8 Questions the Month of February Will Answer in the NHL
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The best part about the month of January is that the NHL started playing hockey again.
Every hockey player, coach and fan—along with most of the owners—wanted the game to resume after a four-month lockout. It appeared quite dubious at the beginning of the month, but the powers that be came to their senses.
Other than wanting to get off to a good start in a condensed 48-game schedule, the big thing about the month of January was getting in game shape.
However, now that the first month of the season has been torn from the calendar, there are a number of questions that will be asked and hopefully answered in February.
Are the Canadiens for Real?
What to make of the Montreal Canadiens?
Last year, they finished 15th in the Eastern Conference and the smart money said they wouldn't be much better this year.
The Canadiens have gotten off to a 6-2-0 start. Are they really that much better than last year or is their early-season form a fluke?
The month of February should provide the answer. It seems likely that the Canadiens are quite real. General manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien have provided a more professional and disciplined environment for the Canadiens' players.
The Canadiens have gotten a lift from the return of defenseman Andrei Markov and the arrival of rookie forwards Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher. Goalie Carey Price is performing quite well.
The Canadiens should continue to play solid hockey in February and stay in playoff contention.
Will the Kings Wake Up?
The lockout was supposed to take care of this year's Stanley Cup hangover.
The Kings certainly celebrated their Stanley Cup win during the offseason and that limited their work during the summer, but there was no hockey after Sept. 15. They did not have to start the season the way the Boston Bruins did in 2011-12 or the Chicago Blackhawks did the year before.
The Kings have gotten off to a sluggish start. They find themselves in 14th place in the Western Conference with six points and a 2-3-2 record.
There's no reason for the Kings to panic since they won the Stanley Cup as an eighth-place team last year. Still, it would be nice for Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jonathan Quick to get going in February.
Can the Tampa Bay Lightning Sustain Their Hot Start?
The Tampa Bay Lightning made it all the way to the seventh game of the Eastern Conference Final in the 2011 Stanley Cup playoffs.
However, the Lightning never woke up from their depression at losing that seventh game to the Boston Bruins. They did not even make the playoffs.
This year's version of the Lightning may be quite formidable. In addition to starting the season with an impressive 6-2-0 mark, they are the highest scoring team in the league with 39 goals.
Steven Stamkos is the leader of this team and he is probably the best goal scorer in the league. However, Stamkos has gotten plenty of help early this season from Martin St. Louis, rookie Cory Conacher and Vincent Lecavalier.
The Lightning have not yet seen the best from goalie Anders Lindback, who has a 2.83 goals against average and a .911 save percentage. If Lindback can pick it up just a little, it seems certain that Tampa Bay will be one of the stronger teams in the Eastern Conference.
Can Thomas Vanek Remain at the Top of the League's Scorers?
Thomas Vanek has always been thought of as a talented player with a gift for putting the puck in the net.
He was not an NHL superstar. While he has been over the 40-goal mark twice in his career, there was just something missing from his game.
However, that may be changing. Through the first two-plus weeks of the season, Vanek is leading the NHL in scoring with 19 points. He has eight goals and 11 assists and has already had two five-point games.
If Vanek can sustain his high-scoring ways, the Buffalo Sabres may be able to climb on his back and watch him lead them to a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. So far, they are just going along for the ride, but Vanek looks motivated and dynamic.
Who Is the Leading Candidate for Rookie of the Year?
The 2013 rookie class appears to be a bountiful one.
The rookie of the year race probably won't be decided in February, but some players may start to separate themselves from the class.
Nail Yakupov of the Edmonton Oilers has shown a penchant for scoring dramatic goals. His teammate Justin Schultz is a force on the blue line. Dougie Hamilton looks mature beyond his years for the the Boston Bruins.
Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues may turn out to be a stellar goal scorer. Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher may play a key role in the Montreal Canadiens renaissance. Cory Conacher is off to a hot start with the Lightning.
Jonathan Huberdeau of the Panthers, Mikael Granlund of the Wild, Mikhail Grirgorenko of the Sabres and Jakob Silfverberg of the Senators could also emerge from this deep rookie class.
Will the Oilers Maintain a High Level of Play?
The Oilers are loaded with young talent and they have gotten off to a solid start in 2013.
They have a record of 4-3-1 through their first eight games, and if the season ended on Super Bowl Sunday, they would be in the playoffs.
The season did not end, and there is a long way to go. The Oilers have the potential to be one of the most exciting and dangerous teams in the league.
They can put Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Nail Yakupov, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz on the ice. That gives them the kind of talent to compete with playoff teams.
They don't have much experience and they will probably have several bad nights. Will they be able to overcome those games and bounce back, or will they sink after giving up five or six goals in a game from time to time?
That question is likely to get answered in February.
Do the Blackhawks Have the Goaltending to Remain at or Near the Top?
The Chicago Blackhawks have gotten out of the gate like they are ready to reclaim the Stanley Cup championship they captured in the late spring of 2010.
They have not lost a game in regulation as they have rolled to a 7-0-2 start.
The Blackhawks have plenty of individual talent with Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp and Duncan Keith, but the goaltending has been somewhat suspect for several years.
In last year's playoffs, the Blackhawks were beaten in the first round by the Phoenix Coyotes. Crawford gave up two soft overtime goals in Games 3 and 4 at the United Center.
Nobody should be convinced that Crawford has turned it around.
It's one thing to get off to a good start. It's quite another to sustain it through a busy month of February.
Can Patrick Marleau Continue to Light the Lamp?
Patrick Marleau did not need a getting-adjusted period when the puck dropped on the 2013 season.
He scored two goals in each of the San Jose Sharks' first four games.
He is the leading goal scorer in the league with nine.
Marleau is a proven scorer who has lit the lamp 396 times in his career and has eclipsed the 30-goal mark six times in his career.
The Sharks need Marleau and linemate Joe Thornton to remain at the top of their games. There was talk at the start of the season about the Sharks no longer being an elite Western Conference team, but Marleau and Thornton are playing as if they are on a mission to prove critics wrong.
If Marleau can sustain his success in February, it will go a long way to proving that the Sharks are a legitimate contender this season.