5 Most Improved NHL Teams During the 2011-2012 Season
Every NHL season is a tale of two halves.
That halfway point doesn't always fall after Game 41, after the turn of the new year, or after the All-Star break. There's no way to predict when it will occur.
But after any game, any goal or any other point in time, there's always a chance that something big is about to begin—and that's what makes the game of hockey so magical.
The New Jersey Devils' miraculous run of a year ago, with 17 wins in 19 games launching them back into playoff contention, was a time that few avid followers will ever forget.
The Carolina Hurricanes' nine-game undefeated streak of March and April 2009, that eventually propelled them to a shocking Eastern Conference Finals bid, gave the nickname "Cardiac 'Canes" another meaning.
The incredible postseason explosion of Jaroslav Halak and his Montreal Canadiens in 2010 taught the hockey world that any player, no matter what caliber, can become a hero.
For the 2011-2012 NHL campaign, that season-defining streak has yet to be determined. However, the marvelous improvement that this handful of teams have shown might just be enough to engrave their names forever in the memories of many.
Which five squads are the most improved, so far, since the 2011-12 season began? Which five squads have already hit that halfway point? Which five squads know that this spring, it will be their club that shines in the spotlight of the hockey world?
Keep reading to find out.
Without franchise icon Sidney Crosby for all but eight of their 56 games to date, the Pittsburgh Penguins have battled through their shortfalls to continue their dynasty of success.
A six-game losing streak in late December and early January temporarily knocked the Pens out of the Eastern Conference playoff picture, but back-to-back road victories against the Panthers and Lightning revitalized the '09 Cup champs.
Since January 11th, Pittsburgh is 11-2-1, a huge improvement over their average 21-17-4 mark before that date. The Pens have thrived on winning close games throughout the run, scrapping out four of those wins in shootouts and another in overtime against rival Washington.
League-leading Evgeni Malkin, taking over the team's starring role with Crosby suffering through post-concussion syndrome, has scored a whopping 15 goals and 24 points over the 14-game span. If Malkin can keep that pace up, expect the Penguins to overcome their injury woes and once again challenge for the league title.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils' incredible streak of last spring is unlikely to be duplicated by any team anytime soon, but New Jersey's quiet winter surge has put them in position to make the playoffs without a miracle.
Overcoming an ownership situation that's become a major distraction, New Jersey has posted a solid 19-9-3 record since December 3rd after a so-so 12-12-1 start to the year.
It's hard to believe that 38- and 39-year-old goaltenders Johan Hedberg and Martin Brodeur could legitimately support a fifth-place team, but they have done so quite well with respective records of 13-7-2 and 18-13-2.
Additionally, with team cornerstones Patrick Elias (19 goals, 53 points) and Zach Parise (21 goals, 48 points), as well as big-bucks star Ilya Kovalchuk (22 goals, 52 points), also racking up big points, New Jersey has skyrocketed to sixth in the Eastern Conference standings. Two more months of this could easily earn the Devils' unanimous declaration as "surprise team of the year."
Former Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau has reignited the Anaheim Ducks.
After being fired by the Caps on November 28th, 2011, Boudreau was hired less than three days later by Anaheim to replace Randy Carlyle—the shortest unemployment period for a coach in NHL history.
Two and a half months later, we know that the Ducks' change was definitely a smart decision.
Although it took Boudreau a little while to settle in, Anaheim, who was actually the Western Conference's fourth seed in the 2011 playoffs, has proven unstoppable since catching fire early in January. From January 7th on, they've earned 25 points out of 32 possible points with an 11-2-3 record—a tremendous improvement over their 11-22-6 mark before that date.
Leading the charge has been ageless 41-year-old Teemu Selanne, who has six goals and 13 points over the span. Defending Hart Trophy winner Corey Perry has added two hat tricks and playmaker Ryan Getzlaf has contributed 11 assists.
Former Olympian netminder Jonas Hiller has gotten hot at the right time, too, posting a save percentage of .913 or better in 12 of his last 15 starts.
The Nashville Predators may be a consistent playoff team, but one thing has prevented them from stepping it up to the next level—offense.
The Preds' scoring attack has been a lower-half mainstay for quite some time now, ranking 24th, 18th and 22nd, respectively, over the past three seasons in average goals per game.
But now those dark clouds appear to have moved on.
Nashville's offense has risen to a surprisingly strong ranking of 12th, well into the league's upper-half and above typically explosive offenses like those of Washington, Montreal and Buffalo. Furthermore, nine Predators have already hit (and crossed) the double-digit goal plateau, in addition to three others with double-digit assists.
This newfound reliable offense has already opened the door for the Predators to make their move up the league standings. Since December 6th, Nashville's record stands at a very impressive 20-7-2, only adding to their solid total of 70 points (which ranks fifth in the West) on the year.
St. Louis Blues
Twenty-seven wins, seven regulation losses and six overtime defeats.
That's what the Blues' record has been since the eighth day of November. It's only been three months since then, but for St. Louis hockey fans, it's felt more like a century.
On that chilly late autumn day, an era of underperforming stars and underwhelming seasons, led by an endless string of under-impressive coaches, ended. Out went Davis Payne and in came Ken Hitchcock.
And the rest is history.
The St. Louis Blues, led by a balanced offense, shut-down defense and a goaltender with a shocking rise to glory, rebounded from a 6-7-0 record at the time of Hitchcock's hiring—14th in the Western Conference—to currently stand by a 34-14-7 accumulating that places fourth in the Western Conference.
That aforementioned out-of-the-blue (pun definitely intended) star goalie would be better referred to as Brian Elliot. Elliot, who had recorded just 15 combined wins in 54 appearances in 2009-10 and 2010-11, has gone 18-5-2 with an astounding 1.63 goals-against average and .939 save percentage.
He's certainly had help, though.
The Blues' top six scorers this year, including gritty David Backes (16 goals, 41 points) and underrated T.J. Oshie (14 goals, 36 points), are all plus-11 or better on the year and combine for an eyebrow-raising plus-92 rating. The defense, led by young Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, has allowed both the fewest goals against (1.91 per game) and the fewest shots against (26.3 per game) in the entire NHL.
What the St. Louis Blues have done, without changing a single player, is frankly astonishing. It's an extraordinary case for sure—not just your average mid-season turnaround—but it once again has proven to hockey fanatics around the continent that in the NHL, anything is possible.
Here's to another dramatic turnaround story yet to come this season. And here's to a thrilling spring of epic postseason battles, back-and-forth rivalries and, best of all, a few Cinderella stories as well.
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 40 months so far with the site, he has written more than 340 articles and received more than 410,000 total reads.