Darren Eliot
Monday November 16th, 2009

With almost a quarter of the regular-season schedule in the books, I would go as far to say that the Buffalo Sabres' sizzling 12-4-1 start isn't really out of the ordinary. They were well on their way to being a playoff team last season prior to goaltender Ryan Miller getting hurt down the stretch. Miller (12-2-1, leading-leading 1.77 goals-against average, .939 save percentage, two shutouts) has been a difference-maker again thus far, with no signs of slowing down. Given his fine play -- he was the league's Third Star for last week -- and the slippage of the Boston Bruins to date, the Sabres sitting atop the Northeast Division is at least explainable, if not entirely predictable coming out of training camp.

Not so predictable are the Bruins, who led the conference last season with 116 points, as both their offense and defense stood out, and they were expected to dominate again. This season, they've suffered key injuries on offense with Marc Savard (broken foot) and Milan Lucic (broken finger) missing significant time, and the trade of Phil Kessel to Toronto has been felt more acutely because of them. Reigning Norris Trophy-winner Zdeno Chara hasn't been as dominant. Consequently, the B's are off to an uneven 8-7-4 start. Their next 20-game segment of the schedule will be crucial in sparing them the necessity of a second-half blitz just to make the postseason derby.

Such is the plight of the Carolina Hurricanes, a playoff team at the conclusion of the '08-'09 schedule. The 'Canes surged into the postseason and stunningly went on to the Conference final after knocking off New Jersey and Boston. Yet, suspicions remained about their overall quality, and they have been realized as well as exacerbated by injuries to goaltender Cam Ward and offensive leader Eric Staal. Subsequently, the Hurricanes went a franchise-record 14 games before winning Sunday afternoon at home in a shootout and they will have a tough climb to get out of their sizeable early hole and into playoff contention. As they are, I see them ending up in the bottom third of the conference.

Same for the Montreal Canadiens, who looked wobbly in the second half of last season ... and look equally circumspect now (9-11-0) with new coach Jacques Martin and an entirely new first line of Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta. Their fresh ingredients must coalesce and produce in time for a concerted, consistent run, given the quality of the field in the conference.

For the Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, their starts haven't been what you'd expect, for positive and negative reasons. In Pittsburgh, the Penguins (13-7-0) are only two points off the conference lead despite Sidney Crosby garnering no goals and three assists in seven games while Evgeni Malkin was out of the lineup, a stretch that included five losses. Malkin's impact was apparent and immediate in his first game back. Saturday night against the Bruins, he was credited with three assists while Crosby broke his goal drought. Crosby also had two assists, the second while skating on a line with Malkin sent the game into overtime where the Penguins won it, 6-5.

Meanwhile, the Capitals were able to go 4-2-1 in the seven games that Alex Ovechkin missed after injuring his shoulder. Both the Caps and Pens are talented and resilient enough -- the Penguins now must do with blueliner Alex Goligoski (lower body) for two weeks -- to be where you'd expect them to be come spring.

Likewise the Devils. Without the departed Gionta, Brent Sutter, John Madden and Brendan Shanahan, as well as, for stretches, the injured injured Paul Martin, Johnny Oduya, Jay Pandolfo and Rob Niedermayer, they are 14-4-0 including 9-0 on the road for new coach Jacques Lemaire, who has been credited by his players for keeping things simple while he works replacement parts into his system.

The rest of the conference is wide open, providing hope in Atlanta (10-6-1) and Tampa Bay (7-4-6) of a sustained return to the postseason picture. In Philadelphia, James van Riemsdyk is fitting in nicely as a rookie and meshing with center Jeff Carter as the Flyers (10-5-1) have won five of their last six while looking much as expected. The Rangers, however, hold their playoff spot from last spring by virtue of an October rip of seven-straight wins, passionate play at home, and the excellence of goaltender Henrik Lundquist. Marian Gaborik (13 goals, 25 points) has scored as hoped, yet this inconsistent team is 4-5-1 in its last 10 and looks like the essence of a top-eight hopeful rather than an elite lock.

Over in the Western Conference, the best, by and large, remain so. The San Jose Sharks haven't lost in regulation in 12 games and sport a 6-0-2 home record. A year ago, they lost only five times on home ice. No changes there, and Dany Heatley has come in and produced as advertised, tallying 14 goals already -- tied for first in the league. The Blackhawks sit atop the Central Division after reeling off four-straight home wins before embarking on a six-game road trip this week. And the Calgary Flames took to heart the chastising by new bench boss Brent Sutter -- particularly captain Jarome Iginla -- going 7-2-1 over their past 10 games.

Then you have the Detroit Red Wings as the standard-bearers of excellence. They are off a bit this season and likely will remain so due to offseason scoring loss via free agency and some early season lethargy. Still, any talk of a precipitous slide is premature. The Wings aren't as deep as they've been, but with Henrik Zetterberg -- the NHL's first star of the week -- and Pavel Datsyuk carrying the attack, they have two world-class players to lean on. Zetterberg had but one goal in the team's first 10 games and has racked up seven in their last eight. Datsyuk, too, has heated up, going 4-8-12 in his last nine games. Not coincidentally, the Red Wings are 7-1-1 with the pair rounding into top form.

The Vancouver Canucks are missing from the conference's elite right now, at 11-10-0. They've been without cornerstones Roberto Luongo and Daniel Sedin for extended periods -- Sedin (broken foot) is still out -- and thus have had up-and-down results. Still, much like their Eastern Conference brethren in Boston, the Canucks have hung in, and with a consistent stretch should be in position to battle the Flames for the Northwest Division.

That last point assumes that the first quarter surprise in the NHL -- the Colorado Avalanche -- won't be able to hang. The Canucks whipped the Avs 8-2 over the weekend -- possibly signaling a market correction in the Northeast. More than likely, the Avs (12-5-3) will find their level with the rest of the pack fighting for the final three playoff positions in the conference.

Who will emerge? That's where the intrigue lies. Last year, the Columbus Blue Jackets (currently seventh overall at 10-6-2) made it for the first time and the so-far disappointing St. Louis Blues (6-8-4) put together a second half that catapulted them from last to sixth. Maybe this time, the L.A. Kings (12-7-2) will continue their fine early-season play and be there as a fresh entry. It's also possible that the Anaheim Ducks, presently occupying the conference basement, won't find their stride and will stay mired on the outside looking in.

The top five may be easier to spot with only a quarter of the work done, but figuring out seeds six through 15 is going to take the whole schedule.

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