So we are now 3/4 of the way through the National Hockey League season and coming up on the impending trade deadline. Let’s just call this blog, my, how the mighty have fallen! As the season has gone one, a handful of teams continue to meet, or exceed expectation, and a few are struggling as expect, though some more than others. A bunch of coaching changes, a few great highlight reel plays (thank you Mr. Ovechkin) and the bottom half of the top eight packed as tight as Iberian sardines.
It’s been a long, tough NHL season, as to be expected and despite two teams in the East dominating man-hours lost on the disabled list, there are some amazing story lines. So, lets take stock and reconsider the last 20 or so games of the season as they stand now.
These are in the order of my perception, not the standings and include my previous and upcoming predictions where necessary. We’ll revisit these going into the first round, as is expected and we’ll see how well I do judge in prediction, for I’m no prognosticator, I’m just another fan with a keyboard.
Brues #1 EC, #1 NAD
The beantown Bruins are battling for the president’s trophy for good reason. Stunning goal tending from Tim Thomas and more than adequacy backed up by Manny Fernandez plus a great two-way work ethic are the backbone to this team. Claude Julien has done a great job developing them and despite the fall from the top of the standings in offense takes little away from a league strong plus-minus rating. If they keep playing this kind of hockey they will continue to be dominate.
Caps #2 EC, #1 SED
The Caps have four guys over 40 points. Three questions that deserve no answer: Tell me that Ovie isn’t the leagues most dominate player? Tell me that Mikey Green isn’t the most exciting guy on D in a decade? Tell me that if Semin played an entire season he wouldn’t be a superstar? Three questions for the team moving forward: Is Theodore going to be hot to end the season and carry them through the payoffs? Is Chris Clark the leader of this team? Will Tom Poti teach the D how to step back and play D and help reduce the take aways, rushes and shots on goal? A stronger D and the ability to complete games at the hipo level they are used to playing at will define the team or will cost them Lord Stanley’s Cup.
Devs #3 EC, #1 AD
The Devils essentially have to feel like in getting Marty Brodeur back they got the equivalent of the best goalie in history added to their roster at just the right time. The question will be, will they fall back on him and give up the aggressive offensive play they’ve had? If they fall back too much on netminding it could become a crutch and take away from the exciting season that Zach Parise and company have put together. With the coaching questions swirling, what will happen with that situation. The line to watch in this transition will be Zubie, Maddan and Shanny, if that is broken up it could spell trouble as the rest of the division struggles with identity.
Flyers #4 EC, #2 AD
The Philly free-for-all congealed in the last few seasons into a strong, physical team that pushed the division and the conference to rethink its style of play. After overcoming some huge injuries and battling their way through the standings the broadway bullies aren’t just brawn, they are a threat every time they step on the ice. If they can figure out the curse of Ronny Hextall in goal and Marty Biron can continue with the positive end of his streaky nature, the depth of offense led by Cater, Richards and Briere they need only make a few simple back-end moves to dominate.
Habs #5 EC, #2 NED
Despite the trial and tribulations, the expectations and idealism that comes with being a Canadians team, they are surviving. The slide is slow and steady but the potential to completely clobber the the conference is still there. They haven’t taken the easy way out in blaming a coach and are holding players responsible despite what it might do to the single game play. The pressure is on Carey Price, Alexi Kovalev and company to come up with the big stands and all eyes are on Saku Koivu to come through as a leader in this mess. Can they do it? Sure, on paper they are still one of the most explosive and dominate teams in the league, but they have to figure out how to play a full game together night in and night out to prove that.
Cats #7 EC, #2 SED
The streaky Florida Panthers are hot yet again and they are flying under the radar to their position in the standings. Despite the goalie questions swirling between Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson that keep distracting the team, they are finding ways to win with the Richie Zednick, Nate Horton, David Booth line and a decent work ethic. The southeast division may be a traditionally weak division but the Cats are chasing the mice out of their building and bringing the surprise element to every game.
Rangers #6 EC, #2 AD
The inconsistency of their performance and the lack of definition in their personalities led to the loss of their coach. This was a team designed to come out of the gate strong, and they did, but they are suffering from a lack of consistency and it is hurting them. The lack of performance by Chris Druery and Scott Gomez is painful and leaning on Nikolai Zherdev, Markus Nasuland, Henrik Lundqvist isn’t helping right the ship right now despite their skills through the season. The inability to control the puck plays against them and puts them at a disadvantage in a conference that is physical and high powered. Will a new coach help set the record straight? It depends on how quick they learn his lessons.
Canes #9 EC, #3 SED
The Hurricanes are unsung in their ability to continue hanging in there as a consistent bastion to their structure and style. They don’t have all the pieces to be winners, but they are not lacking in ability with Whitney and Staal along with Ward backstopping them yet again. It might not be the team the Carolina fans are used to but they have every right and ability to upset some of the bigger names and expectations that are seeded above them. Because they are southeast division makes them underdogs but they have every motivation to come through in the clutch doing what they’ve done best to this point, play hockey.
Sabes #8 EC, #3 NED
Buffalo’s inefficiencies in playing defense have cost them most of the season thus far and if they can’t find that ability they will ride the inside-outside of the playoffs. The rut of mediocrity is in part because they are missing a pipeminder to set the tone, but also the lack of blue line discipline is costing them the wins they need to overcome. With Thomas Vanek leading the team across the board they lack the balance in the team to fix the problems and without some serious late season moves they will continue to flounder in the standings.
Penns #10 EC, #4 NED
Despite having the league’s faces in Crosby and Malkin, they can’t seem to find an offensive springboard. Even with a coaching change and the re-addition of two-way blue-line threat Gonchar they are still struggling. The off-season losses are taking their toll including in offensive veteran leadership and a concise idea of who they are. This is more than post-Stanley Cup blues, this is a quantifiable lack of personality and depth combine with excessive expectation, especially in goal, where Marc Andre-Flurry is looking most penetrable and average. No amount of late season coaching can fix this without a real threat on offense to pair with either Crosby or Malkin and some sold two-way D that can help accentuate Gonchar in the long haul.
Leafs #11 EC, #4 NED
Toronto might be dysfunctional and mismanaged and trying to fine their identity post-Mats Sundin, but yet they still hold a place within striking distance of making the playoffs. Their needs are many but their abilities as individuals with enough guys getting hot at the right time and they could be an unheralded dynamo in the late-season. Is that a reality? Probably not, it would take a further monumental collapse of those above them along with great timing of their skills players coming through, but the threat is there and just the idea could be enough to make teams on the brink scared, even if the reality is the Leaf’s are a paper tiger in this chase.
Sens #12 EC, #5 NED
The Senators have free-fallen to the abyss from a post-lockout powerhouse to a team struggling to find themselves. They battled goalie problems and a lack of leadership and finally lost their gunners on offense