the rats to the stadium to take them to the next level, or at least decide on a goalie between the streaky Craig Anderson and Thomas Vokoun and figure out how to more effectively rally their offense around Nathan Horton, David Booth and Richie Zednick on the first line. When those guys are on there is a lot of potential for the team, but they’ve yet to find a groove to skate in together.
Leafs current 11 EC 4 NED
Toronto is terrible on the power play pretty much on both sides, so any success they find is something to be excited about. Bright spots on a team this mis-managed are tough, but considering how bad the balance of teams are below them the fact they are as close to hanging in for a possible playoff spot is mindboggling. The lack of defense in even strength is hurting them but when they get offensive momentum they seem to find ways to thrive off of it. If they can balance themselves out there is potential now that they Mats Sundin era is officially behind them.
Sens 12 current EC 5 NED
The only thing saving Ottawa right now is the unbalanced beginning to their season playing the least number of games in the East to this point. The long slide down to the bottom is exaspirated by the lack of offense. The team’s anemic offense is last in the league and is showing no signs. Light offense is normally acceptable with a dominant defense but the defense and goaltending has not been anything to write home about either, providing neither an inspiring backstop or any kind of strong transitional play to help springboard the struggling forwards. With no signs of improving anytime soon the only hope for the Sens might be to plan for next year early.
Atl current 13 EC 4 SED
If the Thrashers are looking for luck to carry them they should know, she’s a jealous mistress. If they don’t play with any kind of entheusiam she’s foresake them for someone else. The few wins they’ve posted looked more like luck from a little extra effort in play and less like a team that is truly inspired to win, but at least they aren’t giving away wins as lightheartedly as they had been earlier in the season.
Isles current last and last
Well, it finally happened, the Isles found their way to the basement. It might be short lived depending on how some other teams fair in the second half, but due to the unbalanced schedule facing the rest of the Atlantic Division won’t make their plight any easier from here on out. When you hit bottom, in theory, there’s no place to go but up. Let’s see how hard they bounce, my guess is it’ll be more like a soggy sponge and less like a rubber ball.
Bolts current 14 EC 5 SED
Someone might want to tell Tampa Bay where the defensive blue line is. Even before they were decimated by the recent injuries, they never seemed quite sure where it was. What makes it worse is a team that sports forwards Vincent Lacavlier, Martin St Louis, Jeff Halpern, Mark Recchi, Matt Pettinger and Ryan Malone can’t score, at all. They feature the second lowest goals for in the league and the worst plus/minus rating.