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1st Quarter Report: Penguins, Capitals Leading the NHL Eastern Conference

Posted on November 29, 2009 by Scott Weldon
Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penquins

The defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins are off to a hot start as they look to defend their title.

It’s almost impossible to win a football game in the first quarter. There’s too much time to come back, adjust to the other team, get lucky. A team can lose a game in the first quarter though. They can put themselves in such a deep physical and psychological hole that they won’t be able to climb.

The NHL season is a little like that. Everyone has played at least 21 games out of a total of eighty two. The early favourites have been established who is the best team? That title is still up for grabs. Who is likely to make the playoffs? Well in the new NHL where there’s a point given out every time a team completes their pre-game warm-up that’s still undecided yet. Who has played themselves out of the play-offs and are likely to be lottery pick drafters, well that I can tell you. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Carolina Hurricanes and their five wins respectively are out of the playoffs, in November. It’s a neat trick.

How have the teams in the NHL done this first quarter? Lets’ take a look at teams in the Eastern Conference in the order they’re in now.

1/ Pittsburgh Penguins
GP: 25   W: 17   L: 8     OT: 0      PTS: 34      WPCT: .680     GF: 77    GA: 69

Pittsburgh has started slowly the last couple of years. This year they had the third fastest start in the league. They’ve tightened up their game giving up only 27.1 shots per game.

Fleury hasn’t benefitted from this decrease in chances. Last years .912 save percentage has declined to .904. Malkin has missed seven games so far this year and the team suffered with him out.

After the playmaker Sidney Crosby with 12 goals there’s a group of Penguins with six. Youngster Alex Goligoski has almost equaled last years offensive totals in less then half the games. Along with Letang and the veteran Skoula there seems plenty of offensive potential on the back end on the soon to be retired Gonchar.

The return of Maxime Talbot should help Pittsburgh as well. They still could use top end snipers to play with Malkin and Crosby. This team looks to get stronger as the season progresses.

2/Washington Capitals
GP: 25   W: 14   L: 5     OT: 6     PTS: 34      WPCT: .680     GF: 87    GA: 73

Washington is tied with San Jose in goals scored. Alex Ovechkin now holds the Capital’s record for most goals scored in a season with 65. Can he approach Dennis Maruk’s team record for most points in a season of 136? He’s only on pace for 88 points this year. He’s got 17 goals and 27 points in 19 games. If he manages to maintain that offensive production for his remaining 57 games he’d finish with 68 goals and 108 points.

Alex Ovechkin

Alex Ovechkin

The offense has weathered injuries to Semin, Knuble, Ovechkin, Flesichmann and Fehr and is still ticking along. Mike Green is the best offensive defenseman in the game. The goaltending has been split so far this year between Varlamov and Theodore but the youngster is slowing winning this battle. Look for Theodore not to be resigned in the off-season. In a perfect world he’d be traded to a desperate team for assets this year, but there’s no one out there that desperate.

Washington is feasting so far (4-0-0) on their divisional opponents and I’d expect that to continue while Pittsburgh fights through the toughest division in hockey. Washington may win the east when all is said and done.

3/New Jersey Devils             
GP: 22    W: 15   L: 6     OT: 1      PTS: 31       WPCT: .705       GF: 61    GA: 49

This is my mystery wrapped in an enigma, all surrounding a winning team.

The New Jersey Devils started the season with one of their few offensively talented players, Patrick Elias, out injured. Their two leading minute defensemen, Paul Martin and Johnny Oduya, are out injured now.

The great Martin Brodeur is 37-year-old and sporting a .921 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average. Jamie Langenbrunner is having another good veteran season that should get him picked for the American Olympic team. Zach Parise is one of the ten best offensive talents in hockey.

New Jersey is second to only Chicago in GAA. I can’t believe this thin aging team can maintain this level of play for an entire year and yet they always seem to.  They have fattened up on the SE so far this year (7-1-0).

I expect them to eventually slow down. Right now they have the best winning percentage in the east playing in the toughest division in hockey.

4/Boston Bruins               
GP: 24   W: 12   L: 8     OT: 4     PTS: 28     WPCT: .583      GF: 59    GA: 59

The Bruins have struggled to regain their spot at the top of the Northeast division.

They lost sniper Phil Kessel for cap reasons last year though they’ve managed to get two ones and a two from a Toronto team that’s threatening to provide the Bruins with a lottery pick. Unfortunately none of those draftees to be can score for the Bruins now. Boston has scored fewer goals then New Jersey and Toronto. They’re ahead of only Carolina in the east.

Tuukka Rask

Tuuka Rask

There isn’t a point a game player left on the Bruins roster and only four players who look like they may score twenty goals this year, barely. An early season injury to Marc Savard has been devastating as well. The goaltending tandem has been better this year then last. Tuuka Rask and Tim Thomas are better then Tim Thomas and Manny Fernandez. No one in this tandem should be burnt out by playoff time, even if Thomas starts in the Olympics for the US. Marc Savard is back from his broken foot.

