Today, Illegal Curve is debuting a new weekly feature on the website. Each week, talented bloggers with team-specific daily blogs will write a short synopsis on the state of the team that they follow. Every week, one of the six NHL divisions will be featured on Illegal Curve, with the cycle continuing in order throughout the remainder of the season.
This week, we are focusing on the Atlantic Division. Teams are appearing in the same order as they currently sit in the standings.
1. New York Rangers–From Dubi of the Blueshirt Bulletin:
Even with a 14-5-2 record that had the Rangers sitting in first place in their division and conference and second place overall in the league at the 20-game mark (albeit with more games played than all other teams), Ranger fans were uncertain what kind of team they really had, unsure where it was going. While a pattern five wins, 1-2-1, four wins, 1-3-1 was certainly preferable to the win one, lose one, win two, lose two starts of the past two seasons that necessitated frenzied playoff runs, there was also a recognition that the netminding of Henrik Lundqvist was the only aspect of the team’s play that could be consistently counted upon.
But even Lundqvist is not enough — he can’t pitch a shutout every night. In addition, the Rangers have to rely on a do or die power play that sometimes wins games and sometimes gives games away — the Rangers have won only three times without benefit of a power play goal, and two of those were by shootout and were in position in every single loss to alter the outcome with a timely power play goal. As inconsistent and frustrating as the power play has been, the timing of their success to date has been clutch, but since that can’t be counted on forever, the special team needs to improve — that will be the difference between winning and winning easily.
The other major influence on Ranger success that has been somewhat inconsistent has been the offensive contribution fron Nikolai Zherdev. Between the opening games in Prague and the shootout win over Boston in Game 20, Zherdev’s record was perfect — the Rangers won every game in which he scored at least one point (including shootout goals) and lost every game in which he was held scoreless.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins–From Derek of the Pensblog:
A lot of people are surprised about the success the Penguins have had early in the season.
This, according to critics, was supposed to be the worst hangover since your freshman year.
All we heard was that the Penguins lost Marian Hossa.
What you didn’t hear, was that the Penguins upgraded every position on their team from last year.
The Pens had Mark Recchi playing up until last Novemeber with Crosby.
Ryan Malone traded success for money, and he has been replaced easily by Ruslan Fedotenko, who started a little slow, but he is starting to see the benefits of playing with the best player in the game Evgeni Malkin.
Matt Cooke is a better player than Jarko Ruutu and he takes less penalties.
Miro Satan is the third leading scorer on the team, and only promises to get better.
Hell, even Mike Zigomanis, who was plucked off of waivers from Phoenix, has been a beast in the faceoff circle, helping the Pens special teams.
If you even need us to tell you about Malkin or Crosby, you’re high.
Jordan Staal has found his game as well, and all of a sudden has 7 goals.
The defense in front of Marc Andre Fleury, another point of concern for critics, has been solid. Little known fact; Rob Scuderi was hired as a secret services agent on weekends because of his shot blocking skill. Rookie Alex Goligoski has been serviceable in replacing Ryan Whitney. Gonchar is still missed, but newly acquired Philippe Boucher could help the powerplay a bit more.
Marc Andre Fleury and his backup Sabu have kept the Penguins in games all season, and are only getting better.
At 11-4-2 the Penguins are off to an incredible start.
We’d all be lucky to have a hangover as good as this.
3. New Jersey Devils–From Chris of the NHL Arena Program:
The strangest things happen at times where you never quite expect it to occur. The Devils were cruising along with some injuries already to guys like Brian Rolston and Bobby Holik….when on November 1st the unthinkable happened. Martin Brodeur tore a tendon in his biceps trying to make one of his usual outstanding saves. The Devils would go on to win that game over Atlanta 6-1 but the season was irrevocably changed. At 6-2-2, it was thought the Devils would be okay. Brodeur might go on the IR and miss 5-10 games tops. Well everyone was wrong.
Brodeur indeed had elbow surgery just five days later and it was announced he would be out 3-4 months. Just to update the big cast is off already as of Saturday but the long road still remains. No one really knows how long Marty will be out. Since then a wave of injuries has occurred leaving 8 Devils out at one point and 5 Lowell Devils (AHL). When players go off for equipment problems, fans worry. That is how bad it got. The bottom did fall out some as the Devils have seen goals and wins hard to come by since Brodeur went on “vacation”. The Devils are 2-5 since the injury, winning 4-3 against Tampa and 6-5 against Washington last night.
While Patrik Elias has been respectable with 13 points, Zach Parise has been the unquestioned offensive leader and possibly leader of this team. Parise has 20 points on the season and I perish to say how the Devils would be without him. Weekes and Clemmensen have been admirable and really defense is where help will be needed if the Devils expect to hold the fort so when Brodeur comes back — they may be able to make the playoffs. If the team does not play more consistent in its next 20-25 games, expect some serious changes in New Jersey.
4. Philadelphia Flyers–From Matt of The 700 Level:
What a difference a game makes.
When the gentlemen from Illegal Curve asked me to say a few words about the state of the Flyers at this juncture of the season, they were coming off of a tough loss in another episode of NHL Shootout Gimmickry. Rather than begin putting this together then, I wanted to wait until after the Flyers had left the Montreal ice surface on Saturday night, because right now, any evaluation of this team must be done on a day-to-day or streak-by-streak basis.
Sure, the overall dope on the Flyers so far is that they have underachieved. They have too much talent to be floundering under or near the .500 mark for this long. But the good news is, there are signs of life. And I’m not just saying that because they beat the Habs in Montreal on Saturday night and followed with another win over Atlanta at home on Sunday, although it certainly helps. The Flyers opened the season by earning three points in their first six games, all losses. Then they won four straight, including back-to-back games against the Devils. Then it was three straight losses. You get the picture.
