So we’ve reached the midway point of this shortened NHL season, so it is time to start thinking about playoff contention. Today, let’s examine the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Looking at the standings, you may be a bit surprised to see who the division leaders are at this point: Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Carolina Hurricanes. Two of these three teams finished at the bottom of their respective divisions a mere season ago. So how did the Canadiens and the Hurricanes improve by such leaps and bounds? Let’s take a team-by-team approach in examining this query.
Let’s start with the Canadiens. For a team that struggled last season, they had a very quiet offseason making no roster moves of any significance. However, they did send Erik Cole, their second leading scorer from a year ago, to Dallas for Michael Ryder last week. So far, this move has served the Canadiens well with Ryder picking up four points (all assists) in his first five games with the Habs. Erik Cole could only manage six points in 19 games for the Canadiens. You may be asking yourself how this team can be much improved without making any roster moves. My only response is player development paired with stellar goaltending.
The Canadiens have quite a few young stars that are just now hitting their stride at the NHL level. Stars like 23 year-old defenseman P.K. Subban and 24 year-old Max Pacioretty have led the way in scoring and have continued to develop their respective games. P.K. Subban is a force on the ice that can get under opponent’s skin, logging over 100 penalty minutes in his first two seasons. However, this year he is a valuable asset on the power play, scoring four goals. If Subban can keep his offensive production up, he may develop into one of the games top defensemen. As for Pacioretty, his offense prowess is continuing to evolve. Many people questioned how he would be after the vicious hit he received from Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Pacioretty answered those questions by leading the Canadiens in scoring last season with 65 points (33 G-32 A), and he is once again leading the Canadiens in scoring this season with 20 points (8 G-12 A) in 20 games played. If these two guys can keep it up throughout this condensed season, the Canadiens may find themselves going deep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Next, let us take a look at the Penguins, who unlike the other two division leaders had a (somewhat) successful 2011-12 campaign. The Penguins were a 100-point tam last season but were defeated in six games against their rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. Although the Penguins may find themselves on top of the Atlantic Division, some of their problems from last year’s playoff series have seemed to resurface. Pittsburgh may have the two most talented players in the NHL in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which mixed in with James Neal and Chris Kunitz should be all the firepower you could ever need. Pair that with a top defensemen like Kris Letang, and you should have a formula for Stanley Cup contention for years to come. However, as last year’s playoffs showed, it’s not all about offense.
Although the Penguins were leading the NHL in penalty killing throughout the season last year, we saw a complete breakdown against the Flyers in the playoffs. The penalty killing problems have carried over to the first half of this season. The Penguins find themselves ranked 20th in the league in PK percentage this season, which must improve if they want to be true Stanley Cup contenders. The Penguins must play a more disciplined game to stay out of the box, because too many times they have taken silly retaliation penalties leading to crucial goals. A prime example is the Florida Panthers game from last week. The Penguins lost the game 6-4, giving up four power play goals to the Florida Panthers. A majority of those penalties were roughing calls after the play, which ultimately lead to goals. However, it is not only power play goals the Penguins are struggling with, it is also late period goals with less than 30 seconds left. Late period goals often shift momentum and lead to more goals the next period. Once the defense breaks down in the waning seconds, it seems to become a mental block for the Penguins. It may be time for a roster move to bolster the blue line, given that the Penguins have had a few injury problems and lost Ben Lovejoy and Zbynek Michalek. Although the Penguins have the firepower to compete in high scoring games, that is not always the best method to win hockey games.
The Penguins have also struggled to protect home ice this season. Last year they were 29-10-2 at Consol Energy Center, but this year they find themselves hovering around the .500 mark, at 6-4-0. Thankfully, they have been impressive on the road going 10-4-0. I see no reason for the Penguins to have a disadvantage at home. They have a loyal fan base that fills the arena for every home game. If the Penguins can improve at home, they may still be a contender for the Stanley Cup. But it may take more than gaining home ice to put them in contention. Goaltending was an issue in last year’s playoff series, and has been an issue at times this season as well. Marc-Andre Fleury has played very well this season, but the off-season acquisition of veteran net minder, Tomas Vokoun, has not panned out. Vokoun’s save percentage is under .900 and his GAA sits at an ugly 3.32 this season. Vokoun is 36 now, so he is in the final stages of his career, but he has never posted a GAA over 3.00. I’m afraid that streak may come to an end this season. Vokoun has never seemed to have found his niche in Pittsburgh, and his numbers are reflecting it. I would not be surprised to see the Penguins call up AHL all-star selection, Jeff Zatkoff, for a look at the NHL.
