1) We're nearly 4 weeks into the new NHL season and as always this time of year there are some surprises. Some on the positive side and some on the negative side of the ledger. Before getting into them we of course need to remind our readers that this is a long season. Most teams have played only 7-8 games thus far. Also we have to say that in almost every instance, be it positive or negative the key underlying factor seems to be Goatending. To paraphrase James Carville: Its the goaltending, Stupid!
2) Positive Surprises:
- NY Rangers- Many didn't even see the Blue Shirts as a playoff contender, let alone a Cup challenging team. It may be premature to say they are ready to challenge the Pens for the Cup, but as we wrote in our preseason assessment (where we DID see the Rangers making the playoffs) the key is Lundqvist. With an impressive 6-1 record with an anemic GAA of 2.30 and save % of .927, The King is a big reason the boys from Broadway are where they are. Have to also mention Gaborik and the kid defense. We have never been big Gabby fans, but when he is healthy is one of the more dangerous snipers in the game. Can he stay that way, and can the likes of Del Zotto play this well all season?
- Colorado Avalanche- Did we say is goaltending stupid? It certainly applies in spades(sorry Rev. Sharpton) in Denver where Craig Anderson is playing lights out to say the least. With a GAA of 2.06 and save % .934 its no wonder the Avalanche are 6-1-2 after 9 games. No slap at Peter Budaj, but when a team has a goalie playing as well as Anderson is currently, it has a carry over confidence that makes a team all that more tough to play. Few (including us) thought the Avs would be anything more than West doormats this season. We are thus far happy to be proven wrong. Can Anderson, who has yet to be a true #1 play that way for 60+ games?
- Phoenix Coyotes- Another very pleasant surprise. While we (unlike many) saw the team as being better than a bottom feeder, we didn't see them as being a playoff calibre team just yet. Never underestimate having a real coach. Tippett is a HUGE upgrade over Gretzky who, when the rubber hit the road, showed himself to be all about the money. (best-news-in-phoenix-so-far-this-year) Also to go along with our theme, Ilya Bryzgalov is having a great start in net. His stats 5-1, a GAA an incredible 1.14 and save % of .953 would make him an early Vezina candidate. A bit early for that kind of talk, but so far so good in what we believe will be the last season of hockey in the desert.
- Buffalo Sabres- Like the Rangers, many prognosticators didn't see the Sabres as a playoff club. We thought differently, with Ryan Miller being the reason. Last season the team took a big hit when Ryan was lost for a significant chunk of the season and the Sabres missed the post season by a hair. So far Buffalo is playing well, but Miller has been unconsciously good. His stats? Only 5-0 with a GAA of 1.66 and a save % of .942. Along with Bryzgalov an early Vezina candidate. Like the other above listed teams, their success will continue as long as Miller continues to play this well. Ladies and gentlemen, your USA Olympic starter!
3) Enough of the good, now for the negative. teams that thus far have been playing significantly below expectations.
- Boston- With expectations of a President's Trophy anything less than a hot start would be considered a problem. Hardly out of it at 4-4 after 8, but even when they have won it has been brutal at times. Almost losing at home to the lowly Islanders for instance. Thus far their Vezina winner Tim Thomas hasn't exactly played that way with a very ordinary/poor GAA of 3.00 and save % a shade over .900. With injuries to Savard and Lucic the B's will have to tighten up its defense considerably to win consistently.
- Detroit- Surprised? We aren't. With a few goals lost to free agency the Wings are having to rely more heavily on its defense and goaltending. When your top net minder is Chris Osgood and his GAA of 3.21 and save % of .886 you may have to reconsider your thoughts on making the Red Wings a favourite to repeat as Western Conference champs this season. Its only been 7 games but if they think they will make hay with a PK of 75% Mike Babcock will be for a long season. They probably have enough talent to make up for the listed deficiency, but not enough in our opinion to be considered an elite team
- Vancouver- Many had the Canucks as their regular season West winners. So it was a surprise to see them floundering a bit after their first 9 games with a 4-5 record. More surprising is to see newly signed goalie for life/captain Roberto Luongo has yet to earn the big bucks. With very UN-Luongo stats of 3.07/.881 the Caunucks have looked like a middle tier team and not a supposed elite West team. It is still early with plenty of time to turn things around, but the early trends have to be disturbing to folks in BC
- Carolina: A Final Four team last spring, many (including us) saw the Canes as possibly able to compete with the Capitals for the SE division. So far its been anything but a solid early season in Raleigh. Unlike the other teams above, it hasn't been the goaltending that has been the problem. Playoff hero Cam Ward and his new big contract has played well enough to win on most nights, but with a mere 18 goals in 8 games and a PP operating at 11% its been the offense that has let down the Hurricanes. WE think its too early to panic, but Staal and co. better get their act together soon.
4) As we mention (and a frequent poster here Vlad the Impaler) used to say its all about goaltending. The early trends for the above listed 8 teams seems to show (with the exception of Carolina) that this axiom holds true. Its also, as we mentioned, very early. Certainly too early to expect these trends will hold for the full season. Time will tell. We for that reason hold off on publishing a Power Rankings post until teams have played at least 15-20 games. Look for that post (to be done by FR2) to be out sometime in mid November.
As always, keep it here for all the latest