For much of the season, team defense has been the downside of the story in Philly. With pre-season injuries to Randy Jones and Ryan Parent, as well as the Derien Hatcher situation and the departure of Jason Smith, the Flyers have dressed a makeshift corps at the blue line. This has included significant ice time for 18-year-old 2008 first-rounder Luca Sbisa and an expanded role for project/question mark Steve Eminger. But the goals-against woes couldn’t just be pinned on the defensemen. There has been some shoddy goaltending at times, and according to the GM, the play of many of the forwards has been a one-way street. As a group, they’ve been entirely effective putting points on the board, but they hadn’t previously been doing nearly enough to cut down on rushes and create turnovers. Mired in a hole, GM Paul Holmgren and head coach John Stevens took action.
Homer traded Eminger, whom he’d acquired at the cost of a first-round pick at this year’s draft, and winger Steve Downie, who needs no introduction I’m sure, to that struggling hot mess of a team in Tampa Bay. The deal netted talented young defenseman Matt Carle, who had been underperforming since a breakout rookie campaign. Coach Stevens took the play of his forwards into his own hands, making two very public playing-time moves involving popular players. Joffrey Lupul was momentarily demoted to the fourth line, a move that didn’t even last a whole game, but certainly made the papers and Internets. Next, Scott Hartnell (one of Lupul’s best friends) was benched for the entire third period of a close game during which the Flyers were already short-handed due to injury. Once again, the reason for the benching was voiced publicly by the coach.
This all led up to a tough road swing, during which the Flyers would play the Penguins in the Igloo and the Habs in Montreal. In last season’s playoffs, the Flyers were eliminated by the Pens after sending the Canadiens home early, so the storylines were juicy, and the games were as meaningful as it gets in November. Whatever the outcomes, these were the games that would serve as a barometer for the Flyers’ season. After getting in an early hole against the Penguins, the Flyers stormed back on the strength of two Simon Gagne shorties in the second period, but they let the Pens back into the game on an uncharacteristic turnover by Mike Richards. The game went to a shootout, and we all know what that means for the Flyers. They lost the game, got a sympathy point, and set their sites on Montreal. The Habs owned our boys last season, winning every contest between the two clubs—until they met in the playoffs. Celebrating their centennial and wearing throwbacks, the Bell Centre was electric. But true to form, the chants turned from “Biiironn” to boos directed at their own team once the Flyers got out to a 2-0 lead. Marty played very well, and the Flyers weathered some dirty play by the Habs to keep their composure and add a win to their record. The Flyers then capped the weekend with their 12th straight win over Atlanta.
The strength of this team has been its goal scoring. Entering Sunday night’s game against the Thrashers, Mike Richards was riding an eight-game point streak, which he saw snapped despite the Flyers win. Simon Gagne has 16 points in his last nine, adding a goal and two assists last night. Jeff Carter is among the league leaders in goals with 11. When he’s been healthy, Danny Briere has produced in a big way. Lupul has scored twice since his “demotion,” including an amazing game-winner against the Thrashers. And so far, the team’s unsung hero is Glen Metropolit, who has played a variety of roles effectively.
The future in Philly is uncertain, and more moves are likely. This is not a place where losing or complacency are tolerated, not by the fans, and not by the organ-i-zation. But at least for today, things feel like they’re on the right track.
5. New York Islanders–From Ken of Islanders Outsider:
Forget most of what you’ve read about the Islanders this season. Watch them play. Note that five of their six top defensemen and their #1 goalie have missed a combined 65 games already. Joey MacDonald, with 14 NHL starts before this season, has started 14 of the 18 games. He has been been outstanding (7-6-2, 2.68, .915) filling in for Rick DiPietro. At 4-9-2, the Islanders were not playing nearly as poorly as their record. Now at 7-9-2, they are just starting to get confident—and healthy. Low expectations plus an exciting brand of effective hockey could make for an enjoyable and satisfying season. The Islanders should have 3-4 more wins at this point, and they seem determined to make up for their lapses.
You’re about to ask what I’m smoking if I think this team can be any better than 28th overall. So I’ll point out that there are problems. The team still seems to always pay full price for miscues in its own end—whether the bill comes right away or four passes later. It also has the maddening habit of not clearing the puck completely when given the opportunity to relieve pressure (see those four blown multi-goal, third-period leads). And top to bottom, the individual offensive talent does not compare to most teams, leading to an inconsistent power play that puts extra pressure on the defense and goaltending. Kids like Jeff Tambellini and Kyle Okposo are finding other ways to contribute, but they’ll need to generate more offense.
This is not the first time that the Islanders have tried to find a way to win without a wealth of gifted players. They finally have the right coach to lead such an effort. Instead of hoping that creativity somehow materializes, Scott Gordon’s Islanders create scoring chances with a relentless forecheck, by throwing the puck on net as often as possible, and by making quick decisions with the puck at full speed. The challenge for the Islanders is to sustain their high-intensity pressure for 60 minutes a night, and for 64 more games. But the veterans have bought into Gordon’s style—they just need to survive its rigors. Garth Snow is looking sharp for offering long deals to players like Mark Streit, Trent Hunter, and Frans Nielsen. And, yes, that is Doug Weight with 16 points in 18 games. For now, Islanders fans can relish the possibility that this team is nourishing the future while remaining entertaining and competitive in the present.
Illegal Curve wants to thank the above bloggers for taking the time to write their pieces for our first State of the Division post. If you haven’t already, take a look at their respective blogs. All of them are extremely well done and informative.