Posts Tagged ‘Flames’

So far, the NHL season has had it’s fair share of plot twists and surprises. From the trade that sent Thomas Vanek to the Islanders, to Steven Stamkos breaking his leg on a goalpost. From Shawn Thornton receiving a 15 game ban for mugging Brooks Orpik, to a drunk Blackhawks fan stealing Adam Pardy’s helmet. Much has happened so far, and here are some predictions of how it will lay out in the end.

Metropolitan Division

Obviously, the Penguins are a playoff team. We’re also fairly certain of the Capitals being there. Since the Atlantic is much stronger, they will likely have both wild card spots from the East. That leaves one spot for the rest of the division to fight for. Let’s look at each of the contenders:

Philadelphia Flyers – After a tumultuous start, where they lost their coach and top scorer Claude Giroux took 15 games to score a goal, they seem to be piecing it together. Steve Mason has been solid in net for them, and a little bit of stability in net goes a long way for these guys. However, the lack of discipline these guys can have could easily be an Achilles’ Heel. They take 17.2 penalty minutes on average per game, which is most in the league, and 3 more than the next highest team, the Blues. Their 12th ranked penalty kill has done well, but continual overworking of them will wear them down and hurt them later on.

New York Rangers – They just extended goalie Henrik Lundqvist for 7 more years, and already he’s been put under the microscope. His numbers this year are well below his career averages so far, and has received some very ill criticism from Rangers fans and the media. The truth is, it isn’t all his fault. No one’s sure that the team in front of him will show up on any given night. They’ve had games where they picked apart the Minnesota Wild, and games where they rolled over to the New York Islanders. They have to stick to one trend if they want to see continued success, and not just wavering between one or the other.

New Jersey Devils – In my honest and unbiased opinion (despite me being a Devils fan), I honestly think that the Devils have the best of the rest potential in this division. They have tremendous discipline, taking the fewest penalties per game with just 7.8, and have the 6th best penalty kill when they do get penalized. Their offense doesn’t scare anyone, on average taking the fewest shots per game, but they give up the least shots against per game. Here’s where they beat other teams, and that’s chemistry. Their record is skewed somewhat toward the beginning, where they started 0-4-3, but since then, they’ve made some key call-ups (Eric Gelinas, for example), and have grown together to create a team that is strong defensively. They do have games where they can’t outscore their mistakes, but if they keep playing their game, discipline and defense, they will be tough to beat.

Columbus Blue Jackets – Recently, they’ve been heating up, but with a horrid stretch, winning just 4 of 17 games between 10/27 and 12/1, they remain on the outside looking in. Marian Gaborik was just starting to heat up, when he broke his collarbone, and is likely out a couple of months. Nathan Horton is still on his way back, and they need him, because only one Jacket has more than 10 goals, being Ryan Johansen. They need offensive depth, because goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is not playing like he did last year, and it’s hard to trust a backup, despite Curtis McElhinney giving his all. It probably doesn’t add up to a playoff berth this season for them.

Carolina Hurricanes – They’ve been up and down this season so far, bouncing between 2nd and 7th in the Metro. They have serious offensive issues, having one skater with double digit goals, in Jeff Skinner, who’s been hurt part of the time. Goalies Justin Peters and Cam Ward can’t handle the game every night, and because of those reasons, it’s clear to me that this isn’t a playoff team.

Final standings: PIT, WAS, NJ, PHI, NYR, CBJ, CAR, NYI.

Atlantic Division

It’s clear that at the very least, 4 of these teams are serious playoff threats. The only real questions are, can anyone catch the Bruins, and do the Leafs have what it takes to hold on?

The Bruins have one of the stingiest and biggest defensive corps in the NHL, led by 6’9″ mountain Zdeno Chara, and sometimes a brick-wall-lookalike in net Tuukka Rask. Their offense is known for being grind-it-out tough and hard to play against. They also have the know-how, being the defending Eastern Conference champions. Can anyone top them? I don’t think so. The Tampa Bay Lightning have a scary offense once Steven Stamkos gets back, and goalie Ben Bishop has been very strong in net. However, I don’t see them skating circles around the Bruins. The Montreal Canadiens have a very talented team, but they are on average one of the smallest teams in the NHL. As I said before, I really like how they play the game, but it’s hard for them to get around the big defensive line for the B’s. These are the top 3 in the Atlantic, but the Bruins are the best of the bunch.

Now, the Leafs. They made a couple of moves over the offseason, and they aren’t quite panning out like they wanted. David Clarkson already has 12 games of suspension under his belt, and only 8 points in those 27 games he did play. Dave Bolland, the Cup hero, has been out with ankle surgery since early November. While Jonathan Bernier has been playing solidly in net, he’s not there the whole time, and can’t help in the games he’s not in, as James Reimer hasn’t been playing like he did last year. Mason Raymond has been the best of the lot, also the quietest move, as he’s been playing some of the best hockey in his career. But with the potential these Leafs have, they easily could hold on to that spot, but it’s becoming tougher each day that they don’t perform to expectations. With the Devils and Flyers heating up in the Metro, it gets closer in Toronto’s rearview mirror by the day. In the end, it’s tough for me to say if they are holding on to this spot. If I had to predict right now, I’d say the Devils and Flyers would make it over the Leafs.

Final standings: BOS, MON, TB, DET, TOR, OTT, FLA, BUF.

Central Division

The only real question here, is do the Stars have enough to catch the Wild. The Blackhawks, Blues, and Avalanche have been proving time and again that they belong where they are, and it doesn’t matter who gets what seed, because I think they are all interchangeable.

