Everyone likes to have some kind of mile marker. It’s a way to gauge the direction one is headed, success or failure is tantamount in getting the analysis of direction right. In the national hockey league, that’s the quarter season mark, when the first tweaks occur, the first panic buttons are hit, the first thoughts of fire sales happen and fans start getting as antsy as the GMs about the standings.
In the East, it’s been pretty interesting. Washington seem to be in control of their own destinies and the division might be theirs to lose with the way they are performing. Buffalo looked solid throughout with a bit of a threat from Ottawa and Boston to keep them looking back while forging ahead… Then, there’s the Atlantic Division, where it’s a three-headed monster between the reigning champs in Pitt, the perennial winners in Jersey and the undulating Flyers.
Of course the bottoms are just as dismal as Carolina, Toronto and the Isles struggle to reach double digit wins. The anomaly of Tampa’s success in the standings while not reaching double digit wins is a testament to the weakness in the Southeast. While the Rangers struggles winning but not collecting enough points to get out of the cellar.
That being said, here’s where each team seems to be relatively to the rest of the division.
The Top Eight as they appear both in the last 20 and poised to track in the next 20 in approximate order of dominance – mostly these are teams that have identities and structure and are executing it:
New Jersey Devils
They must be seriously considering a name change to the Jersey Brodeurs the way he is putting up career style numbers after last season’s injury. If they do not ride him too hard and break him down down the stretch this is the kind of dominant hockey that used to make the Devs so scary, albeit boring. Speaking of boring, the hot scoring that they began the season with (and was flashy last season) is toned down, but it’s still one of the more balanced teams in the league, but if they don’t recover some spark on offense it could be a boring season to endure regardless the outcome.
So far, knock on wood, the Caps have managed to avoid the injury bug that plagued them the last few seasons. They have a captain skating, they have a fairly solid top few lines to roll. And, perhaps most importantly, they have a goalie. Varly’s so good, as a matter of fact, he’s all the talk of the Calder, which, if he can solve that flukey high glove side weakness and a potential contender for the Venezia statistically. The concern though has to be still relying too much on the one man/machine Ovie (clearly by raw numbers, is once again the most prolific scorer/skater) and not playing a full sixty minutes as a team.
The Pens are off to a strong start, negating both the post-cup slump and the string of rotating injuries. Malkin is still the force on this team, regardless of how much marketing goes behind Crosby, but the balance they demonstrated to take them through the championship last year appears to be sustained into the first quarter of the season meaning they can probably again ride out any continued bumps on the ice they should encounter. If the depth of D continues to show, they’ll allow Flury to continue to mature without showing more chinces in his netminding armor.
Miller is the Venezia shoe-in at this point, even beyond numbers, he’s doing what Thomas did last year between the pipes with spectacular saves that defy explanation and true leadership. The team is well more seasoned than in years past and if they can find a way to score some points to offset the jarring defense the team would feel much more dominate in that balance. Till then, it is a rare occasion a team can hop on a goalie and ride (see the Jersey Brodeurs) and Miller is a truly brutal buffalo between the pipes.
The Flyers need to keep a full team on the ice and minimize both the injuries and the suspensions if they intend on being able to compete over the long haul. Until then, the hard hitting, physical nature along with the revived goal scoring and better net minding this year show how much more there is to this team than just being bullies. However, the pendulum can swing at any moment as the points per game played could easily shirk if they cannot man a team for a full sixty minutes for a full weeks worth of games. Thankfully for Philly the cushion under them in the division makes for a soft bounce.
Jay Spezza and Jon Cheechoo are the Sens achilies heal right now and they are probably fortunate competing in the division and conference race. Then again, they are playing more like a team then ever to compensate for this lack of offense and doing something they’ve struggled with even on the best teams they’ve skated, found balance… Ottawa needs better goaltending to maintain this run, especially in SP, to take pressure off the D while the offense struggles to find a scoring touch.
Dejecting fall from the pinnacle they reached last year the Bruins are poised to make a leap in the standings with just a little more of a solid team effort like what drove the wins last year. The injuries are a contributing factor, as has been a less Venezia-level play from Thomas, but once Tim turns the corner and they get back players to contribute to their depth they could easily be a force in the Northeast again.
Who would have thought the Thrashers, of all teams, would be entitled to a spot in the top eight. Barely above the competition of the Habs, Rangers and Lightening who all struggle with identity more than the Thrashers who know their place but lack the depth of talent to explode but are doing more with what they have than before. The goaltending is still weak, the D still is porous and the offense lacks vibrancy, but there they are playing team hockey and that, in and of itself, is more than enough to keep them stable.
The Bottom Seven based on their last 20 performances and potentially set up for the next 20 in approximate order competitive advantage – mostly these are teams struggling with either their identity or their executing in getting over the hump:
New York Rangers
The positive for the Blueshirts, Gaborik is off to a career type-start, which, for a FA is a nice change of pace for them. The negative, it isn’t enough to overcome all the other flaws in the Ranger’s build.
Tampa Bay Lightening
The superstars on the team continue to be MIA and the defense seems like Swiss Cheese still at times, but Stamkos is almost singly leading the team. Despite the lack of regulation wins, they also have among the fewest losses and if they can find a way to balance their overall play to both eliminate needless penalties from playing on their heals and jumpstart the offensive special teams they would have a much better chance in the standings.
The average of a point a game is nothing to get excited about. Then again, this was not a simple collegian injection they did to the team, it was a full reconstructive facelift. Those types of