It can be argued that the three biggest surprise teams this season all reside in the East.
While the Nashville Predators have been impressive, they did make the playoffs in 2003-04 (and pushed the mighty Red Wings to six games), so their success this season isn’t so much surprising as it is another step in their progression.
In the East, though, big things were not expected of Buffalo (34-15-3), Carolina (38-12-4) and certainly not the virtually star-less New York Rangers (32-15-8).
Who knew Jaromir Jagr was the only star the Blueshirts would need? (With no disrespect to rookie soon-to-be-stars Henrik Lundqvist and Petr Prucha – although, Prucha is out for a month after a recent knee injury.) Fifty-five games into the regular season, the Rangers sit atop the Atlantic Division, one point ahead of the pre-season darling Philadelphia Flyers.
In Buffalo, the Sabres continue to build on their hot start. And that’s despite the long-term loss of center Daniel Briere, a top-flight offensive player who was having his best season before going down with an abdominal injury. And center Tim Connolly, too, who appeared to have shaken off the concussion symptoms that stalled his career the past few seasonsÂ…but then Darius Kasparaitis (of the RangersÂ…hmmm) delivered a hip check to the knee that delivered Connolly to the sidelines until March.
Yet, the Sabres continue to swerve and skate and score and win, thanks to the likes of forwards Ales Kotalik, Chris Drury, Maxim Afinogenov and rookie Thomas Vanek, as well as rookie goalie Ryan Miller.
Miller, as most NHL watchers are aware, is the best U.S.-born goalie in the NHL this season. But he missed out on being named to Team USA because he missed nearly two months with a broken thumb.
He was named to the team’s three-man taxi squad – the reserves who will step in if someone gets injured – but he’s staying in North America during the Olympics. He’ll only go to Turin if one of Rick DiPietro, Robert Esche or John Grahame goes down.
Finally, the fine play of Carolina. Start the story with sophomore Eric Staal’s breakout season, and certainly mention linemate Erik Cole’s high-flying contributions. And Cory Stillman, the third member of the unit, is doing his just-putting-up-points thing. Martin Gerber and Cam Ward, perhaps the most underappreciated goaltending tandem in the league, are simply winning game after game after game.
Calgary, in first place in the highly competitive Northwest Division with a 31-17-7 record, has scored only six more goals than it has allowed (147-141). That’s the worst plus-minus in the division; Edmonton is just ahead of Calgary at plus-13 (183-170), while the last-place Minnesota Wild is plus-18 (162-144). Colorado, in fourth place, has the best plus-minus in the Northwest: plus-22 (199-177). Second-place Vancouver is plus-21 (192-171).
The Pittsburgh Penguins are 1-14-2 in their past 17 games.
The lone victory? It came against the team that everybody thought would be the worst this season, the Washington Ovechkins, er, Capitals.
Crosby’s Pens crushed Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals 8-1 in the second matchup between the two rookie sensations this season Jan. 25.
Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the Penguins lost all 10 preceding games – no overtime points, no shootout points, no nuthin’ – and then lost their next six games – although, yes, they did manage two points thanks to a pair of shootout losses to the nightmarish New York Islanders.
Pittsburgh has 12 wins in 56 games, but thanks to a league-leading 11 points from overtime and shootout losses, the 30th-place Pens trail the St. Louis Blues (also known as the Peoria Rivermen of St. Louis) by only one point.
Top draft prospect Phil Kessel is quaking in his skates. And maybe Erik Johnson, too. (Johnson, a Team USA defenseman at the 2006 World Junior Championship, actually overtook Kessel in the latest mid-season draft rankings.)
The Detroit Red Wings are close to a special special-teams accomplishment.
The veteran-laden Wings are first in the NHL in power play efficiency (24.4 per cent) and second in penalty killing (86.5 per cent).
Ottawa and Buffalo, at 21.0 per cent, are tied for second on the power play, while Jacques Lemaire’s Minnesota Wild are the best at killing penalties (88.8 per cent).
At the other end, Washington is 29th on the power play (13.8 per cent) and 27th in penalty killing (79.2 per cent).
The Los Angeles Kings, meanwhile, are seventh in the West with a very respectable 30-21-5 record – despite being 25th on the power play (15.2 per cent) and 26th in penalty killing (79.3 per cent).
Here’s hoping the Stanley Cup final is better officiated than the Super Bowl wasÂ…