Dallas has been one of the hot teams under the radar in recent weeks. They made massive strides in shrinking their deficit from double digits at one point, to now just 3 points. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn lead the way offensively, and have been remarkably good the whole season, in terms of point getting and playing well. Also on the rise are young guns Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin, both excellent for secondary scoring and depth. Defensively, they aren’t spectacular, but goalie Kari Lehtonen has been great when healthy, keeping this team afloat. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Wild have been tapering off, more specifically on the road. They do have good scoring depth, with Miko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Jason Pominville shouldering the load, but their defensive play has not been amazing. Also, the goaltending tandem has been Jekkyl and Hyde this year. Josh Harding has been the story of the year, with a record of 18-5-3, with a goals against average of just 1.51, and a save percentage of .939. Meanwhile, Nick Backstrom (not to be confused with Caps center of the same name) has been awful, with a 2-8-2 record, GAA of 3.18, and a save percentage of .896. They can’t rely on Backstrom, and can’t play Harding every night. They need consistency in net above all. Do the Stars catch the Wild? My answer, is yes. The Wild won the first meeting 5-1, but 3 remain, and anything can happen.

Final standings: CHI, STL, COL, DAL, MIN, WPG, NAS.

Pacific Division

I think it’s a safe bet that the Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks and L.A. Kings are locks for the playoffs, but 3 teams remain in the hunt. Only 2 wild card slots are left, and the Avalanche have a stranglehold on one. Here are the 3 contenders from the Pacific:

San Jose Sharks – Their scoring depth is among tops in the league, and Antti Niemi has been playing well when called upon. The only qualm about this team, is losing Tomas Hertl for the season. He recently was involved with a knee on knee collision with Kings’ Dustin Brown, and is now likely out for the year. Can they make up his scoring? I think so. Tommy Wingels is the guy to look at to step up in his spot. Tough as nails and a nose for the net, he can play up a line and help the Sharks secure a playoff spot.

Vancouver Canucks – Of course, you have the Sedin twins leading the way, but the surprising emergence of Mike Santorelli and Chris Higgins returning to form have been great developments for the ‘Nucks. Their goaltending also has been strong with Roberto Luongo and Eddie Lack keeping the peace, and no real doubts about this team either. They likely will secure a ticket to the playoffs as well

Phoenix Coyotes – They’ve had decent scoring across the board, but not one guy stands out for them. Among Shane Doan, Mike Ribeiro, Martin Hanzal, Mikkel Boedker, and Radim Vrbata, the scoring depth is there. However, they depend on goalie Mike Smith a little too much. 33.2 shots against per game is 5th most in the league, and Smith is only human. They simply can’t depend on the goalie for everything, and must step their defensive game up, or it may be too much of a climb to reach the playoffs.

It’s clear here, that the teams to beat are the Sharks and Canucks, and the Coyotes are on the outside looking in.

Final Standings: ANA, LA, SJ, VAN, PHX, CAL, EDM.

That’s what I have for you, puck-heads. See you next week, and happy hockey!

Welcome back, puckheads! Finals week is over, and now you can concentrate even more on sports, more specifically hockey. We’ve had half a season so far, roughly, and in case you missed a lot of it studying or working, here’s how everyone did. We are giving each team a semester grade, and later in the week we will have predictions on what will happen next.

Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks: Most points in the league as of today, with super strong play by top guys like Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, as well as the less known guys like Hampus Lindholm and Nick Bonino. It seems like it’s no longer a possibility for them to lose at the Pond, so far 13-0-2 on home ice. Grade: A

Boston Bruins: Despite a couple of setbacks, and a policing issue, the Bruins seem to be doing fine for themselves. The defense-wins-championships mantra holds very true with the B’s, having let up the 2nd fewest goals in the league, and it adds up to 2nd in the Eastern conference. Grade: A-

Buffalo Sabres: They managed to get great value out of the Thomas Vanek deal, being Matt Moulson (doubt he’s staying) and 2 top draft picks. That’s where the good part stops. Now the only team not to have won a 10th game, and are 19 goals behind 2nd to last in scoring, the Sabres seem like they are investing in ping pong balls for the lottery. Grade: F

Calgary Flames: Young gun Sean Monahan has been a pleasant surprise, with 16 points in 29 games, despite a minor injury. However, they really miss Miikka Kiprusoff in net, having to depend on a couple of guys only hockey experts and Flames fans know, in Reto Berra and Karri Ramo. Their best move, however, was firing GM Jay Feaster. Now, they might actually progress. Grade: C-

Carolina Hurricanes: Mired in the Metropolitan mess, the Canes have quietly had a better season than what people originally predicted. Despite injuries to Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner, they have a NHL .500 record, and are alive and kicking in the playoff race. It won’t be easy, but the Staals have been there before. Grade: C+

Chicago Blackhawks: The defending champs aren’t joking around with the fabled “Cup hangover”. They have far and away the top offense in the league, and if they can keep outscoring any mistakes they make, it will be difficult to beat them on any given night. Grade: A

Colorado Avalanche: The surprise team of the season has to be the Avs. Led by rookie head coach Patrick Roy, and a multi-headed attack of young dynamic stars, this team has a bright future. Despite trouble with the law, goalie Semyon Varlamov has been solid enough to help the team succeed in the elite Central. Grade: A-

Columbus Blue Jackets: Marian Gaborik was a fantastic pickup, but a broken collarbone will shut him down for a couple of months. Nathan Horton is on his way back, however, and the Metropolitan factor means they are still very much alive in the race. Who would have thought that the 3-7 seeds in that division are 3 points apart? Grade: C

Dallas Stars: Tyler Seguin has more than a point per game, and the guy he was traded for seems to have a target on his back for cheap shots. Also emerging are Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin, giving the Stars a bright future. Grade: B-

Detroit Red Wings: For whatever reason, the old Red Wings can’t play so well in their old barn, just 6-9-6 at the Joe, while 11-3-3 away from home. At least they are getting point in nearly half the games they lose. Grade: B

