Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Sabres will be hard to catch in the East
By Scott Burnside
New Jersey Devils
Remember all the doom and gloom surrounding Lou Lamoriello's Devils at the start of the season? Neither do the Devils, who surged into the break on a 7-1-2 run to boast the second-best record in the conference behind Buffalo. Goalie Martin Brodeur appears poised to become the first netminder to capture the Hart Trophy since Jose Theodore in 2002. Strangely, only last-place Philadelphia has scored fewer goals in the conference.
First-half surprises: The play of Brodeur, who simply does not take a night off (he has played all but 150 minutes through the Devils' first 48 games). The overall team defense -- the Devils have allowed a conference-low 111 goals despite dramatic personnel changes over the past two seasons.
Second-half questions: Can Brodeur maintain this pace and still have anything left in the tank for the playoffs? Will Lamoriello produce one of his patented small deals that pay big postseason dividends, perhaps adding a veteran scorer?
Where they'll finish: The Devils will not swoon. They'll capture their seventh Atlantic Division title in 10 seasons and the No. 2 seed in the conference.
No one knows where the Penguins might call home next season, but everyone knows this team is anything but aimless. The Pens will continue to make mistakes, as all young teams do, but a 6-2-2 run into the break has them in the East's final playoff spot with a handful of games in hand. Sidney Crosby seems unaffected by the pressure of being the NHL's scoring leader (72 points in 43 games) at the tender age of 19.
First-half surprises: The evolution of Marc-Andre Fleury as a No. 1 netminder and the superlative play of Crosby and Russian rookie-of-the-year-in-waiting Evgeni Malkin.
Second-half questions: Will rookie GM Ray Shero be tempted to swap some of his youth for another veteran forward in the hopes of maintaining a playoff spot?
Where they'll finish: The longer the Penguins stay in it, the more confidence they'll gain. That will carry them to second place in the weak Atlantic and the final playoff berth in the East.
New York Rangers
A team that gutted out victory after victory through the first two-thirds of last season seems to have lost its way this season even though, on paper, the Blueshirts should be better with the addition of Brendan Shanahan, Matt Cullen and Aaron Ward. Even with netminder Henrik Lundqvist regaining his elite form of a year ago, the Rangers' lack of offensive depth continues to be an albatross.
First-half surprises: Plagued by injuries, Cullen has just nine goals at the break after playing an important role in the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup run last season with a career-best 25 goals. Shanahan has 24 goals at the break, but his last even-strength goal was Dec. 9.
Second-half questions: Can GM Glen Sather find some secondary scoring before the trade deadline? Will the All-Star break give Jaromir Jagr enough rest to carry the Rangers into the postseason?
Where they'll finish: Lacking depth, especially up front, the Rangers fall just short with a third-place finish in the division and a ninth-place finish in the conference.
New York Islanders
The Islanders played the role of Cinderella for the season's first few months, but they are 3-6-1 in their last 10 games heading into the break. Even with Alexei Yashin back in the lineup (he missed time with a knee injury), the Isles have been plagued by inconsistency. Luckily for them, so have most of the teams in the East.
First-half surprises: Jason Blake is enjoying a breakout season with 24 goals and should be wearing the captain's "C." Yashin has just one goal in the past 15 games after a strong start and was benched earlier this month by coach Ted Nolan.
Second-half questions: Can Yashin get back on track and keep the Isles in the playoff hunt? Will rookie GM Garth Snow be a buyer or a seller come trade deadline time?
Where they'll finish: Although Nolan gets much-deserved credit for restoring a sense of purpose to an aimless squad, the Islanders fall to fourth in the division and 13th in the conference.
Who knew things would go so bad so quickly in Philly? Not Ken Hitchcock, who was canned early on, and not GM Bob Clarke, who resigned in despair (he was later rehired in an upper-management role). The aftermath hasn't been any prettier as the Flyers hit the break with an NHL-low 27 points.
First-half surprises: Where to start? How about a talented offensive squad managing only a league-low 114 goals? Or the inability of Peter Forsberg to resolve ongoing foot/groin issues? Or the stunted development of Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who have five goals between them?
Second-half questions: What will GM Paul Holmgren do with Forsberg, who has a no-trade clause but could become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season? Will one-time goalie of the future Robert Esche be on the move before the trade deadline?
Where they'll finish: What you see is what you get. Dead last in the division, dead last in the conference, dead last in the league.