If the Bruins could find another cheap sniper they’d certainly benefit. I look for the Bruins to eventually win the rather wretched Northeast division.

5/Philadelphia Flyers    
GP: 22    W: 13   L: 8     OT: 1     PTS:  27      WPCT: .614      GF: 75    GA: 60

The Flyers are in among the league leaders in offense (7th) and defense (6th).  

They are a team that has lived through and is living through injuries. Betts and Gagne are currently hurt and Briere is suspended for two games. Ryan Parent and James Van Riemsdyk have missed games. There are six-point a game players in the lineup right now and newcomers Claude Giroux and Matt Carle are almost there. Chris Pronger plays 26:32 a night and is +13. Matt Carle is + 18.  

Philadelphia is giving up a lot of shots against but Ray Emery has been managing to keep up. If he can avoid the mood swings that derailed him in Ottawa and landed him in Russia for a year, this team can go places. Brian Boucher has been a great backup in the four games he’s played in. I think before this season is over Philadelphia will be fighting for first in the east.  

6/Ottawa Senators          
GP: 22   W: 12    L: 7     OT: 3      PTS: 27      WPCT: .614      GF: 67    GA: 65

An unbalanced schedule and weak and strong divisions make it almost impossible to separate the wheat from the chaff in the NHL. Ottawa and Philadelphia are practically statistically identical. When you look at Ottawa though you can see they’ve taken a beating in the Atlantic division and feasted in the Northeast. The Senators have given more goals and scored fewer then the Flyers.

Daniel Alfredsson

Daniel Alfredsson

The loss of Dany Heatley and Spezza’s two goals in twenty games certainly highlights the reduced offense in Canada’s capital. Daniel Alfredsson and Mike Fisher are the offensive studs in Ottawa now. Pascal Leclaire has had a mediocre start to his stay in Ottawa and is now out with a fractured cheekbone. Ottawa is still playing tight defensively limiting opposition chances.

Overall it’s the play in their own division that will keep Ottawa in the hunt for the playoffs. Philadelphia with 27 points is a potential Stanley Cup contender. Ottawa with the same total may sneak in to the playoffs.

7/New York Rangers
GP: 24   W: 13   L: 10    OT: 1      PTS: 27       WPCT:  .563    GF: 74    GA: 66

New York came out of the slips at full speed scoring goals. The injury to Gaborik slowed them down but this New York team will be far ahead of last year’s team, which was the lowest scoring team to make the playoffs.

Without Gaborik this is a frighteningly average offensive team. With him they’re dangerous. Lundquist is having another great year with a .915 save percentage. The young ranger defense has tightened up a bit from last year.

This group will have trouble making the playoffs just because they have 24 games scheduled against Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New Jersey and an improved Islander squad. They’re 1-3-0 so far in the Atlantic. The loss of Drury is not helping this team.

8/Buffalo Sabres
GP: 21   W: 12   L: 7     OT: 2      PTS: 26        WPCT: .619     GF: 54     GA: 52

Buffalo with only 21 games played has games in hand on everybody. They stood pat in the off-season. Their biggest improvement has been the development of Tyler Myers on defense. Ryan Miller is leading the team with a .930 save percentage and a 1.98 GAA. The offense is tied with St Louis as the worst in the league.

Tim Connolly

Tim Connolly

They are up there with Chicago though when it comes to giving up goals. If Miller gets injured like he did last year this team is in trouble. Lalime is a horrible backup and Enroth has been up for one bad game. The offense is led by the brittle Tim Connolly. Tomas Vanek needs to recover his form and help this team score goals because offense is at a premium with this group. Jochen Hecht is providing four points in 21 games for his three point eight million dollars a year. It’s hard to justify that salary.

If Buffalo manages to score a bit more and Miller stays healthy this team should hang on to a playoff spot. Spending a little money on a back-up goalie might be a wise precaution.

9/Atlanta Thrashers
GP: 21    W: 11   L: 7   OT: 3      PTS: 25        WPCT: .595     GF: 73    GA: 61

Atlanta is another team who has only played 21 games but whose offense is much more respectable.

Rich Peverly, Ilya Kovalchuk, Maxim Afinegenov and Nik Antropov are all leading the way as point a game players. Aside from Kovalchuk it’s an unlikely collection of scoring leaders. Afinegenov has rejuvenated his career after practically playing himself out of hockey. Youngsters Evander Kane and Zach Bogosian are making valuable contributions to the team.

Atlanta is giving up the most shots on goal in the league. Ondrej Pavalec so far loves it, with a .923 save percentage and two shutouts. When Kari Lehtonen is back in the line-up and if he plays well Atlanta might trade him for another asset or two.

Atlanta is looking like the class of the rest of the Southeast, behind Washington.