Edmonton Oilers: I had high hopes for this team coming into this season, predicting them to be a dark horse team in the playoff run. Now, they have Ilya Bryzgalov on their NHL roster. How the possibly mighty have fallen…Grade: F

Florida Panthers: The biggest news out of this team is that Tim Thomas is back, though not quite to his form from his Boston years. Maybe it’s because the Panthers’ D-men aren’t guys like Zdeno Chara. However, the Cats have been playing spoiler the entire season, as everyone thought they would. Grade: C

Los Angeles Kings: Who would have thought that the Kings would be better after Jonathan Quick went down with an injury? Martin Jones, tying an NHL record with winning his first 8 starts, has been the talk of the league since his call-up. Ben Scrivens has been good too, and the Kings have the stingiest defense in the league to boot. This makes for an interesting question; two’s company, but three’s a crowd. Will one of them be traded? Who knows? Grade: A-

Minnesota Wild: At home, they are stellar, 14-3-2. Once they hit the road, they seem to lose their flair, with a paltry 6-10-3 record away from the X. Josh Harding has been excellent for them this season, and a hero to everyone regardless of his record. But we know the Wild aren’t going to get home ice in the playoffs, so they have to solve their road woes in order to succeed. Grade: B+

Montreal Canadiens: A solid hot streak has put them in a good race for tops in the Atlantic, with young guys like Alex Galchenyuk, Brendan Gallagher, and PK Subban leading the way. The team has a good mix of young and older, and can be dangerous later in the season. Grade: A-

Nashville Predators: They miss Pekka Rinne, but the guys backing him up seem to be doing alright. Marek Mazanec and Carter Hutton combined have a 12-12-3 record, but in a division like the Central, .500 will get you nowhere. All the Seth Jones hype seemed to have died down also. Grade: C

New Jersey Devils: The Devils’ injury problems seemed to be a blessing in disguise, when some of their future emerged and started playing well. Reid Boucher and Jon Merrill have been good, but the real story is Eric Gelinas, who is quickly making a name for himself, having one of the hardest slap shots around. Can’t hurt that the golden oldies like Jaromir Jagr are there to show them the way. Grade: B-

New York Islanders: Between November 12 and December 20, they had a grand total of 2 wins, and neither of them were in regulation or overtime. It’s safe to say that something’s gotta change, because their promising future took a massive hit. Grade: D-

New York Rangers: Probably the most inconsistent team in the NHL. There are nights where everything goes right, and nights where they lose to the Islanders. Henrik Lundqvist seems to be fielding a good chunk of the blame, but that’s because he fields a good chunk of the payroll. The lack of a defense-first coaching scheme should get part of it too. Grade: C+

Ottawa Senators: Their great defense from last year seems to have dissipated. The only team to have given up more goals are the Islanders, and the Sens have their regular goalies in net. The fact that they have top defenseman Erik Karlsson says something about the rest of the blue line crew for them. Grade: C-

Philadelphia Flyers: They made a great bounce back after an atrocious start to the season. It’s still a surprise to the hockey world that Steve Mason has a .922 save percentage, as well as a winning record. Claude Giroux also has regained form after a 15 game goal drought to start the year. The Metro division is very convoluted, and the Flyers are right in the middle of it. Grade: C+

Phoenix Coyotes: They had a great start to the year, made a little bit of noise, and then quieted down some. Still a playoff contender, despite a decent difference between them and the 4th place Canucks. It’s still way better than most people in Arizona thought it would be (ehem Seattle). Grade: B

Pittsburgh Penguins: Crosby yadda yadda yadda, Fleury regular season blah blah, Malkin when he’s healthy, yeah that too. It’s the same story for the Penguins as it’s been the last few years. Not that that’s a bad thing. Grade: A

San Jose Sharks: A single regulation loss in the Shark Tank confirms that this team is deadly at home. However, they are vulnerable on the road, at 10-7-3. Tomas Hertl has been phenominal so far, but a nasty knee injury could sideline him for the season. If that’s the case, someone else has to step up. Grade: B+

St. Louis Blues: By the numbers, the Blues have the fewest losses (7 regulation, 4 overtime/shootout), best goal differential (+44), in fewer games than almost everyone in the league. Alex Steen became yet another weapon for this team, who is primed for a cup run after years of dreams dying in the playoffs. Grade: A

Tampa Bay Lightning: It was on everyone’s mind, how the Bolts would do after Stamkos got hurt. They have a 10-6-3 record since the injury, and he’s still a couple of months away from returning. They seem to be doing just fine, and just wait until he returns. The question remains, if Ben Bishop can continue playing lights out like he has been. Grade: A-

Toronto Maple Leafs: Despite still holding a playoff spot, the Buds aren’t nearly as impressive as last year. Fresh off the free-agent market, David Clarkson has been a massive bust, with just 6 points so far this season. Despite some bright spots, it’s been more of the same for the Leafs, and their fans sure let them hear about itGrade: C

Vancouver Canucks: They are slowly returning to form, despite a sluggish start. Despite still being tied with the Sharks for 3rd in the Pacific, they seem to be holding their own nicely, and are for sure happy about that coaching swap with the Rangers. Grade: B+

Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin has been the story, now with 30 goals in 34 games. Many say he might break the 50 in 50 barrier, which has been done by 5 players before (Maurice Richard, Mike Bossy, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Brett Hull), but I have my doubts. Meanwhile, the team is in cruise control for a spot in the Metro playoffs. Grade: B+

Winnipeg Jets: This group can be better, but they just haven’t been playing to their potential. The home ice advantage they seemed to have in their inaugural year seems to have slipped as well. It’s a shame, too, because everyone wants to see a true Winnipeg White-out. Grade: C-

Well, there you have it. This week, we will have predictions for the rest of the year, including some bold ones. Until next time, puck-heads!

dm_131205_nhl_bruins_canadiens_highlight

This past week in hockey had some significant developments in the standings, as well as some controversial events. The standings are ever-changing, in this week’s Week in Review.

