Thanksgiving is over, Chanukah is still going strong, and hockey is getting more interesting by the day. This week, teams were tested, big games were played, and a hero returned to his old team. Let’s dive in:
The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the more streaky teams in the league, and they are on a good streak lately. They picked up 7 points in 4 games this week, with varying levels of competition. They lost in OT to the Bruins, took to a shootout to beat the Leafs, then blew out the Lightning and Panthers. They now lead the division by 7 to the Washington Capitals, who had an average week, going 1-1-1 against teams they probably should have beaten. The Penguins are being given the opportunity to run away from them and the other teams in contention. One of those teams is the always confusing New York Rangers. When they lose, they lose big, but when they win, they play well. This week, they went 2-2-0, but had no consistency in their game whatsoever, getting shutout 5-0 against Tampa, but crushing Vancouver 5-2. They currently sit one point ahead of the up-and-down New Jersey Devils, who this week also went 2-2-0, but snapped a 3 game losing streak with their win in Carolina to split a home-and-home. Their game has been inconsistent as well, but for lumps of games at a time, and all of the inconsistency points to their offense. Right behind the Devils are the streaking Philadelphia Flyers, who went 2-2-0 this week, but should have been able to win every game with the level of teams they played. They sit one point ahead of the Hurricanes, who split a home-and-home with the Devils and then lost at home to the Canucks. The Blue Jackets alternated between good wins and bad losses, landing them 5 points back of the third place Rangers, and the Islanders continue to plummet, losing all 3 this week, one in OT, and will be hitting rock bottom any day now. The division has been convoluted with inconsistency, and will continue to be very fun yet frustrating for all teams involved.
Despite the 6-1 loss to the Red Wings, the Boston Bruins are sitting pretty atop the Atlantic, winning their other 3 games this week, including two showdowns with Pittsburgh and the Rangers. Their defense has been stout for the most part, and has been carrying the team to the top of the division. Those Red Wings, however, have been catching up to them, moving into second place with a fantastic 3-0 week, outscoring opponents 15-3. Their offense has certainly picked it up, and their defense has been solid to boot, even though they only had one quality opponent. The Wings passed the Lightning for second place, but Tampa has been doing well in their own right. The Bolts had 2 quality wins over the Rangers and Flyers, but lost to the Penguins, which was enough to drop them into third. They have been doing well without Steven Stamkos, but who are we kidding, they really want him back soon. The Montreal Canadiens have been picking their game up lately, having a 2-0-1 week, and are now tied with Tampa for third. The Habs’ strong overall game helps from their young core mixed with veteran help to make a team no one should sleep on. They overtook the lately-sour Maple Leafs, who’ve picked up 2 points in 4 losses this week, in a year where they need to prove that they are for real. Ottawa had a good win against Washington, but two losses since have them 7 back of those Leafs, and they are losing their chances more per day. Saturday night featured the return of longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson, who was met with a standing ovation and a scoreboard tribute, which will just about be as newsworthy as the Senators will get for the next little while. Florida will be playing spoiler for the rest of the season, with their occasional good wins against good teams, like their Monday night win against the Flyers, but don’t count on it every game. Buffalo took what seemed like a record 3 points in a week, and are the first team to hit 20 losses in regulation on the season. This division has been shuffling constantly, with teams dropping and rising seemingly every night, and will continue to shuffle for the rest of the season.
Raise your hand if you can beat the Chicago Blackhawks. Since I know none of you did, as well as none of the rest of the NHL, we can safely say that the Hawks are the best team in the league, harboring a 6 game winning streak, all 6 being road games, 4 of which this week. Their offense has been outstanding, and their defense has been good enough to boot, as these guys boast a 5 point lead on the next team up in the powerful Central. That team is the St. Louis Blues, who went 2-1-0 this week against very strong opponents, Minnesota, Colorado, and (losing in) San Jose. They still have one of the top cores and systems in the league, and despite them being so far back from the almighty Blackhawks, they can’t be discounted as one of the top teams in the league. Also in that conversation is the Colorado Avalanche, who lost to the aforementioned Blues before sweeping a home-and-home with division rival Minnesota. The Avs have had the best turnaround by miles this season, and continue to show that they are indeed for real, with strong wins and few losses to separate them. The Minnesota Wild had a gauntlet this week, managing just 1 point in 4 games against the Blues, Coyotes and Avalanche. This week and next are a huge test for the Wild, who are still trying to confirm their spot among the league’s elite, but losing all 4 games this week can’t help their cause. The Nashville Predators had an up and down 2-1-1 week, but remain somewhat in the hunt. Dallas had a huge win against the [Mighty] Ducks, 6-3, but followed it up with 2 shootout losses. They have to be able to build on those wins to have a chance in this crazy strong division. Winnipeg had 2 wins in 3 games this week also, but have the furthest climb out of the 3 bottom teams in the Central, should one of the mighty’s slip and fall. That being said, this division is relatively clear cut as to who will make the playoffs, but no one can be counted out yet, especially in this era of the NHL.
The San Jose Sharks have the least amount of regulation losses, and are sitting happily on top of the Pacific, with 3 quality wins this week. They have been incredibly difficult to play against, with a young/old mix for the ages, and a win-now perspective. They passed the Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks for that top spot, who lost big in Big D before losing to the Sharks in a shootout, to flank a solid win in Calgary. The Ducks are still a dangerous team to play against, with two of the top scorers in the league, and an unprecedented three options in net. The Phoenix Coyotes had a 1-2-0 week, and fell to fourth behind the Los Angeles Kings, who went 1-1-1 this week. Both of those teams have been playing average hockey lately, but well enough to continue to hold off the Vancouver Canucks, who went 2-1-1 this week. With their latest surge, the Canucks have made it a 5 team race for the 4 spots from the Pacific, that remains tightly contested. The Calgary Flames had a win against the Kings, but lost the other two, and are fading into the dark, but giving their young players time to warm to the league. The Oilers, like the Panthers, have the team to be able to play spoiler to some teams, but remain wildly out of contention. The Pacific has been knotting up, with the Canucks surging back into contention, but it remains tough to crack the top 4. If one team has a big skid, it might be too much to get back in.
1) Chicago Blackhawks – Winning 6 consecutive road games is one thing, but when those games are all in a row, it’s something unheard of. No contest for the top spot.
2) San Jose Sharks – The ultimate regular season franchise has been keeping to their name this season, and are back atop the Pacific.
3) Boston Bruins – Lately, this team has been very hard to play against. If their offense continues to improve, they will become nearly impossible to beat.
4) St. Louis Blues – Tough schedule recently, but they are still doing just fine, and are not a team to look forward to on the calendar.
5) Colorado Avalanche – Despite a lull in the middle of last month, they have been very good and hard to play against. If they get one trustworthy goalie in net as opposed to two solid ones, they will be an elite team.
In the box this week
Vancouver’s Kevin Bieksa and New York Rangers’ Brian Boyle. In the closing seconds of the Rangers’ 5-2 win at the Garden, Bieksa went after Boyle, clearly frustrated from the game. After a scuffle and wrestling match, Bieksa went after Boyle’s helmet, much like a certain fan of a certain ice hockey team, known as…daaaa Hawks. Here’s what he did after he grabbed it:
Rather childishly, Bieksa drop-kicked Boyle’s helmet, clearly frustrated. Boyle joins him in the box because he responds by kicking Bieksa’s helmet. Helmet soccer isn’t very mature, and both players deserved some finger-wagging as they go to the corner and think about what they just did.
Tune in next week for some more. Happy Chanukah puckheads!