What we’ve learned about Eastern Conference teams at midseason
With the majority of NHL teams at or approaching the halfway point of their schedules, let’s take a look at what we’ve learned about each of them this season, starting with the Eastern Conference. Our thoughts on the Western Conference teams are here.
Boston Bruins: Power surge
The lethality of Boston’s power play has to rank among the biggest surprises of the first half. A unit that ranked 17th last season has found success by moving the puck lower in the zone and keeping bodies in motion. That result: a league-high 31 goals with the extra man, fully 26% of the Bruins’ offensive output to this point.Buffalo Sabres: Risto’s for real
His Dec. 10 hat trick against the Flames—the first for a Sabres defenseman in nearly 30 years—made headlines, but it’s the quiet way that Ristolainen goes about his job day-to-day that proves him capable of being a No. 1 blueliner. Just 21, he already plays heavy minutes, drawing a heavy load of top opponents and defensive zone starts, along with important minutes on both special teams. And despite those challenges, he plays the game clean, drawing just one minor penalty so far this season.
Carolina Hurricanes: Moving in the right direction
It hasn’t been an easy year for the Hurricanes, but coach Bill Peters is laying a solid foundation for future success by focusing on doing the little things right. Carolina is the league’s top shot-suppression team, limiting opponents to just 26 per night. The Canes rank first in face-off percentage at 53.1%. And they’re a dominant possession team, ranking fourth in shot attempts (53.47%). With plenty of promise on the blue line, the pressure is on GM Ron Francis to reinforce the goaltending and forward corps.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Being lousy defensively is no way to go through life, son
There’s more than one way to build a playoff contender, but starting with the league’s 30th ranked defense is probably not the best approach. There are better days ahead—a healthy Sergei Bobrovsky in net will help, as will the arrival of Seth Jones—but Columbus’s inability to take charge in its own zone is the primary reason the Jackets have failed to live up to lofty preseason expectations.
Detroit Red Wings: Up to the challenge
It hasn’t taken long for Jeff Blashill to prove himself ready for prime time. The rookie bench boss of the Wings quickly won over the team with his honest, open approach. He’s won fans in the coaching community as well for his willingness to seek help when needed. His decision to bring in special teams expert Adam Oates, for instance, highlighted a team-over-self approach that resonated in the room and around the league.
Faced with the second choice on draft day in 2013, Panthers GM Dale Tallon opted for the big Finnish center over promising blueliner Jones. Looks like he made the right call. Barkov has established himself this season as a game-changing two-way force in the mold of Anze Kopitar. He’s not yet an elite scorer, and may never become one, but his game has been so steady and so reliable that he can give the Panthers an edge in any situation.
Montreal Canadiens: The value of Brendan Gallagher
It was expected that the Habs would struggle after losing goalie Carey Price to injury. But the wheels didn’t really fall off until a broken hand sent Gallagher to the sidelines for a month. When he went on IR, the Canadiens were 16-4-2, and held first place in the Atlantic Division by nine points. Without his belligerent presence, the offense dried up and they posted a miserable 5-11-1 mark. His return isn’t a cure-all, but his ability to work the boards, get to the net and infuriate the opposition changes the complexion of Montreal’s attack and makes them a more effective team.
New Jersey Devils: Nothing changes
The names may change, but the style’s the same. The Devils have emerged as a surprising playoff contender thanks to stout defense and stellar goaltending. New Jersey is allowing just 2.27 goals per game, fourth fewest in the league, while allowing the sixth fewest shots (28.3). Cory Schneider is a Vezina Trophy contender with his 2.07 GAA and .927 save percentage.
New York Islanders: Home sweet home
Barclays may be a lousy place to watch a game, but the Islanders have made themselves comfortable in their new digs. New York is 13-6-2 at home this season, the third-best winning percentage in the Eastern Conference. That’s only a slight improvement over their .634 winning percentage in their final season on Long Island, but even holding steady would have been considered a big win given the challenges posed by the new facility and the daily railroad commute the team must make to get there for game day skates. Essentially, every home date has been a mini-road game and the Isles have now decided to hold all practices on Long Island and allow the players to spend more time at home.