Metropolitan Division

The division leading Pittsburgh Penguins had an up-and-down week, crushing the San Jose Sharks 5-1, but losing to the Boston Bruins in a bitter rivalry turned dirty game 3-2. In the process, defensive stalwart Brooks Orpik was carted off the ice, and James Neal is awaiting a suspension in a similar event, but more on that later in the post. The Washington Capitals remained just 7 points back, also taking a 2-1-0 week by thrashing the Nashville Predators and the New York Rangers. Speaking of the Blue-shirts, the Rangers had a tough week, taking 3 points out of 4 games, losing division matchups to the Devils and Capitals, and only beating the bottom-feeding Sabres. They are now tied with the Carolina Hurricanes, who have set up a nice 3 game win streak, with strong play from Cam Ward and rookie Elias Lindholm. 1 point behind those two are the New Jersey Devils, who still have random outbursts as well as random lulls. The Devils lost the first 3 games of the week, taking 1 point out of 2 games against surging Montreal, then coming from behind to beat the Rangers in OT. The Devils have needed to dig into their AHL roster, and have seen success in them so far. The Philadelphia Flyers are hanging around, and are even more baffling than the Devils, crushing one night, then looking hopeless the next. They  remain 1 point ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who have started to win a few big games recently. The Islanders haven’t won since Nam, with their streak extended to 9 games without a win, and continue to be one of the league’s biggest busts. Seeds 2-7 in the Metro are separated by just 7 points, and the shuffle continues from here on out.

Atlantic Division

The Boston Bruins have lost most of their division lead this week, and it had nothing to do with their play. They won 2 of their 3 games, against decent opponents in Pittsburgh and Toronto. But their one loss came against the bleu-blanc-et-rouge hot team, the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs, winners of 4 this week and 5 straight, swept the Devils in a home-and-home, and beat the Bruins in a showdown Thursday night 2-1, climbing within 1 point of the lead in the Atlantic. Both of those teams are trying to pull away from teams like pesky Detroit. The Red Wings went 1-2-0 this week, beating the Devils, but losing to the Flyers and Panthers, teams they should beat, and are now 4 back of Montreal and 5 from Boston. Tampa continues to fall through the standings, only winning 1 of 3 games this week, but received good news from Steven Stamkos, who plans a return soon after the Olympic break. The Lightning just have to hold on until he gets back in order to contend for the playoffs. Another team that’s been falling have been the Maple Leafs, who took 2 of 4 this week, but remain far from the top, and have not played well against better sides. They do remain in the second wild card, 4 points ahead of Carolina/New York Rangers, however. Ottawa is stopping the flailing, but they haven’t been winning enough games to get back in the hunt, now 8 points back of Toronto after a tough week. The Florida Panthers seem to win random games, with no rhyme or reason behind it, and remain way behind most teams. The Sabres played twice and lost twice, what else is new? The Canadiens caught fire, but can it continue into the next few games? We shall see coming up soon.

Central Division

The Blackhawks actually lost 3 in a row this week (gasp!) before pommeling the Panthers Sunday night, and remain well ahead of anyone in the division. Their 21 wins and 47 points both still lead the league. The St. Louis Blues, however, have played 4 fewer games than Chicago. The Blues took just 1 of 3 games this week, and missed a golden opportunity to gain ground on the ‘Hawks, but still are within range. The Minnesota Wild are now tied with the Blues, after 3 home wins and a road loss this week. The Wild are nearly unstoppable at their home rink, and have passed the Avalanche, who took 1 of 3 this week in Western Canada, including an embarrassing 8-2 loss to the Oilers. The Avalanche seem to be coming back down to earth after an unreal start to the season, having one of the best records at the quarterpole, while the Wild are heating up again, and starting to prove that they have the team to compete this year. The Dallas Stars have been creeping up, taking 5 of 6 possible points this week in big wins against Chicago and Philadelphia, and are now just 7 back of the Avalanche. The Winnipeg Jets also remain somewhat alive, taking 2 of 3 this week, but have a bigger hill to climb, having played more games. The Nashville Predators lost all 3 this week, and are becoming destined for another lottery pick. This division has been tightening up, and will get more interesting with the current trends as the season continues.

Pacific Division

The division lead continues to be switching between the San Jose Sharks and the Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks every week. This week, it belongs in So-Cal. The [Mighty] Ducks got 5 of 6 points, beating Chicago and St. Louis in big games, while the Sharks hit another soft spot, losing 3 straight after beating Toronto, including losses to Pittsburgh, Carolina, and Minnesota. It wouldn’t shock anyone if the [Mighty] Ducks continue to win, and the Sharks continue to struggle, or if they again swap positions by this time next week. The Los Angeles Kings have something to say on the matter,  winning 3 this week and getting points in 9 of their previous 10 games to pull within a point of the Sharks, further changing the scope of things. Vancouver also won all 3 of their games this week, making 4 straight, and are pulling back into contention. The Canucks are now just 6 behind Anaheim, and took the 4 spot in the division away from the plummeting Phoenix Coyotes, who took 1 of 3 in Western Canada to fall back to 5th place, 2 behind Vancouver. They have been struggling recently, but look to get back into the swing of things when they return home to the desert. The Calgary Flames had 2 wins this week, and it seems like a while since they’ve done that. The Edmonton Oilers have gotten crushed and also crushed this week, showing that their offense is potent, but their defense is still a huge question mark. It seems this division turns to whoever is playing on home ice for the time, as the top 5 teams are a combined 46-12-11 at their respective home rink.

