Can Joe Thornton finally lead his team to playoff success? (Getty Images)
The Big Story: The Rangers, despite a third period collapse against Toronto on Saturday (New York led 2-0 with eight minutes left, only to give up five goals in 5:20), are off to one of their best starts in franchise history. And they should only get stronger as their players become more familiar with each other; remember, the Blueshirts underwent a lot of turnover in the off-season and had to change their whole identity when Jaromir Jagr left for Russia. It sounds like it’s Chris Drury’s team now – and if you like winning, that’s a good thing.
The Brodeur Story: After 56 consecutive starts (including playoffs), Devils goalie Martin Brodeur is sidelined with an elbow injury. He’s having surgery to repair the distal bicep in his left elbow, which will keep him out of the lineup for three to four months, but there’s no need to tear down the brand-new Prudential Center and start all over. With Kevin Weekes forced to take over the No. 1 role, it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts without a caged Martin. In fact, it’ll be interesting to see how the team reacts, period. (The last time Brodeur played fewer than 70 games was 1996-97, when he played 67.)
The Back Story: The New York Islanders are the early entry draft favorites. The Isles, statistically, are the worst team in the league with a .318 winning percentage (3-7-1). New York is 23rd in goals per game, while starting netminder Rick DiPietro, once again, is battling a hip injury and has watched backup Joey MacDonald play the majority of the games. The Islanders would be in tough – very tough – to come within a sniff of the playoffs with DiPietro in net; without him, it’s April-and-out on the Island.
The Big Story: The Montreal Canadiens were expected to be Stanley Cup contenders in their centennial season and they certainly played that way in October. The Habs went 7-1-1, including 3-0-1 on the road, to serve notice that last year’s breakout was no fluke.
The Buffalo Story: Last season was a lost cause for the Sabres as they failed to reach the post-season after back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference final. Buffalo got off to an awful start last season and never recovered; that’s not the case this year as the Sabres are 8-2-2 and sit atop their division.
The Back Story: The Mats Sundin-less Toronto Maple Leafs were given little chance to do anything this season, so their 5-4-3 record – and energetic and enthusiastic play – has Leaf Nation ready to believe. Whether the young club can continue to play coach Ron Wilson’s revved-up style all season remains to be seen, but the early returns are refreshingly positive.
The Big Story: The Tampa Bay Lightning are the story in the Southeast, from the unorthodox style of new owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie, to the Bolts’ attempt last summer to corner the market on free agent forwards (despite weaknesses in goal and on the blueline, Tampa opted to snap up every UFA forward from Ryan Malone to Gary Roberts to Radim Vrbata), to No. 1 draft pick Steven Stamkos to their inability to score in October. Despite enduring a bumpy first month, Tampa stabilized and got through it all with a 3-3-3 record. Who knows, maybe 15 NHL-caliber forwards and four big-league defensemen is the way to go.
The Bird Story: Woe is the Thrashers. They don’t have a center suitable for Ilya Kovalchuk and the Russian sniper is tired of all the losing. If Atlanta isn’t careful, Kovie might take his 50 goals and move on when he becomes a UFA in the summer of 2010.
The Back Story: As in, Alex Ovechkin is back. After missing two games to return to Russia to be with his ailing grandfather, Ovechkin is back in North America. That’s good news for a Caps team that opened 5-4-1 under coach Bruce Boudreau, the guy who came in last year after the club started 6-14-1 under Glen Hanlon.
The Big Story: The Detroit who? The Red Wing what? Oh…the perpetually division-leading Detroit Red Wings. Yes, they’re doing it again, sitting atop the Central after unfurling their latest Stanley Cup banner a month ago. Their 8-2-2 record includes a 6-1-1 mark on the road and Marian Hossa already has scored some dazzling goals. Yawn.
The Blackhawk Story: Only one win in the Hawks’ first four games cost coach Denis Savard his job, but Chicago has been solid under new bench boss Joel Quenneville (5-1-2) to climb into contention, finally. The Hawks have made the playoffs once in the past decade and own the longest Cup drought; they haven’t won it all since Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita in 1961 (when JFK was president and Barack Obama wasn’t even born).
The Back Story: The Nashville Predators remain the Rodney Dangerfield of the NHL: always a capable team, yet always getting the short shrift. Chasing their fifth straight playoff berth, the Preds – the team that gave Detroit its best challenge in the post-season last spring – are riding a dominant home record (5-1-0) and are the second-best team in the central until Chicago (or St. Louis or Columbus) proves otherwise.
The Big Story: The feeling grows stronger every season that Minnesota can put just about anybody in a Wild uniform and coach Jacques Lemaire will turn them into a player. The sentiment is also growing pretty strong that Marian Gaborik is playing his final season in Minnesota. The Slovak soap opera continues.
The Bertuzzi Story: It might be too soon to call it a rebirth for Calgary Flames winger Todd Bertuzzi, but he’s got seven goals in 12 games (0.58 goals per game) after scoring 59 times in 234 games (0.25 goals per game) over the past four seasons. Of course, the big guy is minus-7, too, so let’s not award the Hart quite yet…
The Back Story: The Canucks are keeping it on an even keel in the early going, with a 2-2-0 mark at home and 4-4-0 on the road for an overall record of 6-6-0.
The Big Story: The Sharks’ 10-2-0 start isn’t surprising given San Jose’s overall skill level and it’s tempting to believe this year, finally, will be the season San Jose breaks out in the playoffs. Right, Joe Thornton? Right.
The Backstopper Story: Stay clear of Marty Turco right now; you don’t want to catch what he’s got. The Stars stopper has a 4.34 goals-against average and a .837 save percentage; those kinds of stats would get you chased out of Tampa Bay, let alone defensive Dallas. Turco started slowly last season, but rounded into superior form and was a playoff star. It ain’t pretty in Texas right now, but it ain’t the Alamo, either. Yet.
The Back Story: The Kings are back at the bottom of the Pacific and likely won’t make it up for air. But with so many talented young players – Anze Kopitar, Alexander Frolov, Patrick O’Sullivan and Drew Doughty, for starters – Los Angeles is a team on the rise…in 2010.
Sam McCaig’s From The Point column appears regularly only on thehockeynews.com. Have a point to make with Sam McCaig? You can reach him at email@example.com.
For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.