By Ryan Boyd, Featured Writer
With the break in NHL action today for the holiday, it is the perfect time to unveil the first quarterly discussion and predictions of the 2011-2012 season.
So, just for fun, let’s pretend the season ended today and take a look at our playoff scenarios and hand out awards to the most outstanding players.
NHL Playoff Picture (As of 10/24)
1. Minnesota Wild (13-5-3)
The Wild seem to be lined up to go as far as their goaltending will take them. Thus far, the combination of Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding has been unbeatable as each are giving up less than two goals per contest. Minnesota is an astounding 10-2-0 in its last 12 games.
2. San Jose Sharks (13-5-1)
Despite having played only 19 games (lowest total in the conference), the Sharks are right back near the top and on a roll. San Jose began the year 1-3-0, but has completely turned the tide with a current 12-2-1 stretch. The dynamic duo of centers, Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski (49 combined points), are largely responsible for the remarkable play.
3. Chicago Blackhawks (12-7-3)
Consistency issues on the defensive end are to blame for the current standing of the Blackhawks, who could easily be at the top of the conference. Chicago has already faced two three-game losing streaks in which they gave up at least 14 total goals and will need to improve if they hope to make a playoff run.
4. Dallas Stars (13-8-0)
Other than a disastrous five game losing skid in which it was outscored 21-4, Dallas has been arguably the best team in the conference to this point. Interestingly, the success has come because of consistent mediocrity in many of the major statistical categories. The Stars ranks 19th in goals per game, 16th in goals allowed, 15th in power play efficiency and 17th on the penalty kill.
5. Los Angeles Kings (11-7-4)
Los Angeles has fallen just short of 1st place in the Pacific Division because of an inability to win many close games. In fact, the Kings have only won six of the 12 games in which the score has been decided by one goal. However, if they can increase their offensive efficiency, they could be scary come playoff time.
6. Detroit Red Wings (12-7-1)
Although sixth place certainly is not preferable, it is no surprise that the Red Wings once again find themselves in position to qualify for the postseason. Detroit has excelled for the majority of the season but (similar to Dallas) faced a difficult six-game winless streak which was an obvious momentum stopper in late October.
7. Phoenix Coyotes (11-6-3)
Phoenix is the fourth team from the Pacific Division who would qualify for the playoffs if the season ended today. The Coyotes are paced by six different players with at least 10 points recorded and a stout defensive effort by netminder Mike Smith (9-3-3, 2.16 GAA).
8. St. Louis Blues (11-8-2)
For St. Louis, it has been all about the addition of new head coach Ken Hitchcock. He adopted a struggling Blues team who has since changed their fortunes with a 5-1-2 record. Goalie Brian Elliott is highly responsible for the success as he leads the NHL in goals against and save percentage.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins (12-6-4)
If Pittsburgh wasn’t already talented enough, both Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby are finally back in the lineup and making their presence felt. Malkin has recorded 18 points in his 15 games on the ice while Crosby already has four through only a couple contests. Needless to say, the Penguins should be scary come playoff time.
2. Florida Panthers (12-6-3)
Folks, I assure you this isn’t a typo. The Florida Panthers are not only leading the Southeast Division, but they are also just one point behind Pittsburgh for the top spot in the east. Florida has shown an increased urgency on the offensive end led by right winger Kris Versteeg. Versteeg has 26 points, which is only 11 behind his total from 2010-2011.
3. Boston Bruins (13-7-0)
Well, just when it appeared there would be chaos in Boston, the Bruins have righted the ship in a big way. Since starting 3-7-0, Boston has won 10 consecutive contests and now possess the second best offense and defense in the NHL. This staggering improvement has many believing that the Bruins are playing for a championship yet again.
