With hockey underway at the Olympic Games, there's a pause in the NHL schedule. With pause comes reflection. Looking back on my preseason predictions, well, let's just say I've done better in years past. Self-flagellation aside, here's a look at what has happened and why -- I think this is called exception reporting in the corporate world...
My playoff team predictions:
Atlantic winner: Philadelphia FlyersNortheast winner: Boston BruinsSoutheast winner: Washington Capitals
Rest of the playoff fieldNew Jersey DevilsPittsburgh PenguinsBuffalo SabresCarolina HurricanesAtlanta Thrashers
I was bullish on the Flyers and Bruins. Neither will win their respective divisions as I envisioned. I did not foresee the early season strife in Philly that led to Peter Laviolette replacing John Stevens behind the bench. Ray Emery's inability to stay healthy didn't help things, either. The Bruins battled injury as well, certainly exacerbating the loss of Phil Kessel's goal scoring in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Injuries wreaked havoc with Boston's plan for how their lineup would look without him. For both the Flyers and Bruins, though, things might be finally turning around. The two teams entered the break on four-game winning streaks, bested only by the Hurricanes and their too-late five-game streak.
While the Thrashers are still in the playoff mix with the likes of the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers, I didn't foresee the Ottawa Senators coming at all. On January 12, after losing their fifth-straight game, they looked like a lock to be on the outside looking in. Instead, they've reeled off 14 wins in 16 games, overtaking Buffalo atop the Northeast Division. The Senators fired their goalie coach and played dodge ball on oudoor ice in New York City in reaction to their mid-January woes. They haven't looked back since. Oh yeah, Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek all came back from injury and have performed brilliantly, especially Spezza with 10 goals in the 11 games since his return.
My playoff team predictions:
Central winner: Chicago BlackhawksNorthwest winner: Vancouver CanucksPacific winner: San Jose Sharks
Rest of the playoff fieldDetroit Red WingsAnaheim DucksCalgary FlamesDallas StarsEdmonton Oilers
Okay, the good news is that the divisional leaders in February match up with my September vision. After that, well... there is the Edmonton Oilers. I thought this young team would come together under new head coach Pat Quinn, with free agent goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin providing a rock solid foundation as they found their way. Early on, that was the case, but Khabibulin only played a month and the team's fortunes faded fast. Now the Oilers sit last overall with more concerns than optimism.
Missing entirely were the Colorado Avalanche, Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings. I never saw the Avs as a serious playoff team this season, even with goaltender Craig Anderson signing over the summer. They play fast and hard, and first year coach Joe Sacco has this exceedingly young bunch challenging for the Northwest Division.
Meanwhile, Dave Tippett has the Coyotes playing patient, defensive hockey to great effect. GM Dan Maloney changed the mix by adding some proven veterans, and Tippett and assistant coach/mentor Dave King have instilled structure and discipline to write one of the season's best stories.
Likewise in LA, where coach Terry Murray has his young charges poised to reach the playoffs. Many thought this club might be ready, but I thought they were a year away. Murray took the job initially because of the teaching component required with a young group. That appealed to him. Well, he is obviously an excellent instructor and the results thus far point to a team capable and ready to learn. Their season certainly schooled me.
Next week we'll look ahead and ponder what teams battling to make the top eight in each conference must do. Until then, enjoy the Olympic action.