10/Tampa Bay Lightning
GP: 22    W: 9    L: 6    OT: 7     PTS: 25      WPCT: .569     GF: 59      GA: 67

Tampa Bay filled in all their gaping holes on defense from last year. They gave up the third most shots on goal in the league a year ago. This year they’re 8th worst and have taken a full shot a game off their total. This has put them in a position where they can actually evaluate their starting goaltending. Mike Smith does not look like he’s going to be the answer with a .886 save percentage and 3.36 GAA in eleven games. Antero Nittimaki, a good backup goalie, has won the starting job from him and is sporting a .932 save percentage and a 2.19 GAA in front of the same lineup.

Steven Stamkos

Steven Stamkos

Sophomore Stev

en Stamkos leads the offense with 15 goals and 26 points in 22 games. This kid is on pace to score 56 goals. This team needs a goalie of the future and more talented depth on defense and at forward but they are a competitive team now as opposed to last years walkover sieves.   

11/Montreal Canadiens         
GP: 25   W: 12   L: 12    OT: 1       PTS: 25      WPCT: .500      GF: 63    GA: 72

The same way the unbalanced schedule can make teams look better then they are the extra point for a win in overtime or in shoot-out also confuses how good or bad a team is.

Tampa Bay has won two games after regulation and lost seven. A luckier team would have those extra seven points and with 32 points be third in the east rather then tenth. Montreal is 8-1 after regulation. They only have four actual wins in regulation. If they had by chance lost all those overtime games Montreal would have 17 and be tied with Toronto.

This is a much worse team then their mediocre record indicates. They’ve given up nine more goals then they’ve scored and are .500. Andrei Markov, Hall Gill, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta are all out hurt. They’ve given up 31.2 shots per game making them just better then Tampa Bay. Good goaltending from youngsters Halak and Price have helped keep the Habs a point away from a playoff spot.

The luck has to run out soon and when it does this team will sink.

12/ New York Islanders    
GP: 25    W: 9   L: 9     OT: 7      PTS: 25       WPCT: .500    GF: 68    GA: 76

The hiring of two quality veteran goalies has made no end of difference for this team. They still give up a ton of shots but Biron and Roloson can actually stop them. If Rick Dipietro can ever play again one of these goalies could be traded for offensive or defensive help. Dipietro may be ready to practice with the Islanders before December.

John Tavares, the rookie, is leading the team in scoring.  This division is too tough for the Islanders to make much headway with but this is a much better looking team then last years worst in the league by a mile.   

13/Florida Panthers       
GP: 23    W: 10   L: 9    OT: 4      PTS: 24       WPCT: .522      GF: 63     GA: 73

Here’s another team with a record above five hundred who has given up ten more goals then they’ve scored. They’re again among the league leaders in giving up shots on goal. Tomas Vokoun thrives in this shot rich environment. He has a .925 save percentage and three shutouts already this year.

Scott Clemmensen moved over from a much more controlled environment in New Jersey and he’s having lunch eaten every game. He is apparently, no Craig Anderson. Thirty three year old checker Steve Reinprecht is leading the team in scoring with ten goals.

A real veteran offensive center is critical for this outfit. The traded Jokinen basically for Keith Ballard and then picked up playoff star Dennis Seidenberg in the off-season and still the defense stinks. They need to score more or Peter Deboers needs to get a better defensive system in place.

There’s a lot of young talent on this team and one great goalie. If they could just tighten up and get the offense rolling they could go places.

14/Toronto Maple Leafs     
GP: 23     W: 5   L: 11    OT: 7      PTS: 17        WPCT: .370     GF: 61    GA: 85

An order of magnitude worse then any other teams in the league are these last two. Toronto has five wins and one of them was in a shoot-out. The 85 goals against is in a class with only Columbus and Carolina.

Toronto is not giving up the most shots on goal in the league but they are getting some of the worst goaltending in the league. The highly regarded (in Toronto) Jonas Gustavsson has a .900 save percentage. Among goalies who have played at least eight games he ranks 35th out of 44 behind such luminaries as Chris Osgood and Andrew Raycroft.

Tomas Kaberle leads the Toronto offense. Their first two line centers are Matt Stajan and Mikhail Grabovski.  There’s a lot of work to be done in Toronto and it’ll be harder since they’ve traded away this years first and next years first and second pick. This team is not making the playoffs.

15/Carolina Hurricanes

GP: 24    W: 5   L: 14    OT: 5      PTS: 15       WPCT: .313    GF: 55    GA: 86

Carolina is another team that will not make the playoffs. Their 86 goals against is worst in the league and their 55 goals scored is better only than St Louis. A deep playoff run last year has been followed up with a quiet off-season and now injury and ruin.

Cam Ward started poorly and is now out with a cut leg until early December. Eric Staal had missed ten games with injury. The teams top defenseman Joni Pitkanen, Sergei Samsonov and Rod Brindamour have a third of a point a game each and are a combined -40.

This aging lineup has come crashing to a halt and needs to retool with younger players. The Hurricanes need a couple of bad finishes to reload with drafted prospects to play with their core.  Hopefully their fans have the patience for it.

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