Thursday, March 7, 2013

NHL 2013: The Truncated Season at its Midpoint

Nobody is catching Jonathan Toews and the Blackhawks.
It's about that time for me to compose some thoughts on the current NHL season and its combatants. My hockey fanhood seems to peak each year right around the midpoint of the schedule, slowly trailing off into the spring as baseball begins and the combo of stretch-run NBA, NHL, and a fresh baseball season becomes too much for me to keep up with all at once.

For now, I'm intensely following the lockout-shortened 2013 NHL season and greatly enjoying it. The condensed 48-game schedule has teams only playing opponents from the same conference and lots of games going on virtually every single night. This feels like the way it should always be. Both the NHL and NBA (and MLB, for that matter) badly need to shorten their regular season schedules but with massive amounts of TV revenue flowing in, that's just not going to happen.

Since we're dealing with a relatively small sampling of games (just a handful of teams have reached the 24-game halfway mark at this point), I'll try to keep this short.

Eastern Conference
The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins remain the class of the conference. Both are wonderful to watch for different reasons.
The Bruins tend to do this a lot. (photo via Boston Herald)

The Bruins, while maintaining a steady perch as an elite team, are unquestionably dirty and rough bastards, hypocritical in their constant bitching while unceasing in their unacceptable below-the-belt style violence (Jon Stewart, of all people, was compelled to explore this thoroughly). Their willingness to engage in dirty play and physically crush opponents to a pulp combined with an impenetrable defensive style and puck-moving artistry makes them a perfect heel for hockey lovers. Tough to respect them, but hockey needs teams like this.

Their main competition in the East, as far as I see it, are the Penguins. In direct contrast to the Bruins' grittiness, Pittsburgh is a team of finesse puckhandlers who can score at will. Currently leading the NHL in scoring, they've got a deep lineup of skill players which, if healthy, can match up with any team in the sport. They're led by the combo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin combo which is akin to LeBron and Dwayne Wade in the NBA; a seemingly unstoppable scoring force. If they can get some consistent goaltending, I expect the Penguins to be battling (against the Blackhawks) for the Cup this year.

The rest of the East shapes out like this:

Both Toronto and Montreal are off to a great start but I don't trust either team to keep it up. The Canadiens, as I write this, are actually 1st in the Eastern Conference but I expect them to drop to the middle of the pack by season's end. Their best players are all defensemen (Andrei Markov, P.K. Subban, Raphael Diaz) plus a great goaltender in Carey Price. The East is undoubtedly a defense-first kind of conference but I don't think the Habs have quite enough offense to hang on top.

The Maple Leafs, currently 5th in the East, are having their best season in almost ten years. Led by dynamic 22-year-old forward Nazem Kadri (the first ever Muslim player drafted into the NHL) this a very young team and they can score. They've got two young unproven goalies splitting time in net and a tough defensive corps. Like most teams in the East, they also love to fight (currently #1 in the NHL in fights). I expect them to make the playoffs for the first time in forever, but their questionable goaltending poses a problem.

My favorite team is and has always been the New York Rangers and they are a massive disappointment thus far for the usual reasons (not enough scoring). The talent is definitely there up front with both Marian Gaborik and Rick Nash but this team doesn't look anything like the tough and disciplined Blueshirts from last year. They're starting to win some games now but haven't instilled much confidence in fans.

The Devils and Flyers, I'm not afraid to admit, are teams I really enjoy watching this year. But the Devils are currently in freefall mode with stalwart netminder Martin Brodeur injured and the Flyers are also porous in net, leaving them outside the playoff picture for now. Nevertheless, I'd be shocked if these two teams don't elbow their way into the middle of the pack by season's end.

I have high hopes for this year's Carolina Hurricanes squad as they've got three forwards I love to watch in Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Alex Semin. They're comfortably leading a weak division but just lost their goalie Cam Ward for a while and the 20-year-old superstar Skinner is an injury risk as he's already had an alarming number of concussions in his young career.

