Monday December 1st, 2014

Off The Draw

Thanksgiving has always been a time for eyeballing the middle of the standings to get a handle on which teams most likely will, and will not, make the playoffs.

But this year all eyes are focused on the top.

NHL's 2014-15 NHL Season First Quarter Awards

As we wake on Cyber Monday, six teams—the Lightning, the Canadiens, the Penguins, the Islanders, the Predators and the Blues—are tied for first-place overall in the league with 34 points.

Three others—the Canucks, the Ducks and the Red Wings—are a point back with 33. And right behind them sit the plucky Flames with 32.

That’s two points, a single win, separating a third of the league from a share of top spot.

Some of the teams in the mix are not not a surprise. Pittsburgh lacks depth, but any team that’s led by Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will compete. Montreal is riding the superlative goaltending of Carey Price and occasional guest-star appearances by P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty. Tampa Bay and St. Louis boast the best depth they’ve had in years, while Anaheim might be even better if not for injuries and a nasty bout of the mumps.

But Detroit? The Red Wings have had their flirtations with the IR, as always, but they’ve been healthier in general than the team that barely held on for a playoff spot last season. Netminder Jimmy Howard is quietly having a magnificent season, and a new-look second line has revitalized the offense.

New York is finally putting it all together after years of suffering, sparked by the steady play of goalie Jaroslav Halak and the last-minute rebuild of the blue line by GM Garth Snow. Nashville has ridden a dashing new first line (Filip Forsberg, Mike Ribeiro, James Neal) and the return to form of goaltender Pekka Rinne to stunning results.

Black and Blue Jackets lead McDavid derby; Flyers on brink of doom

Then there’s coaching. Calgary is punching way above its weight—fighting through a devastating string of injuries down the middle—with solid goaltending from both Jonas Hiller and Karri Ramo, and the most offensively potent defense in the league. But most of the credit goes to coach Bob Hartley, who has proved that he can squeeze a quarter’s worth of results from a nickel’s worth of talent.

And in Vancouver, the presence of new strategies and new expectations have revitalized a lightly regarded franchise. There were no guarantees when the Canucks hitched their wagon to rookie coach Willie Desjardins, but his fresh vision has been the key to their success. He came in vowing to run four lines and, after some early experimentation, has found the combinations that have allowed him to do just that. Depth is what has kept this team in a position to hold—or seize—leads late in games when other teams might slow down slightly. 

Sure, it’s still early. And you can bet the herd at the top will thin out eventually. The Canucks could be dragged down by their poor play at five-on-five. You have to wonder how long the Flames’ goaltending can hold. The Predators will be in trouble if they can’t find consistent secondary scoring. And Detroit is just another Pavel Datsyuk injury away from treading water.

But here's the thing: More teams than ever have a reason to believe this season. And hope is all that an organization, or a fan base, can really ask for.

What to watch tonight

Canadiens at Avalanche (9 p.m. EST; RDS, SNE, ALT)

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You know that Patrick Roy has had this date circled on his calendar since the start of the season. After all, there aren’t many things that the coach of the Avalanche enjoys more than sticking it to the team where he made his name as a player. But tonight’s contest is more about streaks than settling old scores. One team wants to keep the ball rolling while the other is desperate to find its footing.

Montreal might hold a share of the top spot in the East, but they come to Denver losers of three straight after getting swept by the lowly Sabres in a weekend home-and-home. The Habs weren't bad in those two games—they had 90 shot attempts in a 4–3 loss on Saturday—but their inability to maintain a consistent work ethic is starting to cost them. That failing, and the growing sense that they’ve been relying too heavily on goalie Carey Price, dogs them as they kick off a four-game road swing.

Colorado, on the other hand, is finally starting to move the chains after a frustrating start to the season. The Avs have won three of their last four, with Calvin Pickard giving them solid relief in net while Semyon Varlamov is rehabbing yet another groin strain, and with the offense finally clicking. Colorado has scored 15 goals during their current hot streak, with five assists from Nathan MacKinnon. Things haven’t gone well for the reigning Calder Trophy winner, but there’s been more jump and purpose in his stride of late. He’s been getting to the right places a bit quicker and he’s being rewarded as a result. As long as he’s going this well, the Avalanche have a real shot at climbing back into playoff contention.

Bruins at Ducks (10 p.m. EST; SN1, NESN, FS-W)

Boston kicks off a four-game West Coast swing absent its top center. David Krejci, who has missed 10 of the last 12 games with an undisclosed injury, was finally placed on IR over the weekend. The Bruins recalled Craig Cunningham from AHL Providence to take Krejci’s roster spot, but the 24-year-old winger, who is pointless in five career NHL games, certainly won’t be taking his place on the score sheet. Instead Boston will look for offense to the makeshift top line of Carl Soderberg, Loui Eriksson and Milan Lucic. The trio has played well since it was slapped together last week. Lucic in particular has been solid, seemingly rediscovering how to go to the net since lining up with the two Swedes. His presence in the crease could be key to getting under the skin of Anaheim’s Frederik Andersen.

The Ducks were thumped over the weekend by the Blackhawks and the Sharks, so they’ll be looking to get their heads back above water in this one. It’ll help if Corey Perry is back in top condition. The winger, sidelined earlier this month by a case of the mumps, had not looked sharp since his return until he chipped in two goals and three points in Saturday's 6–4 loss to San Jose. When he’s going, Anaheim can be a handful.

Rest of the schedule: Lightning at Rangers (7 p.m EST; NHLN-US, TVA, SNO, SNP, SUN, MSG); Panthers at Blue Jackets (7 p.m. EST; FS-F, FS-O); Coyotes at Oilers (9:30 p.m. EST; FS-A, SNW)

The numbers game

• Goalie Jimmy Howard is now tied with Harry Lumley for third on the Red Wings’ all time victories list (163), behind Terry Sawchuk (351) and Chris Osgood (317). 

• During the weekend, the Rangers extended their dominance of the Flyers to 16-4-0 in their last 20 meetings, dating back to March 6, 2011. It’s New York’s best streak against one opponent since the Rangers beat Vancouver in 16 of 20 between Jan. 14, 1986 and Feb. 17, 1992.

• The Islanders finished November with an 11-3-0 record, their best mark for the month since the 1980–81 team went 12-1-2 en route to a second consecutive Stanley Cup.

What you missed

• Gordie Howe suffered another mini-stroke on Saturday, according his son.

• Eddie Lack waged a pretty epic war against his shirt after practice on Saturday, and thankfully, the Canucks caught the whole thing on tape.

• There have been plenty of pretty goals scored this season, but few are prettier than Tyler Ennis’ must-see tally on Friday.

• This week on The Walking Wounded, the Ducks had to trade for defenseman Eric Brewer after putting blueliner Francois Beauchemin on IR.

Must reads

• The slap shot will always be a fearsome weapon for the NHL's top marksmen, but as our old buddy Adrian Dater explains it is far less important than it used to be. (This topic was also addressed by Michael Farber in the pages of SI in 2011.)

• The first-place Lightning are about to get a whole lot better.

• David Pollak explains what's going wrong in San Jose.

• And finally, a happy ending to a story we brought you earlier.

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