The word gang is parity as I write a paragraph about all the teams in the Eastern Conference after I start with the New York Islanders.
7. New York Islanders-Simply put the Islanders have to keep working their way to three goals any way possible and hope the defense by committee gives DiPietro enough of a chance to make his saves while holding down the rebounds. For myself, defense is always about chemistry, not names on the backline. Tampa Bay/Carolina's cup defense is enough to tell me you can win a Stanley Cup without franchise name defenders if you play well as a group. This current group has enough chemistry to make enough plays to hold them in games with their goaltender handling the puck and making his saves.
The powerplay got a five on three goal where the goalie was moved around to where he was out of position, it needs to do this a lot more in games. The setup for Sillinger's goal is where this team needs to work to get it's chances and the kind of play lacking most of the year.
As always a lot of forwards are due for a breakout game but more are having that game now.
Isles got four goals in Calgary against a fast team, Comrie put on a show in Ottawa where Gerber was the only reason Isles did not have five or more goals. It's been better and even though both teams were a bit sluggish in the Isles loss to the Canadians at times and the shot total was low the Isles were working harder than I have seen for a good part of the first half and the story was Montreal's shot blocking. That has to continue for them to have a chance and it's time this club win a few more games for it's goaltender.
I keep writing about how the Isles scoring is down dramatically at the half way point, the goals against were up from last year and plus/minus terrible but the last two weeks has given them one big advantage over last year which is all that matters, the record.
Last year at the end of January this club was only a game over five hundred. Today on January 19th they sit five games over five hundred. Not as good at even strength, terrible power play overall, maybe it is the character doing just enough to make the difference when it matters with a great pk effort but rarely the sixty minute games advertised.
As for the rest of the Eastern Conference, it's getting late early for Tampa and a few other clubs but any team that wins five in a row or goes on a eight wins in ten games stretch is right back in it and all these clubs are capable of doing this at any time. Tampa won huge the other night and have the scoring to beat anyone for a long stretch.
1.Ottawa Senators-Even with Heatley's injury and maybe even Spezza playing below par this is still the best club. Washington beat them four in a row and they simply are not very deep after Mike Fisher up front. Bryan Smolinski, Randy Robitaille are not going to carry them on offense. Both goaltenders are good but also can be streaky and it does not seem a good long-term solution. Redden needs a little help on the backline and you see teams going at him as Mike Comrie did.
2.New Jersey Devils-Are too steady a club with two much upside getting better every game to struggle for long. They outplayed the Isles and lost another close game to Florida but they know how to get points most nights and as soon as they lose four of five and the doubts surface they will throw the switch and start winning. No matter who they lose it seems Lou Lamoriello and David Conte have someone ready who can play. Brent Sutter is only going to become more experienced as an NHL coach and I do not see a repeat of Lou Lamoriello making any coaching changes this time around.
Howie Rose is correct in that it would nice if Brent smiled once in a while.
3.Carolina-Five hundred team that is the second highest scoring club in the East who scored seven goals Friday to break their four game losing streak against Edmonton who next play the Islanders Monday. When this team is skating well they can put up a lot of goals as Islander fans saw first hand earlier this year and you can bet Peter Laviolette has some pressure to win this year after last year's playoff miss. Cam Ward may be a little inconsistent but can also steal games.
4.Montreal-Has the speed, skill and defensive system that forces teams to play their game which has led to a lot of wins and a far better team than projected. This is where they began their falloff a year ago but I do not see that happening again because their goaltending is a year better also with more experience.
5.Pittsburgh-That sound was the Penguins point streak finally ending last night and Sidney Crosby with a high ankle sprain that could keep him out for as much as a month. Ty Conklin stepped in and has been fantastic and carried them so even if they score less I would not expect their goaltending is going to produce points for them but the way they were going before this made them a lock to go down to the final days battling for the division title as they did last year. Now were going to see if this is too much for them to overcome. Crosby's loss is terrible for the league but their defense by committee can and has done enough to win games.
6.Philadelphia-This team had a long losing streak, broke out and just kept winning as Richards looks like a franchise player. Gagne, Upshall, Carter and Knuble with their other players form a solid core. On defense they are a little suspect still but it's a hard working club that knows how to win. Still not sold on Biron as a number one goalie. The physical game and some of the illegal hits they make have to be something you have to be aware of now going into games.
