Cream of the NHL Crop: Eastern Conference Heroes

----- -----------Correspondent IJanuary 30, 2008

More than halfway through the season, a mere glance at the conference standings have made preseason prognosticators look rather foolish.

Some predictions were spot on, while others completely misfired.

Let's go through to see exactly how each team stacks up and try to find out the heroes of the East...

First we have the Ottawa Senators. With the best start (16-3) in recent memory that this sports fan can recollect, we all expected them to break many NHL records and run away with the Stanley Cup.

Somewhere in late November, early December, injuries and bad bounces plagued Ottawa. They've lost that early momentum they had built up and are now a mediocre NHL team at best.

Their last 10 games (including a 5-2 win over the Islanders) make them 5-5-0, though an analysis of the past few years clearly shows that with the start they've had they're in prime position to finish first in the East.

A quick and dirty statistic: Every team that finished first in the East has had 100 or more points by the last game. The average since the 2001-02 season was 109.

The Senators will simply need to play mediocre hockey and finish the rest of the season at about .600 to finish first in the East. That's what a monster first half of the season did for the Senators. It put them far ahead in the long run.

Next, we have a team that doesn't get as much press as they deserve: The Montreal Canadiens.

These guys were predicted to be 14th in the Eastern Conference. Now, they sit comfortably, six points behind their division rival Senators, battling for bragging rights, divisional leadership and the top spot in the conference.

The Canadiens may sit in fourth place in the conference, but they are second in the conference with points. This is purely to a stacked division with bad teams in the other (Ovechkin and his bunch are a mere three points behind third place in the conference but at the same time, sit 10th overall) divisions. 

You can attribute the Canadiens' surge in the East to monsters like Komisarek, the defenseman who is topping blocked shots and hits categories.

He makes little to no mistakes and is rewriting the textbook on how to play defense in the new NHL.

Also stepping up is Christopher Higgins, who is becoming a veteran leader and producing constantly.

Mixing up new rookies in the roster hasn't hurt either.

While Carey Price seemed to have been promoted too quickly, he is resuming his duties in the AHL with the Hamilton Bulldogs and finding his groove right. Alex Kovalev is on pace for one of his best, if not his best season with the Canadiens as well.

Overall, there has been top-notch play from all fronts. Defensively from Markov and Komisarek, offensively from power-play specialist Alexei Kovalev and in nets with Cristobal Huet. This team is looking like it's packing a punch in all fronts of hockey. 

Our third biggest hero of the East is the Pittsburgh Penguins.

I understand they have Sidney Crosby, who was a Hart candidate until his injury and the face of this whole 'new NHL' business. But his supporting cast: Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, Colby Armstrong and a bunch of other new blood has also played a big role in fueling this franchise back to life. I can't stop watching them, reading about them or anything of the sort.

Even with the loss of Crosby, they still perform well and maintain a good amount of offense. I expect to see big things from them in the playoffs and I don't see them leaving contention for the playoffs anytime within the foreseeable future. 

Lastly, our biggest hero of the East is the Washington Ovechkins.

That's right; I've formally renamed their team from the Capitals to the Ovechkins. This kid is the only reason the All-Star Game didn't tank, and is also the only reason why this team is fighting for first in its division.

Nylander? Playing below average. Semin? Merely 12 goals and 20 points total. Ovechkin has big shoulders and he is carrying his team on his back.


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