Forget that hot start. Just 6-10-2 since Thanksgiving, these Rangers are a group that is far less than the sum of its parts. A casual commitment to team defense has been the most pressing concern, but the lack of leadership is troubling as well. Players like captain Ryan McDonagh and alternate Derek Stepan are struggling to find their own best games, and that’s left them unable to step up and take charge when their teammates need them most. Leaning on goalie Henrik Lundqvist to bail the Blueshirts out is taking a toll.
Ottawa Senators: They’ll pay later
Maybe the Sens shouldn’t have played hardball with Mike Hoffman in arbitration last summer. The third-year forward has been one of the league’s most dangerous snipers through the first half, scoring 19 goals in just 36 games, second-most in the East. If he keeps up anything close to this pace, the team’s shortsightedness is going to cost a fortune when he looks for a new deal this summer.
Philadelphia Flyers: Ron Hextall needs time
No way around it: Hextall inherited a mess when he took over as Philly’s GM, the kind no one can fix overnight. To this point though he’s shown a clear facility for cleaning it up, moving some contracts (Vincent Lecavalier, Luke Schenn) and burying others (Andrew MacDonald) to clear up some much needed cap space and recognizing that Shayne Gostisbehere deserved to stay in the NHL even after Mark Streit returned from IR. It’s a process, but he’s making real headway.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Change is good
Mike Sullivan might not have all the answers just yet, but the Penguins seem more like themselves since their new head coach stepped behind the bench in December. After sleepwalking through the first three months, Pittsburgh is back to being an aggressive squad that challenges defenses rather than laying back in the defensive zone. There’s still work to be done on the power play, but with Sidney Crosby fully engaged (6-6-12 in his past nine games) and Marc-André Fleury off IR, this team will be dangerous in the second half.Tampa Bay Lightning: Steve Yzerman has 99 problems
Between Steven Stamkos’s lingering contract situation, Jonathan Drouin’s trade request and a string of injuries to key performers, Tampa Bay’s GM probably hasn’t had a good night’s sleep since the start of the season. The Bolts are starting to get healthy again, but it feels like they need a resolution to their other pressing problems before the defending Eastern Conference champs can get back on track.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Coach earns his check
If Mike Babcock is, in fact, pulling in a record $8 million during a front-loaded first year of his groundbreaking deal, he’s managed to earn every penny of it. The Leafs have been transformed under him into a tight, structured unit that maximizes the limited talent on hand. There’s only element that’s been missing—decent goaltending—and Jonathan Bernier finally seems ready to provide that. Toronto has six wins to show for its past eight games and could challenge for a playoff spot. Amazing.
Washington Capitals: Early edge
The Caps have opened the scoring only 22 times this season, but when they get on the board first, it’s church. Washington has won 21 of those games, a league-best .955 winning percentage. This team knows how to hold a lead.
The numbers game
• Artemi Panarin, who leads all rookies in goals (15), assists (23) and points (38), is now the first Blackhawks freshman to have consecutive multi-goal games since Pavel Vorobiev did it on Oct. 7-9, 2005. Panarin is also the second rookie in franchise history to do it on consecutive days. The other: Darryl Sutter, on Feb. 7-8, 1981.
• After starting the season a disastrous 0-8-3, Maple Leafs netminder Jonathan Bernier is 6-2-0 in his last eight outings.
• It took him only 760 games, but Hurricanes defenseman John-Michael Liles scored the first shorthanded goal of his NHL career on Wednesday night against Vancouver.
• While admiring the guts it took to make it, a Columbus writer wonders if Wednesday's big trade will actually help the Blue Jackets.
• There are a few hard questions that must be answered before the Lightning can move disgruntled winger Jonathan Drouin.
• How did Finland celebrate winning gold at the World Juniors? With nudity and Burger King, of course. What, no Rock ’n Roll McDonald’s?
• And finally, happy birthday to Mike Campbell, who just might be the world’s oldest beer leaguer.