Friday, February 13, 2009

Your 2009 Mid-Season Hockey Report: Eastern Conference, Northeast Division

Today we'll have a look at how things have fared a hair beyond the midway point in the National Hockey League's Northeast Division. This group of clubs is largely Canadian, and therefore, largely boring, but there are a few tidbits worth mentioning. The skaters from Beantown are in first place, but we'll run the mill of these teams in reverse order today, since we're fly like that in the mix-it-up way of things. For your largely misinformed peek into this currently strongest Eastern Conference assortment of teams, jump the wall and join us out on the ice.

Bringing up the bottom end of things are the Ottawa Senators, which is unfortunate in that the Sens have made the post-season with strong playoff runs in most every season since the lockout. This is not to say that they can't squeak in this year, and their recent three-game win streak obviously helps, but they still have their work cut out for them. As usual Daniel Alfredsson leads the team in points, and Dany Heatley is right there with him. The offense has also seen help from center Jason Spezza, and defenseman Filip Kuba has contributed with a noteworthy 26 assists. Like many of the clubs we examined yesterday, however, the Ottawa defense hasn't impressed many, making goaltending a difficult job. One-time key netminder Martin Gerber has only seen action in 14 contests, leaving Alex Auld with the bulk of the starts, though his 9-13 record leaves little to be desired.

In fourth are the Toronto Maple Leafs. To date, they only have a two-point edge over the Sens, and that's largely due to the play of left wing Jason Blake and center Nik Antropov. Centers Dominic Moore and Matt Stajan are having solid seasons too, and in fact, a significant amount of their first three lines are generating points. The Leafs defense is a hair stronger than average, while their goaltending is barely reaping the benefits. The aged Curtis Joseph has seen some action in the crease, but most of the starts have gone to Vesa Toskala, who currently sits at 18-17, with an .882 save percentage, a number that's pretty low given that he's let 152 pucks by him.

Third place in the Northeast is where the point distance begins. The Buffalo Sabres sit 12 points ahead of Toronto, and if the season ended today, they'd be the eight seed. Left wing Thomas Vanek and center Derek Roy are both having strong campaigns, combining for 102 points between them. The Sabres are also getting results from some of their lower lines, and some strong numbers from their defense as well. This almost always makes for stronger performances from goalies, and this is certainly the case with Ryan Miller, who, at 26-14, boasts a .919 save percentage.

One more notch up are the Canadiens of Montreal. They've only got a two-point edge on Buffalo, but they've got a more well-spread point production across their roster, and their plus/minus ratio is significantly less staggered from positions one through 18. The Habs may very well be a dark horse in this year's post-season, and they've gotten solid play from both netminders thus far. Carey Price has gotten the nod for 35 of their tilts, and he's come away with 18 wins, while Jaroslav Halak has won 11 of 22. This roster has a near-ideal mix of veteran players and youth, something that could position them to peak at just the right moment. And, hey, if you dig them, you can follow them on Twitter. Woo-hoo!

Then there's Boston. Take everything that's gone well for Montreal and multiply it by two. The Bruins are an astounding 21 points ahead of their second-place division rivals, and the production from this club is spread like room-temperature butter on a hot dinner roll. Big man Zdeno Chara continues to anchor the defense, and his 12 goals and 20 assists support that claim. The play of their centers, though, is the real story. Marc Savard, Dave Krejci, and Philip Kessel have combined for 64 goals and 99 assists, and there's nothing that can replace consistent production from three of your four lines. Even fourth-liner Patrice Bergeron has lit the lamp 4 times and tallied 17 helpers. Their defense, even beyond Chara, is nails, and that of course, translates to the guys in net. Tuukku Rask has played in one contest and won. Manny Fernandez is the second man, and he's 14-3, which leaves the main guy, Tim Thomas, who sits at a sizzling 24-6, having only given up 76 goals while riding the wave of a .930 save percentage. Season after season, the Bruins squeak into the playoffs. They seldom make it beyond round one, and when they do, they're usually a breeze to knock out of the second. This, however, is the Eastern team to fear come April.

That's your report for today. Check back on Monday, and we'll examine the Southeast.