The Strengths and Weaknesses of the NHL Eastern Conference's Top Teams

Peter MillsContributor IIIMarch 26, 2013

The Strengths and Weaknesses of the NHL Eastern Conference's Top Teams

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    The NHL season is heating up, with most teams about two-thirds of the way through their schedules. The playoff race is heating up and the bubble teams might be starting to panic, but there's also a fight for dominance at the top of the standings.

    The Eastern Conference is home to four of the Original Six teams, and five different Eastern teams have taken home the Stanley Cup in the last ten seasons. It's home to many of the league's most elite players and some of the game's greatest rivalries.

    And this season is no different. A handful of teams have established themselves as the conference's best. The question is: Do any of them have what it takes to weather this year's playoff storm?

     

    All stats obtained via NHL.com and official team sites. Stats accurate prior to Tuesday, March 26 games.

Pittsburgh Penguins

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    1st in Eastern Conference

    25-8-0, 50 points

    The Pittsburgh Penguins look unbeatable right now. And to be fair, they are: The team has not lost in March, going 12-0 so far this month. If they are able to win their next six games, the team will set an NHL record for the longest win streak, breaking the 1992-93 team record set by Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

     

    Strengths: The Penguins are almost all strength. They sit just one point behind the Chicago Blackhawks for the best record in the league and are currently riding the longest winning streak of this season. The dynamic offense is led by captain Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and assisted by James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang.

    Crosby is currently leading the league with 39 assists and 53 points, and Kunitz is right behind him in points, tied for second with 41. Additionally, Kunitz, Neal, Dupuis and Crosby all have at least 14 goals, putting them all in the league's top 13. Kunitz and Crosby are one and two in the league in plus/minus, and Dupuis is not far behind them.

    The team is among the top 10 in hits, blocked shots, faceoff win percentage and shots per game. The Pens lead the league in goals per game with 3.46 and have the second best power play with a 24.2 conversion rate.

    The Penguins are also the most resilient team in the league, with an unreal .750 winning percentage in games where they trail first.

    Weaknesses: The Penguins' weaknesses are few and far between, but they are out there. Despite an incredibly skilled roster, the team is in the bottom 10 in the league in penalty kill. The team is stingy with the puck and have few giveaways, but the squad is dead last in the league in takeaways. The team's 151 total is less than half as much as the league leader, Chicago.

    The team is able to rely heavily on its offensive stars, but in the unlikely chance they find themselves behind big in an important game, they may struggle to forecheck and force turnovers.

Montreal Canadiens

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    2nd in Eastern Conference

    20-6-5, 45 Points

    The Montreal Canadiens have been one of the biggest surprises of this lockout-shortened season. Despite a roster without any clear superstars, the team has been able to stick near the top of the league and may be preparing itself for a playoff run.

     

    Strengths: The Canadiens have excelled at both ends of the ice: They rank fourth in the league with 3.10 goals per game and sixth with 2.42 goals against per game. Their top defensive pairing, P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov, have combined for 14 goals—including 11 on the power play—and 43 points.

    The team is getting offensive contributions from all over the place: Max Pacioretty leads the team with 16 assists and 25 points, and Tomas Plekanec is leading the team with 12 goals. Captain Brian Gionta has also contributed 10 goals and seven assists. Rookie Brendan Gallagher has also put up an impressive campaign so far, with nine goals and nine assists. 

     

    Weaknesses: Montreal struggles in a few different areas: They are in the top half of the league in giveaways and the bottom half in takeaways and hits. The team also wins just 48.7 percent of faceoffs. Though they are relatively successful on the power play (21.2 percent), they have the 12th worst penalty kill at 80 percent.

    Starting goalie Carey Price has had a very good season so far with 16 wins, two shutouts, a .911 save-percentage and a 2.32 goals-against average. However, the team seems to have very little faith in backup Peter Budaj, who has received just six starts. Should anything cause Price to sit out and miss some games, it may be difficult for the team to regroup around its second goaltender.

Boston Bruins

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    4th in Eastern Conference

    21-7-3, 45 Points

    The Boston Bruins established themselves as a top team when they won the Stanley Cup in 2011. While the team has changed some since then—starter Tim Thomas took off this season for personal reasons, and his contract has since been traded to the New York Islanders. Even so, they are tied with the Canadiens in points and are only behind in the division because of tiebreakers.

     

    Strengths: The Bruins are one of the few teams in the league who could lose its starting goalie and seemingly not miss a beat. Tuukka Rask has stepped in admirably and is playing at an elite level. His 15 wins are the fourth most in the league, and both his save percentage of .928 and goals-against average of 1.90 are second best.

    The team is tops in the league in faceoffs (57.3 percent) and penalty kill (91.7 percent). They are also one of three teams with a winning record in games when the opponent scores first. The team also gives up just 2.1 goals per game and puts up the third most shots per game with 31.5.

     

    Weaknesses: The Bruins have such an overwhelmingly dominating defense that it's sometimes easy to forget where they struggle. With a 15.1 conversion rate, the team's power play is seventh worst in the league. Their offense also isn't particularly productive, at 2.74 goals per game. 

Ottawa Senators

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    5th in Eastern Conference

    18-9-6, 42 Points

    The Ottawa Senators have had an impressive season. Despite a string of injuries—including long-term blows to superstars Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza—the team has stayed not just relevant but within a few points of the divisional lead.

     

    Strengths: The Senators' strength starts in their goal. Before sustaining an injury in late February, Craig Anderson was the best goalie in the league, managing a record of 8-4-2 with a league-leading .952 save percentage and 1.49 goals-against average.

    Once Anderson went down, Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner took over, and both have excelled as well: Bishop boasts a 7-4-0 record, 2.54 GAA and .923 save-percentage, while Lehner has managed a record of 3-1-4 with a .940 save-percentage and 2.05 GAA.