Finally, let’s take a look at the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes had a busy off-season, starting on draft day when they sent Brandon Sutter to the Penguins for Jordan Staal. Not only did this unite brothers Jordan and Eric, it also added offense, which seemed to be Carolina’s goal this off-season. With the addition to Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes also acquired Alexander Semin from the Washington Capitals. Semin has been a 40-goal scorer in the past, and is coming off a 21-goal season. Adding offense seemed to be the answer to the Hurricanes getting over mediocrity, as they finished last season with a 33-33-16 record. Carolina finds themselves tied for sixth in the NHL, averaging 3.00 goals per game. It’s no secret that scoring goals is how you win hockey games, but Carolina’s new offensive attack has been on fire recently, putting up 15 goals in the first four games of this month. Jiri Tlusty has been a pleasant surprise for the Hurricanes, as he is on pace to set a career high in goals. Tlusty netted 17 goals last season, and he currently has 11 goals in 23 games this season. The Hurricanes have had contributions from many different players this season, which is a good sign for the organization.
With so many injuries, a lot of the talented, young players in the organization are getting ice time at the NHL level, which helps in development. And to see the Canes still be sitting at the top of the division despite all the injuries they have had speaks well to how talented and deep this club really is. At one point in February, the Hurricanes were missing three of their top defensemen in Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain, and Joni Pitkanen, as well as their second leading scorer (at that time) Jeff Skinner. However, the young guys stepped up and performed very well. As GM Jim Rutherford put it, “It’s shown what they can do here right now, but also a projection for them where they can be next year,” he said. “I’m very, very pleased with most of those guys who have jumped in.” And why wouldn’t he be? The Hurricanes have gone from the bottom to the top in one season, and Rutherford is looking like an Executive of the Year candidate because his young guys have answered the bell. With all that being said, the real test may be these coming months, as starting goalie Cam Ward was diagnosed with a third-degree MCL sprain and is expected to be out for six to eight weeks. If the goalie duo of Dan Ellis and Justin Peters can hold up for a few months, the Hurricanes may be looking at a favorable matchup in the playoffs.
However, this is only the division leaders as of now in the Eastern Division. Other teams are well within contention, such as strong Boston Bruins squad who only trails the Canadiens by a single point in the Northeast Division. There are also quite a few mid-season surprises in the opposite direction. The Philadelphia Flyers find themselves in last place in the Atlantic. Like most inconsistent teams, the Flyers defense has been lackluster at best. With Chris Pronger’s (non)retirement** for chronic vision problems and Kimmo Timonen’s age catching up with him, the Flyers defense seems sluggish and has been no help in the offensive zone. The Flyers should be shopping for an offensive-minded defenseman in the coming weeks. (Jay Bouwmeester?)
**Pronger still appears on the Flyers roster as an injured reserve, but he will never play again. Here are some direct quotes from Chris Pronger as evidence:
My eye is still troubling. It's not working properly. I don't have peripheral vision. I don't have a lot of the things I have that have worked well for me in the past. My eyesight is-- I keep having to get stronger and stronger glasses. I just got another new prescription. You work on getting healthy.
I have some vulnerability that [doctors] are worried about. That may or may not go away. No matter how long it takes, I have to get healthy that's my main focus and goal.
At times, I can be disoriented, I can lose my train of thought. My cognitive skills are a little suspect at times. It comes and goes on certain days. I can be sitting here and you might say 'what's wrong with him?' and I'll figure out what I was saying and start going again.
I have glasses and I can drive, yes, but I can't run. Anything where I have to move my body fast. If I ride a bike where my heart rate gets up to high, I get symptoms. Pretty much anything where there's a lot going on. ... I've been on the ice with my kids but I can't say I'm really doing a lot. Pushing pucks around. I've been on the ice and I've gotten symptoms and tried to do some things. It didn't go very well.” **
As with Chris Pronger, only time will tell the outcome, but we should have an exciting few months of hockey left with plenty of roster moves to come. One key acquisition could put a team that was thought to be out of playoff contention right in the middle of the big dogs, especially with big names like Jerome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Jay Bouwmeester.