Top 5

1) Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks – Though it took a shootout, they beat the Blackhawks this week. They are still without regulation loss at the Pond, also. Tops for me this week.

2) Chicago Blackhawks – I know they hit a 3 game slide this week, but that says more for them because they still lead the President’s Trophy race.

3) Los Angeles Kings – Ben Scrivens has stepped up big time in the absence of Jonathan Quick. This gives the Kings time to make sure their top guy is ready to come back at 100%.

4) Montreal Canadiens – Red hot play from everyone lately, and the group of Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, P.K. Subban, and others are looking to overthrow the Bruins in the Atlantic.

5) Minnnesota Wild – The Xcel Energy Center has been a safe haven for them so far, but their road woes continue to question their stability. I see it getting fixed soon.

In the Box this week:

Flyers’ Zac Rinaldo and Bruins’ Shawn Thornton. Friday night, the Flyers were in Dallas to face the Stars. Rinaldo and Stars’ forward Antoine Roussel were chasing the puck down the ice, when Rinaldo surprised Roussel with a mugging. Here’s how it looked:

Rinaldo got 2 for instigating, 5 for fighting, 10 minute misconduct and a game misconduct. It led to a 7 minute power play for Dallas. At least Roussel got up from that one. In our other case, a series of cheap shots exchanged Saturday night in Boston led to a small scrum between the Penguins and Bruins. Shawn Thornton took exception to a hit Brooks Orpik landed on poor Loui Eriksson, and gave him the business. This time, though, it ended worse.

Thornton slew-footed Orpik, followed by a couple of punches to the head. Orpik was out cold, and was subsequently stretchered off the ice. Thornton does have a bit of a history, but this one involves injury. He has a hearing coming up, and a well deserved suspension soon there after.

Stay tuned this week for some more action on the ice. See you then, puck-heads!

Detroit Red Wings v Ottawa Senators

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:

Metropolitan Division

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.

Atlantic Division

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.

Central Division

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.

Pacific Division

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.

Top 5:

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!

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Months ago, the NHL introduced the Stadium Series, which will be 4 extra outdoor games, on top of the already existing Winter Classic and Heritage Classic. That jumps the number of outdoor games from 2 to 6. Here’s a list of all the games, just in case you don’t know already:

January 1 – Winter Classic: Toronto Maple Leafs vs. Detroit Red Wings @ Michigan Stadium

January 25 – Anaheim Ducks vs. Los Angeles Kings @ Dodger Stadium

January 26 – New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils @ Yankee Stadium

January 29 – New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders @ Yankee Stadium

March 1 – Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawks @ Soldier Field

March 2 – Heritage Classic: Ottawa Senators vs. Vancouver Canucks @ BC Place

There are those fans who are thrilled with this, and there are those fans who are vehemently against it. Both sides have very good reasons to their argument.

Since the advent of the Winter Classic in 2008, where the Penguins faced the Buffalo Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium in Buffalo, fans have been clamoring for their team’s chance to host the game. The New Year’s tradition that sparked was such a big hit, that people were fighting over which city should host it next. So far, Buffalo, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia hosted the Winter Classic, and Edmonton and Calgary have hosted the Heritage Classic, the Canadian edition of the Winter Classic later in the season. Washington has been announced as the 2015 host, venue and opponent undecided.

Fans sold out every single game, with the hopes of attending this once in a lifetime event. They showed up and braved the cold to every game and event leading up to it, including alumni games among others. The fans also bought all the new merchandise that come with the game, such as new uniforms and winter hats for example. Also, with the game nationally televised, fans can sit down together with their families on New Years’ Day and watch the game together.

The teams also hope for the game to come to their city also. As mentioned above, there are tons of new merchandise opportunities and ticket sales opportunities to capitalize on. Filling a football stadium or baseball park with fans who want to buy merch and concessions brings them big revenue, and that isn’t even including the advertising and TV rights they get. It’s a financial boost to their bottom lines, with the hopes that it will return soon. This also goes for the road team, as fans travel up and still pay for everything. It helps everyone financially.

The players love it too. Many of the players reminisce about the times they were a kid growing up in a Northern locale, braving the elements and playing shimmy games on the frozen ponds. Not to mention the national recognition they get when they step on the ice surface, under the lights and in front of tens of thousands of eyes in the stands and the millions watching at home. It’s a whole new experience that the players know come very infrequently, and they long for it every year.

However, since 2008, there has been one, maybe two games played outside per season, making it a very special game for fans and players and upper management all the same. But this year, there are 6 games. Is this watering the product down?

I do understand that most teams want to host the Winter Classic if they can. It’s understandably tough for teams in Southern communities like Phoenix or Florida. That test will be performed in Los Angeles in 2 months. But when it was a once a year thing, everyone wanted to be that one team who was hosting it. Not that it’s made out to be a jealousy bit, but it was special for that host city to have the festivities and events surrounding the game itself going on in the city, much like the All Star Game, for instance. The fact that 4 new cities and one repeat city are hosting the games make might dilute the overall product of the event. Think of having two All Star Games in a season. The thought of it is blasphemous.

With this new amount of teams playing, as expected, there are a couple of repeated teams. The Penguins, Blackhawks, Red Wings, and Rangers have all participated before in outdoor games. This will include the third games for the Rangers and Penguins. It seems, to some fans, that the NHL is repeating some teams, such as Chicago, Pittsburgh, or the Rangers. Those teams also have the majority of national broadcast games. Some fans may take it as a slight to their team who are less recognized by national networks.