8.Boston-Last time I wrote about the Bruins they had lost about six in a row and were back at five hundred, today they are back at four games over. They lost Bergeron, they have injuries but Savard and Sturm give them enough on offense with Chara and Tim Thomas giving them enough on the back line and in goal. Claude Julien and Peter Chiarelli have done a very good job keeping this group together and they are not the team that folded against the Isles so many times in recent years which I suspect is the case against a lot of clubs and why they are better overall.
9.Rangers-Every game they seem to out shoot the opposition badly and manage to win a low scoring game or lose. The trap they play protects Lundqvist well but he rarely is the busiest goaltender and when it breaks down he does not step up. Not impressed with the overall plan, the decision making or the coaching and in the end Drury and Gomez are doing what they usually did on their former teams but to play Brandon Dubunski as a first line center was just horrible. The veterans are breaking down at this time but that's expected with players like Jagr, Straka and Shanahan. If they find the chemistry they could go weeks without losing in regulation but as much as they have struggled they are still right there and with no franchise defender and my guess is we have not seen their best hockey yet but maybe we never will?
10.Atlanta-One Thrashers team looks like they can score ten goals, the other looks like it could allow ten goals which they did against Buffalo in their last game. The coaching change brought them all the way back to five hundred quickly and now we'll see if the scoring can offset the lack of defense and goaltending at times. This could go either way but what they do not seem to have is an ability to consistently produce points by winning with defense and goaltending which is what you have to have in this league over a full season.
11.Buffalo-They just put up a ten spot on Atlanta and broke their ten game losing streak with several ot losses. Just an inconsistent club overall with a lot of young players looking to find themselves but should be better than it's record. I suspect after that last game they could go on a roll and Miller is used to a heavy workload. Still how can Derek Roy be this teams leading scorer with Afinogenov and what they are paying Vanek combined with Tim Connolly's five goals?
One thing for sure is they have the offensive depth to not go quietly which I suspect will be the case. Glad Isles are done playing them but this could go either way which usually means things meet somewhere in the middle which may not be enough.
12.Florida-This team frankly scares me and not because they beat the Isles but how they have beaten them is what's kept them somewhat in the race unlike other year they were so far behind early and then made a playoff run with no pressure. This year is different and if they go on that kind of run this time I suspect they will be in the race until the final days. Those young players are no longer young and have been though this now enough to where they just may start dominating at the right time and Tomas Vokoun can carry a club. I think the biggest weakness here is the head coach because he does not seem to work well with Olli J which could bring down the club.
13.Washington-Another club that can score in big bunches but is not the same hard working young team they were under Hanlon without the young talent for a few years under no pressure.
They got older in the off-season and started poorly which got the coach fired and now the young players are stepping back up with Semin healthy and Ovechkin just a dominating player who can steal games to go with their other upcoming young stars in Backstrom and Gordon while Mike Green is allowing Tom Poti to just play defense which the Caps struggle with badly. That said going 4-0 against Ottawa where they scored eight goals on the road gives me an indication this team can dominate anyone when they are on their game and we have not seen their best yet. The defense plays better and Kolzig's workload is cut down this club could go on a huge run and make the playoffs with room to spare. Nylander's loss hurts. Isles made the right move on Kozlov with his four goals because he simply does not shoot enough which has always hurt him.
14.Toronto Maple Leafs-If it were not for the constant turmoil in Leafs-land this club has the scoring to get back in the race but frankly I do not see it with so much talk of trading Sundin dominating the games with a gm and coach seemingly on borrowed time and just a lot of bad contracts, poor defense and marginal goaltending at best. No, I do not want Jason Blake back at that price. Leafs want to put him on recall waivers and pay part of his contract for no return even that is a tough proposition with his long term deal and unfortunately his illness. This is the club he would play best for given the Isles need someone to carry the puck but what right or left wing you want to get rid of to make this happen even as a recall waiver?
Isles also have Jon Sim who will play for this club again at some point. For Blake to return Hunter or Satan have to go.
Leafs for me are about two bad weeks from me putting them out of any realistic playoff contention. Maybe that happens and then with the pressure off things change but that's doubtful.
15.Tampa Bay-Have the offense, but not the necessary chemistry on defense, especially with Dan Boyle not in the lineup on a consistent basis, even with Brad Lukowich back in Tampa. Do not see teams taking those long-term contracts to give the Bolts cap space and clearly they do not have the goaltending. I also think John Tortarella's act may have gotten old and maybe their offense is strong enough to carry them into contention but I have serious doubt their defense and goaltending can keep them in contention.
In the end folks, everything changes quickly which is the only thing consistent about this year's playoff race.