It might be a new year on the calendar but it’s only mid-year for the National Hockey League. Thus far, it is a pretty big year for story lines with records and players falling like there’s no tomorrow and triumphs and tragedies alike. Forty games in and it is time to take a peak at not only the standings but the strengths of the teams overall. Since I am in the east, once again, I’ll relegate most of the analysis to the East and rank the teams superficially in the order it seems they are playing (not necessarily where they are in the standings.
A cursory look at how the teams are fairing shows a number of interesting things. First, the west is clearly playing stronger than the east. The top few teams in the east are as good as any team in the west but the bottom of both conferences shows the east much weaker. Secondly, there’s a glut of mediocrity in the east overall with five teams tied in points and more than half the conference struggling to average at least a point per game. Finally, although both conferences have high scoring and low goals against teams, the goal differential not only drops off substantially in the east when you move from the top teams, the overall differential is much better in the west, demonstrating a better balance in the teams there.
The top four teams really are in a league of their own:
New Jersey Devils
Whatever Jacques Lemaire has done, it’s been right so far. Parise continues to be a scoring force, Marty continues to get it done between the pipes, the D is playing responsibly and although they might not be the most exciting team to watch night-in-and-night-out their shining moments on both offense and on highlight reel saves are more than enough to ensure that the chase for the league lead in points is anything but a fluke. This could very well be the best team Jersey has iced in nearly a decade, and that says a lot for a team that consistently makes the playoffs.
* The devil of it all is they could post a record year on offense AND still piss people off they play too slow when they win the president’s trophy
The goalie merry-go-round continues to spin in Washington. Before the injury, Varly was a Calder candidate, but since Nuevith is abuzz and Josey continues just existing. It has not seemed to effect the Caps any as they are playing a fairly balanced game. Despite the rumors of a soft D and mediocre play through the neutral zone, the Caps are not being blown out in the goals against department (they are below average for the league!). Ovie continues dominate on the ice (near or in the league lead for goals, points, +/- as well as the SOG to GPct ratio), Steckle is a face off monster (league dominating in percentage) and Bruce Boudreau keeps pulling the right string at the right time. The biggest knocks are Semin and Green not playing up to expectation, and even still, both guys are not actually so bad (Semin leads Malkin in most categories and Green is still among the top offensive D in all categories).
* the capital punishment will be so utterly dominating the SED that they forget to play the first round of the playoffs when it counts
The Pens are playing streaky in the early half the season, looking exceptionally dominate at times while others they could just as well be going through the motions. Perhaps back-to-back Stanely Cup appearances are taking their toll on some of the stamina, or the simple fact that soft is still good enough to be dominate takes the pressure off of Crosby, Malkin, Fleury and company from playing all-out every night for the win. Breakout performances from Staal and good shuffling by Bylsma allow the Pens to keep swimming right along.
* slipping and sliding on the ice all the way to the playoffs could leave the emperors without a throne to sit on when they get there
Is there anything that cannot be said for Ryan Miller? Among the league leaders in stats but even more is he is exciting to watch dominate every night he takes the ice. The team playing in front of him continues to play confident and it shows in the way they are beginning to pull away in the Northeast. If they can continue to find the momentum and spread the scoring out around their top lines as evenly as they have so far, it could be an interesting second half of the season for the Sabes especially if several of the guys scoring touches can light up at the same time.
* Sabre rattle this… a goalie stick can cut just as bad as any other blade and mr. millers an expert with his
The next eight teams pull down that coveted almost a point a game mediocrity all too well:
Apart from a stunning come from behind to win in overtime victory at the Winter Classic, there has not been much to cheer for most nights in beantown. After owning the Northeast last season they’ve sunk into a doll-drum and have goalie issue to grapple with. Numerically it’s Tukkala time but somehow Tim Thomas is still in net as the go-to guy. Not that Tim is bad, but some of the spectacular flailing that fans were hyped on last year is failing this year and the bad goals are more about timing than anything else. Add in the Brue-crews occasional offensive woes and a lack of consistent effort every night and it spells lagging expectations for the first half. The quicker they can recover and come together as a team the better a chance they have a putting some separation between them and the pack snuggled around them.