That being said, I think it’s fair to introduce more outdoor games, despite it possibly diluting the product. The one that stands out the most is the game in L.A., which is testing if the NHL can play outdoors in a warmer climate. It introduces more opportunity for the less nationally recognized markets to take advantage of a special event with national recognition and new financial opportunities that they haven’t seen in the past. It also will promote national growth of a game that we know isn’t getting as much attention as, say, the NFL. With special events like this taking place all over the country, it will be a move in the right direction for a bigger, better NHL. Sure, you may think it’s a ploy for national attention, but it’s working, and come New Years, expect the 115,000+ fans who sold out the Winter Classic at the Big House to enjoy it as if it’s the only outdoor game they will ever see.

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This week in the NHL brought some interesting developments in the standings. Some new teams are heating up for the first time this season, while other teams are coming back to earth. Let’s see what happened last week, and how it will impact the league going forward.

Metropolitan Division

It seems like for the time being, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals will be jostling for the top spot, but with the Caps getting just 1 point this week in 3 games, including a 4-0 loss to the Penguins on Rivalry Night, the Pens have a small cushion for first. They also took 3 games out of 4 this week to help their cause. Another dog fight between rivals is now for the third place spot in the Metro, between the New York Rangers, and the New Jersey Devils. Both teams went 2-1-0 this week, with the Rangers starting a road swing, and the Devils nearly sweeping through California. During the second game of that trip, Devils’ Jaromir Jagr tied Mario Lemieux for 9th overall in goals with 690. Carolina had a tough 1-2-1 week, but the Hurricanes got Cam Ward back, and he already dazzled, with an epic save on Ottawa’s Colin Greening. The Philadelphia Flyers are continuing their charge back, winning all 3 of their games this week, trying to prove that their lull to start the season was a fluke, now just 2 back of the 3rd place team in the division. Columbus continues to struggle, putting up a 7-0 stinkfest in Edmonton against the lowly Oilers. The New York Islanders are now in the cellar, losing all 3 this week, and have struggled mightily since that Vanek trade. With 4 points separating 2nd and 6th in the division, expect a war from here on out.

Atlantic Division

The Boston Bruins are starting to establish themselves as a mainstay atop the Atlantic, getting 7 of 8 possible points this week. Tuukka Rask continues to hold the line behind one of the strongest defensive corps in the game. Toronto took 2 of 3 games, and are now in second place, after passing the free falling Tampa Bay Lightning. However, the Leafs’ only regulation win was against the Islanders, and didn’t look too strong in their other two games. The Lightning had a trip to California, and took 1 point from the Golden State, leaving in 3rd place, and scoring 3 goals in 3 games shows how much they miss Steven Stamkos. The Detroit Red Wings are having a tough go at it, going 2-2-0 this week, but haven’t been winning a ton of games lately. They lead the league with 7 OT losses, though, which is keeping them in the race until they get back on track. They are just a point ahead of Montreal, who had 3 big wins against surging teams this week, beating the Wild, Capitals, and Penguins, and are making their case for joining the B’s and Leafs near the top. Ottawa is struggling to keep pace, winning 1 of 4, and are sliding out of contention quickly, curiously not as stout on defense as they were last year. Florida continues to be the Tim Thomas swan song, seemingly stuck in 7th. Buffalo, like the Islanders, seem like they got the worse end of the Vanek deal, but the draft picks may prove valuable, as the Sabres are making a lottery run. In other Sabres’ news, they finally unleashed the “Turd-Burger jersey” on Sunday, while the rest of the league shielded their eyes. The division is tight, but with struggles of a couple of the higher seeds are making it very fun to watch, as teams will start shuffling between places.

Central Division

The Chicago Blackhawks got slapped in a showdown with division rival Colorado, 5-1, but won their other 2 games to keep the top spot in the Central. They showed that they can blow teams out, with a 6-3 win in Winnipeg, and win the tight games, with a 2-1 win in Vancouver. The defending champs did not suffer a hangover, and continue to be the top dog in the tough Central. Right behind them is the St. Louis Blues, who won all 3 games this week and are showing us that they are a top team in the league. The Blues, with a 6-1 win against the Stars, took over top goal differential in the league, now with +29. Colorado found their winning touch back, taking all 3 this week, including a blowout of the Blackhawks. They are tied with the Minnesota Wild, who took 2 out of 3 this week on the road, 2 back of Chicago. The Wild have had a tough swing, and it ends tonight with another huge game in St. Louis. Dallas lost both their games this week, and are now mired in a 3 way tie at the bottom of the central with Nashville and Winnipeg, 10 back of Colorado and Minnesota. Nashville had a couple of wins this week against Atlantic teams, and Winnipeg lost all 3 games, picking up 2 shootout points along the way. This division has an interesting dichotomy of contenders and non-contenders, and it will take a mighty fall and a massive streak for that to change.

Pacific Division

The Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks finally returned home to the Pond after a 9 game road trip, and their first game back was their first loss, a 4-3 OT loss to New Jersey. After that, they won 2 games to remain at the top of the division. One of those games included handing the Phoenix Coyotes their first home loss of the season. Those Coyotes have dropped to 4th in the division, only playing twice this week, and taking 1 point from them. The San Jose Sharks also had two games, but both were wins, bludgeoning the Lightning and squeaking by the Devils, and remain tied with the Blues for the least amount of regulation losses. The L.A. Kings also crushed the Bolts, but then lost the next 2 in OT, in tough luck losses to New Jersey and Colorado. Vancouver had a 1-1-1 week, but will have a tough time cracking the top 4 of this division unless one team starts to struggle heavily. Calgary took 2 of their 3 OT games this week, but remain hopelessly behind Vancouver for the top trailer in the division. Edmonton finally showed up at home, with two blowout wins against struggling teams. The top 4 teams in the division continued to shuffle, and barring a huge turn of events, will probably keep shuffling around for the next while as things take shape from here on out.

