Today, in From the Pressbox:
Original Six teams are currently atop the respective Conference standings - Chicago in the West and Montreal in the East. How are they doing it? We will look at each case. The Bruins are right up there in the East, despite playing far fewer games than most opponents. We check them out, too.
Are the Canadiens legitimate leaders in the East?
If you have been a regular reader of this column, you will recall that I had the Canadiens penciled in for last place in the East this season. Looking at a host of other predictions, I had a lot of company with that call. Well, as we approach the end of February, the Habs are the biggest surprise in the whole league as they sit at the top of the East with a gaudy 12-4-3 record.
A big reason for this success is the fact that the Canadiens have played 12 of their 19 games at home, where they have compiled an 8-3-1 mark, in the Bell Centre, which still has a mystique that is envied by most visiting teams. Their knowledgeable fan base helps to create one of the most unique home ice advantages in the NHL.
On the ice, the team has rallied behind goalie Carey Price, who is continuing his growth toward being regarded as one of the elite goalies in the game. He has a 10-3-2 record and has posted career bests in goals against average (1.90) and save percentage (.925) through his 15 appearances thus far. His play reflects a new sense of maturity that gives Montreal an edge in goal versus most of their opponents, on a nightly basis.
His teammates probably feel a bit more freedom to try more risky plays, knowing that an untimely error is going to be salvaged by their MVP in the nets.
When you break down the offense, you are really left to wonder about the secret of Montreal's success. The top line features their leading scorers, Max Pacioretty (14 pts) and Tomas Plekanec (13 pts) alongside Captain Brian Gionta, who has only registered eight points. The second line is built around the diminutive David Desharnais (10 pts), who centers veterans Erik Cole (6 pts) and Brendan Prust (5 pts). Rene Bourque (10 pts) is enjoying his spot on a third line with rookies Alex Galchenyuk (12 pts) and Brendan Gallagher (8 pts) - trio that has provided significant (also unexpected) secondary scoring.
On defense, veteran Andrei Markov, coming off an injury plagued season has rebounded nicely with five goals and six assists, but it is unheralded Rafael Diaz, who is pacing the points race among this rearguard with 13 points. Off-season holdout, P K Subban, the expected lynchpin on defense, is slowly rounding into form (3 g, 5 a, in 13 games) and will be expected to emerge as a team leader in the second half of this season.
If there is a knock on the Habs, it is a lack of overall size and team toughness that I still expect to cost them and knock them from this lofty perch, particularly when the greater percentage of their remaining games will be on the road, where they should face more unfavorable line matchups.
Chicago off to a record-setting start
The Western Conference leading Blackhawks are much less of a surprise in top spot, but they have yet to taste defeat in regulation time trough their 19 games played (16-0-3).
This was a rock-solid roster with great depth among the forwards and the defense, with the only pre-season question mark in goal, where Carey Crawford and Ray Emery were only expected to be a middle-of-the-pack tandem, as neither of them is rated as a top-10 goalie in the league. No doubt they are benefitting from backstopping such a potent team, but they have certainly help up more than their end of the responsibility by combining for a 1.74 G A A and a .935 save percentage.
As noted, veterans Patrick Kane, (24 pts), Jonathan Toews (15 pts), Marian Hossa (15 pts) and Patrick Sharp (15 pts) have delivered superb consistency and leadership, which has taken pressure away from the secondary scorers, like Viktor Stalberg and Dave Bolland (5 goals each) to fall in line and play without the burden of being the go-to guys.
The biggest asset of this roster may well be the top six players in the defense rotation, a group that has equal parts of offensive and defensive strengths, in this experienced crew.
If there is one standout from the defense it would have to be Duncan Keith (11 points), who is the quarterback of the potent power play and who can play tough as nails on the defensive side of the puck as well. With the exception of Niklas Hjalmarsson (4 pts), each of the other defenders has chipped in at least seven points to aid the balanced offensive attack.
The Hawks recently welcomed Daniel Carcillo back into the lineup and that will only add more toughness to a roster that has already proven to be more than any team could handle this far.
With all of these positive elements the Hawks have already carved out an eight-point lead in the race for the regular season Conference title and they may soon be impossible to catch.
Bruins biding their time
The Boston Bruins were a consensus choice to be among the leaders in the East, but they are a tough team to get a good read on because they played at least two (and up to five) fewer games than all of the other top teams in the standings.
Still there are some telltale signs that this is a very formidable foe. Consider that they own a 7-1-1 record on the road and you begin to see that this is a team brimming with confidence and swagger that is very likely justified.
From top to bottom they are a team blessed with equal parts of skill, speed and toughness - a club that has no perceptible weakness at this point.
Through their comparatively small sample of 15 games played, eight Bruins have scored at least three goals, with stylish center David Krejci pacing the scoring parade with 14 points. Pesky Brad Marchand leads the club with nine goals and is starting to resemble a young Bobby Clarke, a player you would lover as a teammate, but absolutely detest as an opponent.
Tyler Seguin, a highly touted young gun, has only three goals (one was an empty-netter) and much more is expected of him. However, most of those expectations come from outside the Bruins organization. They can afford to be patient with him, as long as other players like Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton and Patrice Bergeron are around to share the offensive burden.
Any discussion of the Bruins' defense begins with big Zdeno Chara (3 g, 5a, +5) who is once again playing at his usual high (no pun intended) level. He has taken rookie blueliner Dougie Hamilton (1 g, 7 a) under his wing and allows this top prospect to play without fear and become acclimatized to the big leagues in a most comfortable atmosphere.
Nobody really talks about the Bruins team toughness anymore, largely because few opponents challenge the likes of Chara, Lucic and Shawn Thornton, who have established themselves as three of the best fighters in the league.
In goal, young Tuukka Rask has quickly warmed up to the responsibility of being a capable number one goalie as he has posted a sparkling 1.97 GAA and an equally impressive .925 save percentage to help Bruin fans forget about the strange departure of Tim Thomas.
No team would admit it, but few teams would look forward to a playoff series against this team.
Still, with a larger number of games remaining, than all of their peers, the possibility of injuries cropping up in the condensed schedule may be the only element that brings Boston back to the pack.
Speaking of Injuries
Some high-end players are coming back or going on the injury list and we look at some of those cases and their impact.
Scott Hartnell - the heart and soul of the hardnosed Flyers is back in action after recovering from a broken foot and Philly really needs to respond to his return after floundering through much of this first half season.
Rick Nash - the Rangers have had a different look about them in the three games that the big winger has missed. They resemble the Rangers clubs of recent years that have had to scratch and claw for goals, instead of the sometimes over whelming squad that has bottled up opponents when Nash was healthy. There is no word about his possible return.
Evgeni Malkin - One of the best forwards in the league went out with concussion-like symptoms and there is no timetable for his return in Pittsburgh. The entire sport is a big loser when a talent such as this is forced to the sidelines and everyone hopes for his speedy recovery
Joffrey Lupul, Matt Frattin, Jake Gardiner and James Reimer - These four players, all pegged to be part of a resurgence in Toronto are currently out of the Leafs lineup, which makes Toronto's 12-8 record all the more surprising. However, they are all nearing a return to active duty, which bodes well for the Leafs.
Paul Bruno has been writing about the fantasy sports scene for several years and is an accredited member of the sports media in Toronto for over 20 years. You are invited to send your feedback and you can follow him on Twitter (statsman22).