Today, in From the Pressbox:
We see that some of the clubs that were expected to be at or near the top of the standings are each making a push as we enter the second half of the season. On the flip side, one other team is weathering a horrible injury list to remain competitive.
The Defending Champs have gotten their act together
Through much of the first half of this short season, the Los Angeles Kings were floundering through their schedule but this was almost universally recognized as a Stanley Cup hangover. It was expected that they would eventually refocus and be ready to defend their title.
Well, it appears that time has come.
The Kings are suddenly up to fourth place in the Western Conference on the strength of an 8-2 streak in their last 10 games.
The key to this resurgence is an offense that has produced 38 goals in that span, while continuing to limit opponents, allowing only 23 goals against. Jeff Carter paces the offensive spike, with seven goals in his last eight games. Carter is now two goals behind Steven Stamkos, for the goal-scoring lead in the NHL. Similarly, Anze Kopitar has gone on a nice run to reach 22 points in 23 games and more recently, Dustin Brown appears to be coming out of a long funk, with four points in his last four games.
On defense, no one personifies the recent success like Drew Doughty who had a (-10) rating through their first 15 games, but has been a (+9) over his last nine outings. They have gotten a tremendous boost from second-year man Slava Voynov, who has paced club blueliners with 17 points and a (+11) rating, while averaging 22 minutes of ice time per game. The Kings are also getting yeoman work out of another young blueliner as Jake Muzzin has steppe into another opening on the back end, producing 10 points and a (+11) in 21 games played.
Of course, the Kings still rely heavily on goalie Jonathan Quick, who has lowered has GAA to a very respectable 2.46 per game.
They may also be in an enviable position as the trade deadline approaches because they have Jonathan Bernier as their backup goalie and he has long been a sought-after commodity, which may finally be moved in order to further strengthen this roster.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are on a roll
When this season began, many pundits, myself included, expected the Pens to be the beasts of the East. Through 26 games, they have an 18-8 mark, which makes them the class of the deep Atlantic Division and only two points out of the conference lead.
The biggest question here had to be the long-term health of Sidney Crosby because the Pens Captain had been plagued by injury woes in his last two seasons. Suffice it to say that no one is still expressing those concerns because Sid the Kid has 45 points in 26 games, which is good for an eight point advantage over his nearest rival.
His linemates, James Neal and Chris Kunitz, have each scored 17 goals to rank among the league leaders and make this trio easily the top scoring line in hockey. A second strong scoring line was firmly in place as long as their other resident superstar, Evgeni Malkin was in the lineup. Malkin has 24 points in 21 games but is currently expected to miss the next two weeks with an upper body injury.
Pascal Dupuis, who has shed the image of a string checking but low-scoring depth forward, in the past year and a half, continues to provide significant secondary scoring, with 11 goals and 17 points, even though he no longer plays alongside Crosby. He and Brandon Sutter (11 points) will be counted on to fill any shortfall during Malkin's absence.
On defense, Kris Letang, another star player, is coming off an injury-riddled campaign to lead all blueliners with 26 points and a solid (+10) rating. He's also a workhorse who is playing more than 26 minutes per game. A surprising, but positive development is the improved play of Paul Martin, who was roundly criticized for his underwhelming play last season. He is enjoying an offensive rebirth with 17 points to date, proving more depth to the scoring depth of the Penguins.
If there is a lingering concern with this team it remains in goaltending despite the fact that veteran Tomas Vokoun was brought in to spell starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who was coming off a poor playoff performance last year.
They have combined for a 2.92 GAA, which is only 21st in the NHL. The Pens will not make a change here, so they are clearing banking on a different level of play in this post-season.
The Minnesota Wild are have quickly risen in the West
Minnesota made the biggest splash in the off-season when they signed Zach Parise and Ryan Suter and were expected to become a much more dynamic and significant club in the Western Conference.
That profile remained a dream through much of this early season, but the Wild is 7-3 in their last 10 games and are now leading the Northwest Division and third in the Conference standings.
Parise (19 points) and Suter (18 points) have chipped in their share to the offensive production here as they rank second and third respectively, behind Mikko Koivu (20 points). A telling statistic, symptomatic of earlier team struggles is the fact that none of these top scorers has a favorable plus/minus rating to date.
The trickle down effect that was anticipated with the off-season acquisitions has not really materialized to ignite this ordinary offense. Outside of Dany Heatley, who has eight goals and 13 points to date, no other Wild player has scored at least six goals this far.
On the entire season the Wild have only outscored their opponents 58-55, to continue their image as a low-scoring team that continues to win more close games than they will lose, but the perception of an improved offense is approaching reality as they have scored 29 goals in their last 10 games played.
That is coupled with the superb goaltending of veteran Nicklas Backstrom, who is again among the league leaders with his 2.30 GAA and .914 save percentage.
The Ottawa Senators are surprising everyone by staying competitive
If you took away any club's leading scorer, top defenseman and top goalie, for much of this season, you wouldn't expect them to be a contender for a playoff spot. That's what the Senators have managed to do despite the fact that Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson have been out with a variety of long-range impairments.
Much of the credit for their current state of affairs for the sixth ranked club in the East (13-8-5) goes to coach Paul McLean and GM Bryan Murray. The second year coach of the Sens won this assignment because of the combination of his playing experience and his ability to communicate and having a group of players truly buy into his system of play.
That system of strong forechecking and attention to detail on defense has kept this club on a competitive level, largely on the basis of their league-leading 1.96 GAA and the best winning record on home ice (9-1-3).
That average has risen only marginally in the last nine games as the inexperienced tandem of Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner have combined to give up only 20 goals in that stretch.
That ability to keep opposing scoring totals down has also take pressure off this offensively challenged club which needs to only score two or three goals per game to continue their roll.
That's the only way a club with its leading scorer totaling only 14 points (Kyle Turris) has to be taken seriously as a potential playoff-caliber team.
A pack of energetic young forwards including Colin Greening, Kyle Turris and Zack Smith have combined with veterans Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Mihalek to execute Coach McLean's system to perfection.
In Karlsson's absence, the defense has rallied around veterans Sergei Gonchar, Chris Phillips and Marc Methot in their successful nightly effort to hold the fort.
The club will get goalie Anderson back in the next two weeks and should have Spezza back in the lineup before the end of the regular season, which means that they are likely to be an unexpected participant in the playoffs-an achievement that no one could have forecast with the number of significant injuries they have overcome to date.
Clearly the Sens have had a much different profile from the other expected, successful teams we have highlighted this week.
That's why teams play the games. You just never know how things might turn out.
It's also important to note that these teams have reached their lofty heights at this stage because history shows, that unless the bottom falls out completely, they will all be in the playoff tournament at the end of the regular season.
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).