Top 5

1) St. Louis Blues – I know they aren’t in first, but it’s been since October 25th that they lost consecutive games. That counts for quite the something.

2) Colorado Avalanche – They are right back on this list after an off week, and showed that they are no joke, especially with that 5-1 win against the Hawks.

3) San Jose Sharks – The Sharks aren’t getting tons of love, but they should be, because they have points in all but 3 of their games this year.

4) Minnesota Wild – Like the Blues, they haven’t lost consecutive games since October. Their entire next week is a litmus test, playing the Blues, Coyotes, and a potentially epic home and home with Colorado.

5) Boston Bruins – No recognition of the East last week, the Bruins and their brick wall defense are making their case to be part of the recognized elite.

In the box this week

Cam Fowler of the [Mighty] Ducks. Friday night at the Pond in Anaheim, the Lightning and Ducks were tied 0-0 in the early stages of the third period, when Cam Fowler was primed for a line change. He was straddling the bench when the puck came by. Then the hilarity ensued:

Teammate Hampus Lindholm got a good chuckle out of watching Fowler channel his inner flightless bird (maybe a duck?) and take a tumble. Now, Cam gets a different kind of 2 minutes for tripping.

Next week is a big one, as teams have big divisional matchups, and more convolution within divisions. Until then, Happy Thanksgiving and Happy Hannukah, puck-heads!

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We’ve reached the season’s first quarter-mark, and as quick as it may have seemed, plenty has happened. We’ve seen controversy, trades, injuries, and huge moments that have shaken the league up and making this year another interesting one to write in the books. Let’s see how each team stacks up to where they were projected this season.

Anaheim [Mighty] Ducks: They started out this season showing us that they are a powerhouse to be reckoned with, flirting with the lead of the President’s Trophy race for best record in the league. It took until this, game number 24 for them, to lose at home on the Pond. Led by top scorers Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, and goalie trio Jonas Hiller, Viktor Fasth, and Frederik Andersen, the Ducks have been exceptional this year, and even pulled the Mighty out of the closet for one game. Grade: A

Boston Bruins: Widely viewed as the best team in the Atlantic entering the season, the B’s haven’t disappointed. They lead the league in fewest goals against, and have overtaken the Lightning in first, in large part to Tuukaa Rask and his defense, led by Zdeno Chara. Grade: A-

Buffalo Sabres: They’ve already shown the door to their GM, rookie head coach, and team’s top scorer Thomas Vanek. The return for Vanek was good, despite Moulson taking time to fit into the anarchistic system. Ryan Miller is likely going to leave the team this season, being a free agent, but until then remains the only player left with any value as of right now. Grade: F

Calgary Flames: Following the retirement of Miikka Kipprusoff, the Flames have been left with a massive void in net, and it’s been challenging for guys like Kari Ramo and Reto Berra (who made an amazing bicycle kick save the other night) to fill that hole. The team’s bright spot is Sean Monahan, who’s second on the team in points, and has plenty of time to grow, along with fellow rook Sven Baertschi, because the Flames aren’t going anywhere. Grade: C-

Carolina Hurricanes: Carrying over a similar team to last season, the Canes weren’t too high on anyone’s radar. But injuries to top forward Jeff Skinner and goalie Cam Ward (again) have made it tough for them to win games. Their offense has been pretty bad lately, but still somehow stay in games. It remains to be seen if they can keep repelling the bottom of the Metro. Grade: D+

Chicago Blackhawks: Most points in the league? Check. Most goals scored in the league? Check. The defending Cup champs are showing just what they are made of, not much else to say. Grade: A

Colorado Avalanche: I don’t know if Patrick Roy gave them a shot in the arm, or their young players are playing to potential, but this team was unconscious to begin the year, despite a recent slide, this team is dangerous, with 6 forwards with 13+ points. If they continue to score, they can further ignore their less than ideal goalie situation. Still, I like this team going forward. Grade: A

Columbus Blue Jackets: I originally thought this team would be a playoff contender once Nathan Horton returns. But they continue to disappoint. Their leading scorer is D-man James Wisniewski, and their defense hasn’t been spectacular. Tied currently for last in the Metro is no place for a projected playoff contender. Grade: D

Dallas Stars: Guess who’s winning the trade between Boston and Dallas? Tyler Seguin is having a monster season, co-leading the team in points with Jamie Benn. Maybe he did need a change of scenery. The Stars have been quietly turning it on, but the competition in the division may be too tough for them to overcome. They’ve shown great effort, though. Grade: B-

Detroit Red Wings: Of course, Henrik Zetterberg is the top goal scorer. Of course Pavel Datsyuk has the best hands in the game. Nothing much ever changes in Mo-town. But, they haven’t been keeping in shape defensively, and Jimmy Howard hasn’t been his normal game-stealing self this year. It has hurt them recently, and it may come back to bite them again later. They should try and tighten up the back end if they want to chuck some octopus in May: Grade: B-

Edmonton Oilers: If I were grading them on pure offense, they’d get a very good mark. But since this is a team game, it’s time to lower the boom. With their talented offense, they shouldn’t be anywhere near the bottom of the Western conference. They signed Ilya Bryzgalov…to help their defense. Let that sink in for a moment. That’s how bad their back end is. Grade: G…?