True, the Sabres did hit a bit of a wobble, winning just twice in their last six games, but they remain the cream of the conference and will give the Predators, Sharks and Ducks a run for the Presidents' Trophy. Lindy Ruff continues to prove he is one of the finest coaches in the game with his exciting, deep squad. Comparisons to the old Edmonton Oilers aren't all that far off as the Sabres have scored a league-high 185 goals and boast the league's best road record.
First-half-surprises: The Sabres have four players (Jason Pominville, Thomas Vanek, Chris Drury and Maxim Afinogenov) with 20 or more goals, and team points leader Daniel Briere has 18. Vanek, used sparingly at times as a rookie, quickly has evolved into a dangerous two-way player (he is plus-26).
Second-half questions: Will GM Darcy Regier finally move backup netminder Martin Biron, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent this summer?
Where they'll finish: The Sabres will continue to roll down the stretch, winning the division in a walk and earning the East's top seed.
The Habs got two much-needed wins to close out the pre-break schedule, but those wins don't erase the doubts raised by a stretch that saw them lose six of eight in January. Rookie coach Guy Carbonneau has tinkered with his lines and benched underachievers like Sergei Samsonov. Still, this is a good, balanced team that, with a key addition, could go on a long run come April.
First-half surprises: The play of Sheldon Souray, whose 16 goals are tops among defensemen, and the emergence of netminder Cristobal Huet as a bona fide NHL starter (only Brodeur has a better save percentage than Huet's .922 mark).
Second-half questions: Can Carbonneau get any more out of Samsonov, who has scored goals in just two of the past 38 games? Can GM Bob Gainey find some secondary scoring, specifically help at center, by the trade deadline?
Where they'll finish: The Habs slip behind the Senators to third in the division and fifth in the conference.
The Senators stumbled through the first two-plus months of the season, looking very much like a team in decline. But under the leadership of captain Daniel Alfredsson and the continued offensive presence of Dany Heatley (he's tied for third in NHL scoring with 65 points), Ottawa rolls into the break having gained points in 12 of its last 14 games. The Sens are a point behind the Habs in what looks to be a battle for home ice in the first round.
First-half surprises: The woeful play of netminder Martin Gerber (3.15 GAA and .895 save percentage) and the injury-plagued campaign of defenseman Wade Redden.
Second-half questions: GM John Muckler added offensive depth in the form of Mike Comrie, but does he have room to add some veteran toughness? How will Jason Spezza respond when he returns from injury? There is a school of thought that it wasn't coincidence that the Sens' turnaround took place when Spezza went out of the lineup.
Where they'll finish: The Sens prove doubters wrong by raising the bar down the stretch, finishing second in the division and fourth in the conference.
There are a lot of things to like about the Bruins, from Phil Kessel to Patrice Bergeron to Tim Thomas to Marc Savard. But they are still a team that lacks identity and cohesion, or at least enough of both to get into the playoffs. Boston has won just three times in its past 11 games, but it hits the break just two points out of eighth in the East.
First-half surprises: Kessel's return from testicular cancer and the continued offensive production of Savard, whose 62 points put him seventh in league scoring. The Bruins boast the fourth-best power play in the league.
Second-half questions: Can Bergeron, who has two goals in his past 11 games, get back on track? Where does defenseman Brad Stuart land?
Where they'll finish: The Bruins will be close (but no cigar), finishing fourth in the division and 10th in the conference.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs are like Forrest Gump's chocolates -- you never know what you're going to get. Last week, they beat Tampa and Florida on the road, then got blown out 8-2 by Pittsburgh heading into the break. Go figure. The Leafs have won just six of their last 15 heading into the break. Although they are tied for the eighth and final playoff spot, their inconsistency doesn't bode well down the stretch.
First-half surprises: The early emergence of Kyle Wellwood as one of the league's finest young playmakers (he's been out for a month with a troublesome hip problem) and the inability of Andrew Raycroft to deliver consistent performances in goal.
Second-half questions: Can beleaguered GM John Ferguson add some help up front to keep the Leafs in the hunt? What do they do with the team's leading goal scorer, Darcy Tucker? He is set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season and would be coveted by many teams down the stretch.
Where they'll finish: The lack of solid goaltending and some injuries (especially to Wellwood, who makes the power play tick) cost the Leafs. They finish fifth in the division and 11th in the conference, out of the playoffs for the second straight season.
