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The NHL has become a league of tremendous highs and tremendous lows—one moment you are on a five-game winning streak, the next you are on a five-game losing streak. Look up and down the standings and you notice only eight points separate fifth place from 13th place in the East, and 11 points from fifth place to 13th in the West.
I honestly think this is good for the league; the more parity in the NHL, the more cities that have a shot at enjoying the best time of the year, Stanley Cup Playoffs! So in this week’s Pucking Awesome Hat Trick I will look at the top three inconsistent teams in each conference and what will be their fate for the rest of the season.
The team that traded one of their biggest stars in the offseason (Dany Heatly), has played most of the year without Jason Spezza (23 games missed), and saw Daniel Alfredsson (12 games missed) miss some time has been the model of inconsistency. Other than those big injuries, goaltending has been up and down for Ottawa so much that they have already fired their goaltending coach. Last year's big-time pick-up, Pascal LeClair, has split time with Brian Elliott, and both goalies have had string of three-straight losses. LeClair has brought his injury-prone nature to Ottawa heading to IR twice, for a broken jaw (16 games missed) and currently for a concussion.
Already in the month of January, the Senators have had a five-game winning streak and are currently on a six-game winning streak. I believe the Senators will be a surprise playoff team this year, as they will get a boost from having Spezza, Alfredsson, and Milan Michalek back in the lineup—especially on the power play, which has been ranked near the bottom all year. Goaltending is the only drawback for this team, but getting LeClair healthy and playing solid defense in front of Elliot will help this team to play more consistent hockey.
A preseason pick by the Hockey News to win the Stanley Cup, the Flyers have already fired their head coach, gone on a stretch where they won 12 of 16 then lost 14 of 17, and now currently have won 11 out of the last 15—talk about your roller coaster of a season.
The team struggled with chemistry and injuries to depth players, including their No. 1 goalie. They have seemed to find their strength in playing good special teams and finally relying on the balanced scoring attack that made them so successful last season. Everyone points to the goaltending situation in Philadelphia, and for good reason, as they have had a rotating door of goalies for playoff runs.
The underrated stat behind this team is they are near the top of the league in shots against per game and blocked shots, which go a long way to help out a goaltender. This team has too much talent not to be involved in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and look for the crafty Paul Holmgren to make a move or two at the trade deadline.
New York Rangers:
Not much was expected of the Rangers this season, as most people expected Marion Gaborik to already be injured as the team continues to struggle to score goals and rely heavily on Henrik Lundqvist. Well, Gaborik has been, as advertised, scoring 29 goals and has only missed two games due to injury, and Lundqvist has been his normal spectacular self, being in the top 10 in the league in all major goalie categories.
The cause of inconsistency for this team has been the major dry spells the depth players behind Gaborik have endured. Only three Rangers have double digit goals (Gaborik, U.S. Olympian Ryan Callahan, and Brandon Dubinsky) and there is a 25-point gap between Gaborik and the next top point getter on the team.
The Rangers have already been rumored to be after Vincent Lecavalier and, of course, will be mentioned in the Iyla Kovalchuck sweepstakes, but unless Glen Sather gives up some of his young guns and picks to acquire those big-name scorers, I expect the Rangers' fatal flaw—no scoring depth—to rear its ugly head and cause them to reach for a spot in the playoff party towards the end of the season.
Another preseason pick to be much higher than their current standing, the Calgary Flames have been an enigma. Are they a high-scoring team or a defensive team? That has been the toughest question to answer. The Flames opened up the season with 3.67 goals per game in October and followed that with an amazing 1.93 GAA in November.
Lately, they haven’t done either as they have been outscored 33 to15 in losing eight of their last nine. The steady decline of Olli Jokinen has been the hot topic around Calgary as he has saw his goal total shrink as his age rises. The emergence of Rene Bourque as a consistent scorer has been a pleasant surprise, but the offensive struggle and plus/minus rating of top defenseman Dion Phaneuf have rumors swirling of his departure for much needed scoring depth.
General Manager Darryl Sutter has been making a whirlwind tour of press boxes around the NHL to start the whispering that change is coming in Calgary. The team just needs to find some sort of identity with new coach Brent Sutter. I think trading Phaneuf will help this organization overall; they did add Bouwmeester so will still have a young defenseman to build around. And can you imagine the return for this talented player?
Detroit Red Wings:
The normal organizational depth that has kept the Red Wings afloat for so long has now failed them. Yes, there have been as many big injuries in Motown this season than in others, but the difference is this used to be a team that, no matter who was wearing the Red Wings jersey, continued to win. The Red Wings could field an all-star team from the players currently on IR (Holmstrom, Franzen, Jason Williams, Kronwall, and Lilja).
Their offense has done one thing consistently this season in being ranked near the bottom of the league for most of the first half. Superstars Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and Nicklas Lidstrom are all behind their normal points pace. The biggest surprise that has kept the team afloat is the development of net-minder Jimmy Howard. The former second-round pick has been spectacular, being ranked near the top of the league in both save percentage and goals against. The 25-year-old has lost back-to-back only once this season and has had two three-game winning streaks.
The Red Wings, as always, will be active at the trade deadline; that is the time Ken Holland shows why he is one of the best GMs in the league, but also they will get a boost from injured players returning to the lineup. This team got old very quickly, playing in back-to-back Stanley Cup Finals, but still pose a threat to not only make the playoffs but make some noise.
Another team that struggled out of the gate and has been struggling to find its way back and stay healthy, the Ducks will be a team to watch closely as we get closer to the trade deadline. The Ducks have two big restricted free agents (Bobby Ryan and James Wisniewski) and seven unrestricted free agents, including current starting goalie Jonas Hiller. They could be in dumping mode, or they could be in adding mode as they are a team that struggles to find consistency.
The main problem has been that neither of the goalies has been spectacular. Former Con Smyth and Stanley Cup Champion Jean-Sebastien Giguere is one of the most expensive backup goalies in the league, while the 26-year-old Hiller has not impressed in his first season as the primary starter.
Another big question the Ducks will face is whether to trade some of their veterans on the last years of contracts. Scott Niedermayer, Teemu Selanne, and Saku Koivu could all bring back some returns for a team looking to add some much needed veteran presence in the playoffs. The team’s core has shifted to Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan up front and Ryan Whitney and James Wisniewski on the back end, but it will be up to GM Bob Murray to decide who will be minding the nets for this year and beyond, and that will be the difference for an inconsistent team on the fringe of the playoff chase.