* a big bad bruin or a teddy bear… someone better help the beantown badboys find their swagger again or the stuffing is gonna fall out
Surprisingly the Sens seem to be holding their own. Despite playing very streaky with flat performances about as predictable as exciting ones, the Senators put up wins enough to keep pace in the middle of the league while showing flashes of potential for them to be so much more. The inconsistencies, especially on soft goals and missed offensive opportunities are plaguing them (especially on the power play) but really if Jason Spezza doesn’t come out of his funk and Alex Kovalev provide a little more scoring touch as a leader it could be a longer second half than it was a first.
* how much is ottawa happy they are in the east? if they were in the west they would be an embarrassment to the maple leaf
New York Rangers
Assuming the Rangers don’t burn out Henrik Lundqvist by overplaying him and Marian Gaborik can continue being both healthy and scoring at a lightening pace the Rangers have a good platform to build upon. However, consider what life would be like without either of them for the Rangers, who are under-producing severely with Chris Drury and Wade Redden or the fact that three of the top five points producers are also putting up double digits in the +/- column on the wrong side of it. Maybe it’s not time to throw in the towel yet, but at least the prospects are getting the job done in the Juniors. If the big boys keep it up it might be time to bring in re-enforcements from down below in the second half.
* 9 new york sports and as bad as the rangers are playing they still have the nets, nicks, mets, giants and isles to make them look like gods right now
Not sure what happened here… Briere, Carter and Richards predictably are leading the team and producing as a group, Pronger has slotted in nicely in some ways as well, but as a team they do not feel nearly as dominate as last year. The key here is they lead the league in penalty minutes. This would be fine IF they were a physically intimidating team and it was affecting how other teams approached playing the Flyers, but that’s not it. Rather, these are primarily reckless and careless minutes spent killing penalties and putting the team at an unnecessary disadvantage too often. It shows in the goalie numbers the stress they are facing and for a flimsy Ray Emery this is not what you want to subject him to for a full season. If they don’t pull together the discipline quick the precarious position at the bottom of the playoff picture could slip away by season’s end leaving them outside looking up.
* the city of brotherly love better find a balance with the broadway bullies or they are going to fight themselves right out of a playoff spot
Oh Montreal. We knew the complete face lift would take time to make you look pretty, but the seems are still showing and sadly beginning to scar over. Gomez and Gionta as a tandem might be back together but the only magic they are producing is helping Michael Cammalleri look amazing, not powering the Habs overall. Then there is that league leading shots against, resulting in a dismal bottom of the league team +/- and a beleaguered Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak who amazingly enough aren’t posting bad save percentages or GA numbers. How long they can keep this up without some support though seems questionable. Unless he team comes together and plays two-way hockey with some heart they could be skating on very thin ice from here on out
* montreal will continue to lead in all the wrong things, unless quebec providence becomes it’s own country, then they can be kings of at least one good court
New York Islanders
Streaking up the standings almost seems unreal considering how beleaguered this team was. John Tavares is living up to his billing and in conjunction with some of the other youth like Matt Moulson there is something definitely exciting about where they are headed. Now, if only the goal tending albatross around the team would let loose the team from it’s deathly shackle. The prospect of a DiPietro return has to way heavy on an underperforming Biron and uninspiring veteran Dwayne Roloson as well as the tentative defense in front of them. Anything that happens from here on out that resembles the numbers they put up in the first half has to be considered a success, and doing that in the east shouldn’t be that difficult.
* no fishsticks here, well, none at least until the team gets fried by that ungodly dipietro contract while trying to hurdle the next step in resurrecting this franchise
The offense has come around nicely (especially with the man down where they lead the league in scoring) and Ilya Kovalchuk continues to be the catalyst for the team. Now, if only they could resolve those untimely goals against and shore up the transition play and there might be something to challenge Washington with in the SE and moreso the conference for a playoff spot. Much like the rest of the Southeast though, strong defense seems to be elusive and the goal differential is still headed in the wrong direction.
* Second half could be defining, or embarrassing, it’s anyone’s call really
Tampa Bay Lightening
What a difference a year makes. Wholly underwhelming play team-wide still but the darkness that shrouded the Bolts last season seems to have given way to at least some residual light with shades of the franchise’s former self beginning to shine from its star players. If and when Tampa can get all the pieces to click together there is still the potential for the team to be a powerhouse, but considering the lack of consistency and questionable chemistry it is hard to image them getting it together anytime soon to considerably shake up the standings. At least the St. Louis / Lecavelier trade rumors won’t be as turbulent for the time being though.
* thunderstuck in luck or are they going to flare out like one overly bright bolt of light?