I can't leave out the Ottawa Senators who, despite losing their two best players (Jason Spezza and Erik Karlsson) for the season, somehow remain competitive. They were staying afloat mainly due to the MVP-caliber performance of goalie Craig Anderson but then even he fell to injury. They're starting to sink a bit but still lead the league in shots per game which is enough to convince me they can remain competitive no matter who they put out there. I don't know how they do it. Maybe it's the magical powers of their coach's magnificent mustache.

They probably won't sniff the playoffs but I must mention the Tampa Bay Lightning's performance this year. They've allowed the third-most goals in hockey, yet they've also scored more goals than anyone except the Penguins. Steven Stamkos' scoring ability (34 points in 23 games) simply defies logic and rookie sensation Cory Conacher has been fun to watch but they can't find anyone who can play goalie. Who cares? Their imbalanced ineptitude is lots of fun and the coach has a hilarious face.

Western Conference
Newsflash: the Chicago Blackhawks are unbeatable. After 24 games they haven't been beaten yet, only skating off without a victory after losing a few shootouts (for which they still gained a point). They've got the best goals scored/goals allowed differential of anybody in hockey and it's not even close (they're at +32, next closest is Anaheim at +17). Nobody is touching them.

The depth of their scoring talent is unfathomable. To back that up they've got a collection of defensive stalwarts who can handle the puck and, oh yeah, their netminders have allowed the fewest goals in the league. The story for the rest of the NHL season will be "Can anybody beat the Blackhawks?"

One of my favorite things to watch thus far in this truncated season has been the battles among the league's three California teams. The Ducks, Sharks, and Kings have always provided entertaining games but now with the condensed inter-conference-only schedule, we get to see them duke it out at least once a week or so.

The Sharks started off on fire, winning their first 7 games before suddenly losing 10 of their next 12. Their problem is exemplified by the playing style of center Joe Thornton whose overly deliberate and laidback puckhandling slows things down too much. When he wakes up, he's an extremely talented playmaker. This team's offense tends to fall asleep for long periods but they've got great goaltending and a strong defensive corps so you can never quite count them out.

The Anaheim Ducks started out on fire even without getting much contribution from their stars. Now that their unique trio of tall, talented, right-handed-shooting forwards Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Bobby Ryan are starting to get in their groove this looks like a very strong team. With defenseman Sheldon Souray wielding his missile-launcher slapshot at the point and a duo of talented goaltenders, this Ducks are one of the few threats to the Blackhawks' dominance.

California's other team is, of course, the defending Stanley Cup champion LA Kings. They tend to remind me of the Rangers in that they've got a superstar goalie, tough defensive unit, and a bunch of talented forwards who can't seem to score. Right now the scorers are doing their thing, though, and the Kings have won 8 of 10. There's such a wealth of young talent here that it's hard to imagine them not being in the thick of things when the playoffs are underway.

Most of the teams in the West are all bunched up with similar records but I identify only three other serious contenders. The Vancouver Canucks have uncharacteristically floated around mediocrity for much of the year but with two great goaltenders, a deep defensive corps and the Sedin twins doing stuff like this on offense, they will always pose a threat in the West. The St. Louis Blues are an extremely boring team in every way, but they're also disciplined and well-coached. If they can keep goalie Jaroslav Halak healthy then they'll be in the mix.

Despite an unspectacular record thus far (11-8-4, 6th in the West), the team I've enjoyed watching the most this year has been the Detroit Red Wings. A paragon of team-building, they remind me of the San Antonio Spurs or St. Louis Cardinals in that they've been consistently excellent from year-to-year over more than a decade despite losing key players and not having wads of cash to throw around (like the Yankees). Hell, they don't even ever get a high draft pick since they're always so good and yet somehow they continue to find great players. They're playing without Nicklas Lidstrom for the first time since the early-90s and their two key players (Zetterberg and Datsyuk) are on the wrong side of 30 but the team still looks great on the ice. Goaltender Jimmy Howard has turned into a star, giving the Wings great netminding for the first time since Dominick Hasek was around, and they somehow found dug up a highly-skilled young Swiss player named Damien Brunner from a Swiss league and signed him for virtually nothing. Plus, the aging stars aren't showing any signs of slowing down.

The veteran Wings have always been the main rival to the young Blackhawks and I'll be hoping for many more tight battles between these two before the season is over.

But, seriously, nobody is fucking with the Blackhawks.

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