Tak’s Take: NHL

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Each team in the National Hockey League is at least a quarter of the way into their season.  As is the annual tradition in the NHL, there are some teams that are performing unexpectedly.  Here is my take on the NHL right now, based on how the 30 teams have played thus far.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic Division

Without perennial all-star Martin Brodeur in the net for New Jersey, the Devils are playing poorly.  The Devils are built to hold a small lead, but are having trouble doing so without their starting goalie.  At this point in the season, the Devils are below the lowly Edmonton Oilers in the standings and are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 15 seasons.  The two teams from Pennsylvania, on the other hand, are on the rise.  The Philadelphia Flyers have been playing well all season with rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovski.  The defending Eastern Conference champions have been playing like so.  They are near the top of the league in points and are tops in the NHL in goal differential (+26).  The Pittsburgh Penguins are right at the top of the East with their Pennsylvania rivals.  After a slow start in a new arena, the Penguins (particularly center Sidney Crosby and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury) have turned it on.  They own the longest winning streak in the NHL of ten games.  Crosby is on a streak of his own as his 33 points in his 16-game point streak has jumped him into first place in the league in points, goals, and assists.      

Northeast Division

Last-season’s biggest underdogs, the Montreal Canadiens have stormed to the top of their division early this season, reminding le habitants fans of their 104-point season from three years ago.  This team’s success can also be related to a hot goaltender, as the young Carey Price has stood on his head.  Price is first in the NHL in wins, tied for second in shutouts, third in save percentage, and tied for third in goals-against average.  The Boston Bruins are winning too, all behind the performance of goalie Tim Thomas who seems to be back to his Vezina Trophy-winning form.  Thomas is first in the NHL in save percentage, goals-against average, shutouts, and is tied for third in wins.  Montreal and the Boston Bruins seem to be leaving the other teams in their division behind, including the Buffalo Sabres, the team of American hero; goalie Ryan Miller.  Miller is going to have to step it up if he wants to see the playoffs in 2011. 

Southeast Division

The Washington Capitals, perhaps the most exciting team in the NHL, are up to their old tricks.  Left wing superstar, Alex Ovechkin has his team in first place in the league and is gunning towards another President’s Trophy.  The Capitals are on pace for another 120 point season.  Another exciting team is the Tampa Bay Lightning.  They are young, including their prodigious 20-year-old center, Steven Stamkos, who is second in the league in goals.  He is on pace for a monster season where he could score 60 goals.  They could be a dangerous playoff team with a hot Dan Ellis goaltending and with the veteran leadership of Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis.  Also in the Southeast, the Atlanta Thrashers are playing well and could capture a surprising playoff berth.    

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Central Division

The Detroit Red Wings are playing very well.  Their offensive juggernaut with names like Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, and Draper has led the Wings to sole possession of first place in the Western Conference.  With 37 points in only 25 games played, Detroit is on pace to have 120 points this season.  Detroit is also an impressive 10-2-2 at home so far this season.  Any of the other four teams in this division are capable of making the playoffs.  Obviously the defending Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks will be looking to halt Detroit’s success.  However, after losing almost half of their team, including their goalie Antti Niemi and defenseman Dustin Byfuglien to free agency, the Blackhawks are not as sharp defensively as last year and could suffer.  The Columbus Blue Jackets look like they are a team that could make a surprise appearance in the playoffs.

Northwest Division

Possibly the weakest division in the league, the Northwest is already going to be decided between two teams; the Colorado Avalanche and the Vancouver Canucks.  Both teams have young talent and good potential for long-term success in the NHL.  However, as for this season, the Canucks have the edge.  NHL assists leader Henrik Sedin and his brother Daniel lead a solid team that is not flashy, but get the job done.  The Canucks have star goalie Roberto Luongo as well as talented defensemen Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis, and Christian Erhoff to stifle opponents.  Colorado, their star Paul Stasny, and several other young players will win games, collect points, and should push for a second consecutive playoff appearance.      

Pacific Division

The entire Western Conference is tightly contested right now (all 15 teams are within 12 points of first place), but no division is tighter than the Pacific.  This division has five teams, all of which are capable of making the playoffs, within four points of each other.  At this point it is a straight toss-up to who will win this division.  It is notable that the Dallas Stars are at the top of the division in points, especially after losing long-time Star Mike Modano to the Red Wings.  The team that wins the division will be the team that has the most consistent goalie all season.  If I had to pick one team to win the division, it would be the Los Angeles Kings.  The Kings have hit a bit of a rough patch after a solid start to the year, but they have a young, talented team with Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Matt Greene, and Drew Doughty on the ice.  LA’s average age is 26 years.  The Kings’ 24-year-old goalie, Jonathan Quick, is a talent who is fouth in the NHL in goals-against average, fifth in save percentage, and fifth in wins. 

PLAYOFF PREVIEW

In the NHL the winter months are always where the contenders and the pretenders are sorted out.  It will be interesting to see which dark horse teams will make a run at the playoffs.  Here is how I see the mid-April picture shaping out:


EAST                                                               

1.  Washington Capitals

2.  Pittsburgh Penguins

3.  Boston Bruins

4.  Tampa Bay Lightning

5.  Philadelphia Flyers

6.  Montreal Canadiens

7.  Atlanta Thrashers

8.  Buffalo Sabres

9.  New York Rangers

10.  New Jersey Devils

11.  Ottawa Senators

12.  Carolina Hurricanes

13.  Toronto Maple Leafs

14.  New York Islanders

15.  Florida Panthers

WEST

1.  Detroit Red Wings

2.  Los Angeles Kings

3.  Vancouver Canucks

4.  Anaheim Ducks

5.  Chicago Blackhawks

6.  Phoenix Coyotes

7.  San Jose Sharks

8.  Columbus Blue Jackets

9.  Colorado Avalanche

10.  St. Louis Blues

11.  Nashville Predators

12.  Calgary Flames

13.  Dallas Stars

14.  Minnesota Wild

15.  Edmonton Oilers

Enjoy watching Washington versus Pittsburgh in the Winter Classic on January 1, 2011.