The Thrashers own the second-best road record in the NHL and are well on their way to not only their first playoff berth but also their first division crown. Although they've been treading water with a 4-4-2 record heading into the break, the Thrashers still boast a six-point bulge over similarly inconsistent Carolina. Kari Lehtonen has shown he is the real deal in goal, and Marian Hossa is putting together an MVP-type season (63 points, plus-9 from perhaps the best two-way player in the game).
Biggest first-half surprise: The lack of production from Ilya Kovalchuk (just 11 power-play goals after leading the league last season), and the quiet but crucial leadership of Slava Kozlov, who is on a point-a-game pace.
Second-half questions: Will GM Don Waddell find someone to play center to take the pressure off Bobby Holik and Steve Rucchin? Will coach Bob Hartley find someone to quarterback a power play that curiously ranks 19th in the league?
Where they'll finish: The Thrashers win the division and begin their first playoff run with the third seed in the East.
It's tough enough being defending Stanley Cup champs, let alone trying to do it with your entire defensive corps on the gimp. Still, this is a team chockablock with leadership and depth, and the Canes seem to be slowly rounding into playoff form.
First-half surprises: The drop-off in production from Eric Staal (42 points, minus-8) and the continued renaissance of captain Rod Brind'Amour (52 points). Ray Whitney is the team's surprise scoring leader with 53 points.
Second-half questions: Can Frank Kaberle, out all season with a shoulder injury, get back to the form that made him so important during the Hurricanes' Cup run? Can Cory Stillman, who missed most of the first half recovering from shoulder surgery, jump-start Staal down the stretch?
Where they'll finish: The Hurricanes will drop to second in the division and sixth in the conference.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Just when it looked as if you could stick a fork in Tampa coach John Tortorella and the 2004 Cup winners, the Bolts have turned a big corner. They hit the break seventh in the conference after an 8-2 roll. Vaclav Prospal, the subject of many trade rumors, is starting to return to form as a point-a-game guy, and Brad Richards likewise is returning to elite form after a listless first half.
First-half surprises: The poor play of Marc Denis, followed by a mini-renaissance from the former Columbus netminder before the break. Dan Boyle's emergence as one of the best puck-moving defensemen in the game.
Second-half question: Can Tortorella continue to get solid netminding from his Denis/Johan Holmqvist tandem? Can GM Jay Feaster add a blue-line piece to ensure the Bolts' return to the playoffs? Can the Bolts improve on their 30th-ranked penalty kill?
Where they'll finish: The Bolts return to the postseason for the fourth straight time, finishing third in the division and seventh in the conference.
Capitals coach Glen Hanlon once again is showing he might be one of the most underrated coaches in the game, having guided his team to a 20-21-7 record at the break. The Caps are just three points out of the eighth spot, but rank 13th overall as injuries and a lack of talent are starting to eat away at the hardworking squad.
First-half surprises: The emergence of former Senators defender Brian Pothier as a top-notch leader (he is averaging 24:59 in ice time) and the play of enigmatic Alexander Semin (27 goals, 47 points), who is taking some pressure off Alexander Ovechkin.
Second-half questions: Will ownership free up cash to bring in some offensive help before the trade deadline? Will anyone in the perpetually half-empty Verizon Center notice?
Where they'll finish: It won't be for lack of effort, but the talent-thin Caps won't have quite enough and will end up fourth in the division and 12th in the jam-packed East.
This is as curious a franchise as there is in the league. Every time you want to dismiss the Panthers, they put together enough impressive outings to stay in the shadows of the playoff race. And so it is that the Panthers hit the break just four points out of eighth place. The problem for them (among others) is that they have played more games (50) than any of the teams they're chasing for a playoff berth.
First-half surprises: The surprising play of Ed Belfour (11-9-5, 2.62 GAA), whose career looked over after last season in Toronto, and the equally disappointing play of Alex Auld (7-13-6, .890 save percentage), who aspired to be Roberto Luongo's long-term replacement in South Florida. The Panthers have the eighth-best power play in the league.
Second-half questions: Will GM/coach Jacques Martin sell off bits of the Panthers machine, including Todd Bertuzzi (assuming his surgically repaired back allows him to return to action), Gary Roberts, Jozef Stumpel or Belfour?
Where they'll finish: The Panthers will fade into the distance, finishing fifth in the division and 14th in the conference.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.