Oilers, Isles early winners; Gerber, Flyers not so much
Where did the first quarter of the season go?
If you're the Columbus Blue Jackets, St. Louis Blues or Philadelphia Flyers, you could quite rightly say it went up in smoke. Or if you're Anaheim, Buffalo or Atlanta, you'd say that it went by like a dream.
With the first quarter in the rearview mirror, it's time to look at what transpired and what's to come.
Nightmare to nirvana? We don't think so
Last season, with just eight wins in their first 21 games, the San Jose Sharks looked like they'd be playoff toast before they acquired Joe Thornton in late November. The Sharks tore through the last three quarters of the schedule and Big Joe won the Hart Trophy.
Is there a similar rags-to-riches story ahead for any currently struggling teams? No.
Even with the arrival of Ken Hitchcock in Columbus (he was 1-1 after Saturday's victory over Minnesota), the Blue Jackets would have to somehow pile up 81 points in the next 60 games to get to the magic 95-point level that was needed last season to earn the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. That means going 41-19. Not going to happen, even for the master tactician.
Likewise Chicago, St. Louis, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Los Angeles (which, because it has played more games than any other team in the conference, appears in better shape than it is) and Florida can all kiss the postseason goodbye. None of those teams has enough tools in the box to defy the math that'll be needed to both accumulate enough points and claw over enough teams to make it to the playoffs.
Panic? Who, us?
At various times, fans in Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary have been seen waving apocalyptic placards on the streets and thoroughfares of their cities.
"The end is near."
"Repent, for all is lost."
That sort of thing.
Guess what? All three teams have struggled but have managed to emerge through the first quarter of the season in decent shape. The Flames and Senators are still technically outside the playoff bubble, but a six-game winning streak by the Flames (followed by two straight road losses) and a four-game run by the Sens have put both teams firmly back in the mix. And it says here the streaky Oilers can be expected to add a veteran defender between now and the Feb. 27 trade deadline, and will find their way into the postseason along with the Senators and the Flames.
About 10 games ago, rookie Boston GM Peter Chiarelli told ESPN.com he was going to wait until the season was a quarter over before determining what, if any, moves he might need to make with his struggling Bruins squad. Well, Chiarelli's patience has been rewarded as the Bruins have climbed back into the playoff hunt by winning six of eight, including Saturday's victory over division foe Toronto.
Most impressive, though, have been the defensive adjustments made under new coach Dave Lewis. Early on, the B's looked disorganized and lacked confidence. Now they have settled into a pattern in which winning close games has become a habit. During a recent four-game winning streak, they did not allow more than three goals in any one contest. Are they good enough to make the playoffs? We're still not sure, but the Eastern Conference is chockablock with flawed teams, five or six of which are going to the playoffs. Why not the Bruins?
Who's laughing now? Story of the Long Island Laughingstocks
Hands up for those who believed the New York Islanders, the Barnum and Bailey franchise of the NHL, would be leading the Atlantic Division at the quarter pole? And no, we didn't say "contract extension," so put your hand down, Rick DiPietro.
Still, for all the preseason bashing (virtually all of it deserved), the Islanders have confounded critics under reborn coach Ted Nolan and renaissance forward Alexei Yashin. Even the fans are starting to turn up as the Isles have won four of five and have points in 10 of their last 13 games. If owner Charles Wang wasn't such a perpetual wing nut, it'd be one of the feel-good stories of the season. Still, the tough part is still ahead for Nolan and Co. Yashin is out two to four weeks with a sprained knee and it will be interesting to see whether ownership will give neophyte GM Garth Snow leverage to bring in help up front if Yashin can't return when expected.
If you see any of these players, missing and presumed locked in a room watching endless tape loops of "Slap Shot" and "Youngblood," please return them to their rightful owners:
John Grahame, all is forgiven
If there's a silver lining to having acquired the surprisingly weak Marc Denis, it's that the player Tampa gave up in the trade, Fredrik Modin, has been equally unimpressive in Columbus. The problem is that Denis' poor play (3.29 goals-against average, .878 save percentage) has not only cost him the starting job, it may end up costing the Lightning a playoff berth. The Blue Jackets? They're so bad, Modin's play (12 points in 22 games) will have little bearing on an already lost season.
MVP? Maybe this time
Anyone who thought Jaromir Jagr might have trouble revving himself up for this season after his offseason shoulder problems and falling short in last season's MVP voting thought wrong. Jagr has once again been a force in New York as the Rangers shook off some early-season stumbles to once again vie for the division lead. Jagr has again been instrumental for an offense that relies almost exclusively on a handful of players to win games. Jagr's league-leading 36 points means he's been in on exactly half of the Rangers' 72 goals, making him by far the most important player to his team in the NHL.
A second choice?
Fine? How about a seat?
Remember all that good will toward officials during and after last season? Well, kiss it goodbye as coaches around the league (Craig MacTavish in Edmonton to Bob Hartley in Atlanta to Paul Maurice in Toronto to John Tortorella in Tampa Bay) aren't being shy about blasting the men in black and white. Now, nobody likes to pay fines, but what's the point? If your coaches are berating officials enough to warrant a gross misconduct penalty and/or fine from head office, why not discourage such outbursts by suspending coaches as you would a player? A couple of nights in the press box might cure what ails them; plus, there's the added punishment of having to sit alongside reporters for three hours. Now there's incentive to be good.
Best free agent addition through the first quarter?
Brendan Shanahan, who leads the NHL in goals (17).
Dominik Hasek, whose 9-4, 2.04 GAA and .900 save percentage have made the Red Wings a conference contender.
Biggest offensive surprise?
The Leafs' Darcy Tucker, who seems to have put his Charles Manson persona behind him and has 16 goals.
Martin Gerber was supposed to help the Ottawa Senators forget about Hasek. All he's done with his 3-8 record, 3.45 GAA and .890 save percentage is create a whole new goaltending controversy in Ottawa.
The Red Wings have the league's worst power play, operating at a paltry 10.7 percent efficiency rate. Watch for that number to jump in coming weeks. Even more surprising, the normally technically sound Wings are 27th on the penalty kill. That, too, should improve as the season progresses. If it doesn't, look for them to make an early playoff exit. Again.
Go figure, part deux
The Tampa Bay Lightning are dead last in penalty-killing efficiency. For a team that figures to be in a life-and-death struggle to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference, the flaw may turn out to be fatal unless Tortorella can find a cure.
What does it mean to stink at special teams play?
Well, none of the bottom six teams in power-play efficiency qualified for last season's playoffs. Tampa was 23rd and got the eighth seed. Meanwhile, only one of the bottom seven penalty-killing teams earned a postseason berth. That was Philadelphia, a team quickly dispatched by Buffalo in the first round.
Many believe the Pacific Division is the toughest, given the presence of conference-leading Anaheim and two solid contenders in San Jose and Dallas. But take a gander at the Northwest Division, where five points separated first and fifth as of Tuesday morning. Look for the slumping Vancouver Canucks to fall out of that race in the coming weeks. Over in the Northeast Division, the Sabres are a likely gimme, but the resurgent Bruins have put the rest of the division on notice that all five teams have a view to a playoff berth.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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