4. Philadelphia Flyers (12-6-3)
Philadelphia is one of the more intriguing teams in the NHL so far this season. Offensively, they are almost unstoppable. In fact, the Flyers have 11 players with at least 10 points led by Claude Giroux (27 points) and rank first in the league averaging nearly four goals each outing. However, the 21st ranked defense has been a major limitation early in the year for a squad that should compete for the cup.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs (12-8-2)
It is all about Phil Kessel in Toronto. His 30 points in 22 games is the best mark in the league and an absolutely essential part of the Maple Leafs success on a nightly basis. But for Toronto to make a run they will need to get better defensively; especially on the penalty kill. Opponents are scoring on nearly 25 percent of their power play chances, including twice in their last two games.
6. Washington Capitals (12-7-1)
The Capitals simply haven’t been the same since starting the season 7-0-0. They have faced three losing streaks of at least two games, and have given up three or more goals in nine of their 11 contests in November. The struggles have been further compounded by the play of all-star Alex Ovechkin. He is on pace to have his worst season statistically by 19 points.
7. Buffalo Sabres (12-8-1)
I have said it before, and I’ll say it again now: Buffalo will emerge as a top contender in the Eastern Conference when the regular season comes to a close. The Sabres are very good on the power play and on the penalty kill and have the luxury of an outstanding goaltender in Ryan Miller.
8. New York Rangers (10-5-3)
After a difficult seven game road trip to open the season, the Rangers were a disappointing 3-2-2. Since then, New York has been significantly better led by the solid play between the pipes by Henrik Lundqvist (7-4-3, 2.12 GAA).
NHL Awards Predictions
Hart Memorial Trophy (MVP)
Phil Kessel, Right Wing, Toronto Maple Leafs
Truthfully, this isn’t a tough choice through one quarter of the season. Phil Kessel has been unbelievably essential to the success of the Maple Leafs thus far in many facets of the game. For starters, Kessel is undeniable in his pursuit of the net. He leads the NHL in points (30), goals scored (16) and shots taken (77). However, he is also very willing to assist open teammates, which is highlighted by his 14 helpers (13th in NHL). Perhaps even more important than those statistics is Kessel’s ability to convert in the clutch. In fact, he has scored the game winning goal in 25 percent of Toronto victories (3 of 12 wins). This number may be the most indicative of the level of talent that Kessel possesses. Through 22 games, it would be difficult to vote for many other players over him as the most valuable on a team.
Vezina Trophy (Top Goaltender)
Tim Thomas, Goalie, Boston Bruins
Although this is a tough award to hand out right now, it looks as if Tim Thomas could be winning it for the third time in the past four seasons. Thomas has been a crucial piece of the current Bruin ten game winning streak that included a clutch victory in Buffalo Wednesday night. He has an impressive 10-4-0 record that has been build by a string of seven consecutive wins. Also, Thomas is third in the NHL in both save percentage (93.6 percent) and goals allowed per contest (1.85) and is first in shutouts with three. Obviously there is a lot of hockey to be played, but you certainly cannot go wrong picking this guy for the award once again.
Jack Adams Award (Top Coach)
Kevin Dineen, Head Coach, Florida Panthers
What an unbelievable turnaround through 21 games in Florida. Last season, the Panthers missed the playoffs for the tenth consecutive year and finished dead last in the Eastern Conference with 72 points. However, with Kevin Dineen running the show, Florida has leaped to second place in the conference – only one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins. The Panthers have also significantly improved in the vast majority of major statistical categories. This includes jumping from 27th to 8th in goals scored per game, and from 14th to 11 in goals allowed. I am very intrigued by the Southeast Division leaders.
Calder Memorial Trophy (Top Rookie)
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Center, Edmonton Oilers
Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was selected first overall in the 2011 NHL Draft for a reason; this kid can flat out play. Despite being an 18-year-old, Nugent-Hopkins has picked up 22 points in 21 games, which is 12th in the league and seven more than any other rookie. He has benefitted heavily by the amount of production that is required by himself and the other young players that the Oilers possess. At this current pace, Nugent-Hopkins would finish the year with an astounding 86 points which is 23 more than Jeff Skinner (last years award winner) finished with.