    With such solid defense, the Sens have the best goals-against-per-game average in the league at 2.06. They also have a penalty kill second only to the Bruins and the fifth most takeaways in the league, along with the sixth most hits.

    Surprisingly, the offense also manages the most shots per game with 32.2.

     

    Weaknesses:  It's a good thing that the goaltending has been so good in Ottawa because they're tested more than anyone else; the Senators give up a league-leading 33.2 shots per game.

    Offensively, the team is lackluster: No skater has more than eight goals and only three players—Sergei Gonchar, Kyle Turris and Daniel Alfredsson—have more than 20 points. The Sens are also third in the league in giveaways and first in missed shots.

    As a team, the Sens have a losing record on faceoffs, and they score the ninth-fewest goals of any team.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    6th in Eastern Conference

    17-12-4, 38 Points

    The Toronto Maple Leafs are the fourth Northeast Division team to make the list, but they're hard to ignore. They're within seven points of the Bruins and Canadiens and have established themselves as a playoff threat in the East.

     

    Strengths: The Maple Leafs have enjoyed success largely because of a dynamic trio of forwards: Phil Kessel, Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk. JVR started the season with his new team after being traded to Toronto by the Flyers. He is tied for the team lead with 14 goals and also has eight assists. Kessel, the biggest name of the three, has 10 goals and 20 assists. But most surprising has been Kadri, who has nearly doubled his career totals this season with 14 goals and a team-leading 21 assists, as well as managing a plus-18.

    As a team, Toronto has managed the sixth most productive offense, with 3.00 goals per game. Their penalty kill is fifth best with a success rate of 85.4 percent.

    The team is also excelling in the physical game: They lead the league in hits and blocked shots and are seventh in takeaways. 

     

    Weaknesses: There are a few areas where the Leafs are lacking, but none are more noticeable than their 381 giveaways, nearly 60 more than any other team. They also average the sixth fewest shots per game, 27.2, while allowing 31.8 per game, the fifth highest average in the league.

    The Toronto goalies have also not excelled. James Reimer has received 18 starts and Ben Scrivens 15, but both goalies have managed a goals-against average of just 2.63, and Reimer's .918 save percentage is only slightly better than Scrivens' .915. However, Reimer does have a radically better record, going 11-4-4 while Scrivens has struggled to a record of 6-8-0.

New Jersey Devils

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    7th in Eastern Conference

    15-11-7, 37 Points

    The New Jersey Devils have had a streaky season. After a hot start and then a major slump, they seem to have leveled out with the return of starting goalie Martin Brodeur. The team is quite similar to the roster that made the Stanley Cup finals last season, with the notable exceptions of captain Zach Parise—now a member of the Minnesota Wild—and Petr Sykora.

    The team has not looked its best, but they've managed to get the results they've needed so far.

     

    Strengths: It's not entirely clear why the Devils are doing as well as they have been. They have a good, forechecking system that's resulted in the sixth most takeaways, and they allow the second fewest shots per game in the league—24.4. But beyond that, they are statistically unexceptional.

    The offense has been anchored by Ilya Kovalchuk and Patrik Elias, though Kovalchuk was injured this past week against the Florida Panthers. Elias leads the team with 19 assists and 29 points and a plus-eight rating. Kovalchuk is right behind him with 17 assists and 27 points, and David Clarkson leads the team with 12 goals.

    Martin Brodeur has played his usual stellar brand of hockey when healthy, posting a record of 10-2-4 with a .912 save percentage and a 2.08 goals-against average—fifth best in the league.

     

    Weaknesses: The Devils struggle in most statistical categories: They have the sixth fewest hits in the league, the third fewest blocked shots and the tenth most missed shots.

    Their penalty kill is ranked 18th in the league while their power play is 20th. They are also the fourth worst faceoff team in the league, winning just 47.3 percent of the time.

    Additionally, they often struggle to score more than three goals. They have the sixth lowest goals-per-game average in the league, at just 2.42.

Winnipeg Jets

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    3rd in Eastern Conference

    17-4-2, 36 Points

    The Winnipeg Jets are looking for their franchise's first back-to-back winning seasons since 2005-06 and 2006-07, when they were the Atlanta Thrashers. After relocating to Winnipeg prior to last season, the team enjoyed wild popularity from their new Canadian fanbase.

    Now, despite a record not quite as impressive as the others on this list, they sit in third place thanks to leading the Southeast Division.

     

    Strengths: The Jets play a tough, physical game, and it's working for them. They are third in the league with 966 hits and 13th in blocked shots.

    On top of that, they know how to hold a lead. Despite having the tenth-worst goals-per-game average and the ninth-highest goals-against-per-game average, the team has a whopping 1.000 win-percentage when leading after the first period. They are the only team that has not lost a game they've led entering the first intermission. When leading after two periods, they have a .923 win-percentage.

    Offensively, a few players have established themselves as reliable scorers. Andrew Ladd is tied for the team lead with 14 goals and leads straight-out with 18 assists. Blake Wheeler is right behind him with 14 goals and 14 assists, and Evander Kane has managed 12 goals and nine assists.

     

    Weaknesses: The Jets have failed to excel in most team statistics. They have the fifth worst power play (14.3 percent) and sixth worst penalty kill (77.9). They're 18th in shots per game, taking 28.4 but allow 28.6 per game, good for 16th. 

    They also seem to have little faith in backup goalie Al Montoya, who has only earned himself four starts. Ondrej Pavelec has received the other 29, posting a record of 14-14-2 with a .902 save percentage and a 2.68 GAA. While his numbers aren't bad, ideally they'd improve for someone taking on that large a workload.