With the NHL’s 2011-12 season past the quarter mark, here’s a look at the most notable things in the Eastern Conference during that period. On Thursday, I’ll take a look at the Western Conference.
Standings as of November 27, 2011.
Pittsburgh Penguins. First in the Conference, they’ve been among the top teams in the league despite missing several star players to injury (Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek) or suspension (Kris Letang) at various times in the season’s opening weeks. They can thank their depth and head coach Dan Byslma’s ability to get the most of it. If this teams stays healthy the rest of the way, they could leave the rest of the Conference in the dust.
Boston Bruins. A 3-7 start threatened their season and generated panic amongst the Beantown faithful, but the defending Stanley Cup champions awoke from hibernation in November, rolling out ten straight wins – 11 in their last 12 – to vault from the basement to near the top of the Conference. Tim Thomas is once again among the league’s elite netminders, and team captain Zdeno Chara is having another Norris Trophy-worthy season, but it’s the emergence of sophomore forward Tyler Seguin, the Bruins leading scorer, that’s generating the most buzz in Boston.
Florida Panthers. Many observers (myself included) chuckled over GM Dale Tallon’s “blow up the roster and rebuild via trades and free agency” plan during the off-season, but with the Panthers sitting near the top of the Conference, Tallon is having the last laugh so far. Credit new head coach Kevin Dineen for getting this overhauled roster to gel quickly. Though there’s still a long way to go to season’s end, for the first time in over a decade, the Panthers look like a genuine playoff contender.
Philadelphia Flyers. Another club which made significant off-season moves, the Flyers remain among the best teams in the league. GM Paul Holmgren continues to do a masterful job icing a competitive team despite bumping against the cap ceiling, while coach Peter Laviolette has the new additions meshing well with the rest of the lineup. Forward Claude Giroux is emerging as a superstar this season in his own right, and among the early favorites for the Hart Trophy.
Toronto Maple Leafs. Despite being ravaged by injuries (James Reimer, Mike Komisarek, Colby Armstrong, Tim Connolly, Clarke MacArthur, Mikhail Grabovski and Matt Lombardi either were, or currently are, out of the lineup), the Maple Leafs have resisted the November swoon which in the past scuttled their playoff hopes. Their unexpected depth this season, plus a superlative offensive effort from winger Phil Kessel – the league’s leading scorer – has kept the Leafs among the top teams in the East.
New York Rangers. Having overcome a slow start, the result of opening the season in Europe and the absence of top defenseman Marc Staal, the Rangers have had a much better effort in November. One reason is the Rangers have given up the fewest goals-per-game of all NHL teams at the quarter-mark, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist deserving much of the credit. They’re also seeing significant improvement from young blueliners Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto, who are thriving this season with more responsibility.
Buffalo Sabres. They were predicted to be among the Conference leaders, but the Sabres have stumbled since mid-November, losing starting goaltender Ryan Miller to concussion, though that in itself isn’t the reason for their struggles since then, as Miller had been out-played by backup Jhonas Enroth. Injuries throughout the roster (Brad Boyes, Tyler Myers, Tyler Ennis, Robyn Regehr, Drew Stafford, Patrick Kaleta and Cody McCormick are also sidelined) and a perceived lack of toughness are taking a toll.
Washington Capitals. Expected to be a Cup contender, the Caps have looked anything but in the first two months of this season. The decline this season in captain Alexander Ovechkin’s production has become cause for considerable speculation, including rumors he and some of his teammates are chafing under head coach Bruce Boudreau’s defensive system. The Capitals went through a similar slump last December but rebounded strongly in the second half to top the Conference, so it’s still probably too soon to write them off. Still, this team needs a much better effort going forward than what we’ve seen from them this November.
New Jersey Devils. They’re off to a much better start than a year ago, and remain very much in the thick of the standings in the East. Under head coach Peter DeBoer, they’ve returned to a defensive style, plus they’re benefiting from a healthy Zach Parise, who missed almost all of last season to a knee injury. High-paid winger Ilya Kovalchuk still seems to be adjusting to his role in New Jersey. Rookie Adam Henrique has provided much-needed depth at center, and in a few weeks they’ll have back first line center Travis Zajac, who’s been sidelined due to Achilles surgery.
Tampa Bay Lightning. After surprising the experts last season with a 103-point performance and marching to within one win from advancing to the Stanley Cup Final, the Lightning this season seem to have returned to earth. They’ve given up the sixth-most goals thus far this season, in part because 42-year-old starting goalie Dwayne Roloson is showing his age, plus they’re missing veteran blueliner Mattias Ohlund, sidelined by knee surgeries. Their offensive production is way down this season, especially their power-play, which is 28th-worst in the league. That shouldn’t be happening with scoring stars Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier in the lineup.
Montreal Canadiens. A 1-5-2 start in October resulted in the firing of assistant coach Perry Pearn, which seemed to jolt the Habs awake, going 9-5-1 over their next fifteen games. Injuries have plagued this club big time, with regulars Andrei Markov, Jaroslav Spacek, Andrei Kostitsyn, Chris Campoli, Ryan White and Scott Gomez sidelined. If there’s a silver lining, it’s providing younger Habs like P.K. Subban, Raphael Diaz, Alexei Emelin, Yannick Weber and Lars Eller more opportunities, which could over the course of the season make the Habs a better team… provided they can get healthier.
Ottawa Senators. For a team predicted to finish dead last in the Conference, the Senators have surprised a lot of people so far this season. Much of the credit belongs to new head coach Paul MacLean, who’s been unafraid to use his younger players in key roles this season. They’re also seeing improved performances from veterans Milan Michalek, Sergei Gonchar, Filip Kuba and Nick Foligno. There’s still a long way to go in this season, and no one’s willing to consider the Sens playoff contenders just yet, but they’re also not a team to be taken lightly. The rebuild seems off to a promising start in Ottawa.
Winnipeg Jets. It’s taken a few weeks of growing pains for the former Thrashers to adjust to their new home and their new coaching staff, but the Jets have shown considerable improvement of late, winning four of their last six games, including victories over Philadelphia, Washington and Tampa Bay. One reason is their offensive punch, sitting ninth overall in goals-per-game and 10th overall on the power-play. Their defensive play is better than it was last season, but there’s still room for improvement, and their special teams still need work.
Carolina Hurricanes. Things are getting real ugly, real fast in Carolina, as the Hurricanes have been in free fall throughout November, winning only three of their last ten games. Team captain and franchise player Eric Staal is having the worse performance of his NHL career. There’s rumors head coach Paul Maurice could soon lose his job, while management is reportedly shopping in vain for additional offensive punch. They’re still only a handful of points out of playoff contention, and could save their season if they can stabilize their situation over the next few weeks. They’d better do it soon, or risk falling out of contention by the New Year.
New York Islanders. Another season which began with so much promise has very quickly turned sour once again in November. Only the Columbus Blue Jackets have fewer points than the Isles right now, who won only two of their last ten games heading into this week. This team is struggling to score, currently the worst in the league in that department. Management has stood by head coach Jack Capuano, but they’re going to have to do something soon, or else they’ll be out of contention again by Christmas, and likely in the market for another coach.