NHL Christmas Report, Part One: Eastern Conference
As 30 NHL teams enjoy a much needed two-day Christmas break, let's take a look at some of those individuals and teams which have surprised and disappointed us thus far in a two-day, two-part series.
Today, we'll begin with the NHL's Eastern Conference, where the biggest surprise has to be the Boston Bruins, who sit atop the standings with a jaw-dropping 25-5-4 record after 34 games.
I don't think anyone could have anticipated this Bruins team to be ahead of such favorites as Montreal, Pittsburgh, or Philadelphia. Not me, that's for sure.
But when you mix solid goaltending with a balanced scoring attack, then you have the recipe for success.
Tim Thomas has played phenomenally between the pipes in Beantown. He is second in the NHL in goals against average (2.04), trailing only Columbus' Steve Mason (1.98), as well as in save percentage (.935), behind Florida's Craig Anderson (.940).
Manny Fernandez has too been stellar in the Boston net, ranking third in GAA just behind Thomas (2.09) and sixth in save percentage with a lofty .926.
The Bruins offense is getting it done as a whole, despite the recent setback of Patrice Bergeron, who is out again with a concussion.
The 23-year-old forward was forced to sit almost the entire year last season after he was hit from behind by Philadelphia's Randy Jones, causing his head to slam into the end boards. Bergeron suffered a Grade III concussion, along with a broken nose, and lay motionless on the ice before being carted off on a stretcher.
David Krejci, a second-year center with the B's, is blossoming into a point-producing machine. He is currently tied with four others for 14th in scoring with 37 points. Rookie Blake Wheeler, along with the emergence of sophomores Phil Kessel and Milan Lucic, are providing ample support for veteran pivot Marc Savard. Savard is tied with six others for fourth in scoring with 40 points, while Kessel ranks fourth in goals with 21.
Philadelphia's Jeff Carter deserves a fair amount of praise for the first half he's had. The third-year London, Ontario native is leading the NHL in goals with 26, including eight in his past 10 games. Carter is getting timely goals too, as he is tied with Pittsburgh's Petr Sykora, Vancouver's Daniel Sedin, and San Jose's Patrick Marleau for most game-winning goals (five)
To a lesser extent, the Toronto Maple Leafs can be regarded as a pleasant surprise, managing to play .500 hockey (14-14-6) in a rebuilding year under new head coach Ron Wilson. The Maple Leafs were able to pry away GM Brian Burke away from the Anaheim Ducks, and now he has been given the challenge of bringing this once proud franchise back to respectability.
Kudos to rookie defenseman Luke Schenn, who prior to his knee injury was logging over 20 minutes of ice time for the club and was fifth in the NHL in hits with 83.
The Leafs were too expected to be offensively challenged with the loss of captain Mats Sundin, defenseman Bryan McCabe, and forward Darcy Tucker. But to their credit, they've held their own.
Blossoming buds such as Niklas Hagman, Mikhail Grabovski, and Jeremy Williams have managed to score 28 goals and 49 points. Williams has five goals in seven games since being called up from the AHL's Marlies, while the diminutive Grabovski has lit the lamp 12 times since his arrival from Montreal.
The trio of Nik Antropov-Alexei Ponikarovsky-Matt Stajan has combined for 33 goals and 84 points. As a whole, Toronto is eighth in NHL goals with 107 after 34 contests.
We go from the pleasant surprises to the harsh disappointments in the East.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to surmise that the Ottawa Senators have been the biggest underachievers to date. The team, under new bench boss Craig Hartsburg, were suppose to compete for the division and possibly the conference title against the Canadiens, Penguins, and Flyers.
A lack of secondary scoring is the primary reason why the Senators are last in the Northeast division with a record under .500 at 12-15-5, 32 points
Forwards Antoine Vermette and Chris Kelly, as well as center Mike Fisher, have each scored only three times each this season. Ottawa's Big Three of Dany Heatley-Jason Spezza-Daniel Alfredsson can't seem to play with anyone else but themselves, and that leaves them vulnerable when facing a solid shutdown line.
Alexei Kovalev is clearly having a subpar season in Montreal despite registering eight goals and 26 points in 33 games. During a recent stretch this season, the skilled Habs forward went 19 straight games without scoring a goal. There were whispers a week ago that the team was shopping him around so they could free up cap space to land Sundin.
Finally, as bad and underachieving have the Senators have been, so too were the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first half. The Florida-based squad spent a whack of money in the offseason on greybeards like Mark Recchi and Gary Roberts, along with reclamation projects like Radim Vrbata, Ryan Malone, and Vaclav Prospal.
The result: last in the Southeast division with 25 points, only two points ahead of the New York Islanders for title to the basement in the Eastern Conference. They also fired coach Barry Melrose just 16 games into the season. Merry Christmas, Barry.
Tomorrow, we'll look at the good and the bad from the Western Conference.
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