Taking stock of playoff contenders at the quarter pole
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
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
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
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
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
Meanwhile, the Capitals were able to go 4-2-1 in the seven games that
Likewise the Devils. Without the departed Gionta,
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,
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
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
The Vancouver Canucks are missing from the conference's elite right now, at 11-10-0. They've been without cornerstones
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.