Florida Panthers: So, they stink. We know it. You know it. The Sabres know it, and feel ashamed that they are behind the Panthers. The leading scorer(s) on this team have 12 points each. There are a few players who have more goals than that alone. At least the Panthers aren’t disappointing anyone. Grade: D

Los Angeles Kings: Their defense has been helping out their offense, which is something that many teams don’t have. It’s valuable to have guys like Drew Doughty helping out the top guys on the forward corps. Also, the team is right there in the airtight Pacific, despite top keeper Jonathan Quick out with an injury for a while. Ben Scrivens has shown he can play as well (provided he has a defense in front of him). Grade: A-

Minnesota Wild: Could this be the year they put it all together? Seems like it. Zach Parise leads the way in a talented offense, and Josh Harding continues to impress and inspire everyone. Their division is daunting, but they’ve stuck with it so far, and are playing impressive hockey. Grade: A-

Montreal Canadiens: This team is full of young blossoming stars, like top D-man P.K. Subban, and wingers Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. While the team is playing well, they aren’t superstars yet. I wouldn’t overlook them, despite their place in the standings, but it makes sense that they are where they are. They won’t kill anyone, but they can be dangerous. Grade: B

Nashville Predators: They are without goalie Pekka Rinne for a while, so more people can concentrate on rookie stud-to-be Seth Jones. He has a while to go before he becomes a true star in the league, but it’s only a matter of time. They likely won’t go far this year, but it gives them time to build up for a run soon. Grade: C

New Jersey Devils: Not sure why so many people were giving them negative feedback. Since the emergence of rookie defenseman Eric Gelinas, the offense and power play have been coming around, in front of a goalie tandem comparable to a Now-and-Later candy from the late 90’s, in Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider. Jaromir Jagr has plenty left in the tank too, and this team can be a factor later in the year, despite all the bad hearsay. Grade: B

New York Islanders: They currently have 3 top point-getters on their team who have proven their worth, John Tavares, Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo. But disappointment throughout, as Thomas Vanek has been hurt, and when he’s played he hasn’t been much a factor. Evgeni Nabakov has played well, but was hit by injury lately, and for an older goalie, that could prove deadly. Grade: D

New York Rangers: They’ve been playing better since their season-opening 9 game road trip ended, but they haven’t impressed anyone yet. Their offense needs to get going, despite injuries to Ryan Callahan and Rick Nash (both have returned). Henrik Lundqvist and Cam Talbot can’t stand on their heads every game. Grade: B-

Ottawa Senators: Don’t blame Daniel Alfredsson for leaving. Their offense, led by Erik Karlsson and Bobby Ryan, with the emergence of Kyle Turris and ever-present Jason Spezza, is fine. Their defense in front of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner has been dramatically worse than last year. The team probably won’t be able to contend like they did last year if their defense doesn’t pick it up. Grade: C-

Philadelphia Flyers: It took captain Claude Giroux 15 games to find the back of the net. Combine that with 6 points for Scott Hartnell and 5 goals by defensemen, and shaky goaltending, it’s no wonder the team has had a gaping hole to climb out of. Vincent Lecavalier is proving a good pickup, but he can’t do it alone. Grade: D

Phoenix Coyotes: Sporting one of the deepest offenses in the league, and Mike Smith playing well, this team has been a pleasant surprise for the league, right in the race in the Pacific. Martin Hanzal, Shane Doan, and Oliver Ekman-Larsson and crew have shown that they are for real, and this team is hard to beat now. Grade: A-

Pittsburgh Penguins: This group is as streaky as I’ve seen a team get. They win in bunches, and when they hit a slide, it lasts a few games. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the rest of the gang have the talent to blow away the Metro, but they haven’t. This trend of win a few lose a few can’t continue if they want to make it far this year. Grade: B+

San Jose Sharks: We can talk about guys like Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau, and Logan Couture all day. But they aren’t the story. Tomas Hertl and Tommy Wingels have emerged as mainstays in San Jose, and have been playing for keeps. With a deep team like this, playing in front of a capable Antti Niemi, this group is not one you want to play against in a tough spot. Grade: A

St. Louis Blues: Alexander Steen has 17 goals this season, to lead the league. Combine that with T.J. Oshie and David Backes and you have a great offense. They have 3 defensemen (Jay Bouwmeester, Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo) over 15 points. They have a goalie duo among the more underrated in the league, in Brian Elliot and Jaroslav Halak. They have one of the best records in the league, and a top team to back it up. This looks like a championship caliber team going forward. Grade: A

Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos still leads the team in scoring. Trouble is, he broke his leg 2 weeks ago, and will continue to miss significant time. Guys like Martin St. Louis and goalie Ben Bishop have been playing well in his stead, but it’s impossible to replace that kind of talent. It’s hard to quantify a team that just lost their best player for a while, but they’ve been sticking around so far, and I don’t see why that shouldn’t continue. Grade: B+

Toronto Maple Leafs: They have a good, deep offense led by Phil Kessel, 5 guys over 15 points so far. Goalie Jonathan Bernier has been playing well to try and wrestle the top job from incumbent James Reimer. The team has been playing consistently well the whole season, and deserve some positive recognition for a change. Grade: B+

Vancouver Canucks: The Sedin twins can shoulder a load, but they can’t do it alone. Roberto Luongo can win games on his own, but not every game. The Canucks have a good team with high expectations, but sitting 5th in the Pacific (granted it’s challenging) is a let-down. They must step their game up if they want to see a spot in the playoffs, because it looks like they will be the odd ones out at this point. Grade: C+

Washington Capitals: Alexander Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom are returning to form, and Marcus Johansson and Mikhail Grabovski have helped the cause. The main issue is that goalie Braden Holtby seems like he’s holding up his end of the ice on his own. If that continues, he will look more like a sieve than the solid netminder that he is. Grade: B

Winnipeg Jets: Brian Little leads the way, as one of the more underrated players in the league. The only reason right now, that this team isn’t in a better spot, is the level of competition. Every division game has been a hill to climb, playing against the best of the West. Goalie Ondrej Pavelec has to be better, in order to let his offense give him a lead to play with. Grade: C-

We look ahead to the rest of the season, the Olympic break, and more as the season continues. Till next time, puck-heads!