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NHL Midseason Assessment – Eastern Conference

  • Post Author
    by Sports director
  • Post Date
    Fri Feb 04 2022

Author: Sam Gemini

MADISON – This herky-jerky COVID-19-interrupted NHL season has slowly sputtered to All-Star weekend in Las Vegas. Let's step back from the turmoil and assess the situation around the league.

Atlantic Division

Flordia Panthers

We begin our discussion with the most riveting division of the four. The electrifying Florida Panthers sit atop this East Coast grouping of teams with a 32-10-5 record. This fearsome squad in Sunrise, Florida is best described by one word: fast. It is exhilarating to watch this team race up and down the ice, and the Panthers' talent combined with their style of play has put them in a tie for the highest-scoring offense in the NHL at 4.09 goals per game.

There is so much to love about this Florida team; Finnish captain Aleksander Barkov, one of the elite two-way centers in the game with 40 points in 34 games played, is the frontrunner to win the Selke Trophy (given to the forward with the strongest defensive abilities) for the second straight season. Jonathan Huberdeau has become one of the best players in the world, sitting first in the league in points with 64 and Aaron Ekblad fulfills one of the most important roles on a team with championship aspirations as a dynamic defenseman with a time-on-ice average of 25:16 per game.

The Panthers are nearly unbeatable at home with a record of 23-3 in their barn; they are currently enjoying an eight-game home winning streak during which they have won by an average of 3.88 goals per game and scored an average of 6.25 goals-per-game – craziness!

Tampa Bay Lightning

Despite the numerous outstanding qualities possessed by the Cats, they are not the most feared team in the Atlantic. The repeat defending-champion Tampa Bay Lightning have made themselves impossible to pick against. Captain Steven Stamkos has been able to stay healthy and is having one of his best seasons as a pro, currently top ten in the NHL with 52 points. Swedish defenseman Victor Hedman is a freak of nature; at six feet, six inches and 241 pounds, he is as mobile as an antelope and has tallied a remarkable 47 points (tied for first among defensemen).

Two days ago, the Bolts dropped to third in the Atlantic, but they had been able to hold second place for the majority of the season despite being without Nikita Kucherov until his recent return from injury; voted MVP in 2018-19 for his remarkable 128-point season and the Lightning's all-time leader in postseason points, Russia-native Kucherov is arguably Tampa Bay's best player.

The Lightning have proven with flying colors that they can be trusted come spring as they have won the last two Stanley Cups. The reason for this is versatility, this Lightning team can be successful in any style of play. If the opponent wants to lace ‘em up and fly up and down the ice in a track meet, the Bolts will rev up the engines and match the pace; if the opposition likes to clog the neutral zone and play a grinding game, Tampa Bay can get gritty and rely on clutch goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, the man in net for both Cups in the Lightning's repeat.

Florida has not shown the same ability to adapt to a style of play, and the cursed Toronto Maple Leafs (the second-place holders in the Atlantic and without a Cup since 1967) are too thin defensively. The question of who will emerge from the Atlantic division in the playoffs is possibly the most intriguing one of this season; we will wait with the hope of a clash for the ages between the Florida coastlines in May.

Metropolitan Division

The other fascinating division from the East boasts the strongest collection of teams from top to bottom of any NHL division. Most of the high seeds aren't as stacked as the two Florida monsters discussed in the previous section, but every team in the Metro is competitive.

At the top reside the 31-9-2 Carolina Hurricanes, the least-talked-about elite team in the league with the best record in the Eastern Conference. Carolina does not have the flash of Florida or Tampa Bay, but it is formidable in its own right. The roster is filled from top to bottom with gritty work-horses who are willing to go to the dirty areas. Players like Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Vincent Trocheck are just three of the phenomenal two-way forwards in the lineup. The Hurricanes do not have the ridiculous pure talent of the Lightning, but they make up for it with tremendous depth and great fundamentals.

The Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers have been jockeying back and forth in the standings for weeks and will likely continue to do so until the final day of the regular season.

The story for Washington is the same as it's been for each of the past fifteen years: Alex Ovechkin. At age 36, this remarkable all-time great has not lost even an ounce of goal-scoring ability. He currently sits third in the NHL in goals and fifth in points, with 29 of the former and 58 of the latter. Unfortunately, this would-be captain of the Metro's All-Star team will be unable to play this weekend after testing positive for COVID-19. The Capitals' concern comes in net; Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have been splitting the work this season, and neither has emerged as the clear starter. The Caps will certainly have high interest in acquiring future-hall-of-fame goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury from Chicago as the trade deadline draws closer.

The Penguins are likely the most complete team of this trio, with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin healthy once again and goaltender Tristan Jarry making the Metropolitan All-Star team. Of his many accomplishments, the most impressive of Sid's career is undoubtedly the back-to-back Conn Smythe Trophies (given to the MVP of the Stanley Cup Playoffs) in 2016 and 2017. Only two other players have accomplished this feat in the 56-year history of the award: Bernie Parent of the Philadelphia Flyers in 1974 and '75; and Mario Lemieux in 1991 and '92 with Pittsburgh. As long as Crosby is wearing the black and gold, the Pens are never to be counted out.

The New York Rangers are an intriguing story. This sparkling big brand has sprung back into relevance thanks to great luck in the draft lottery and the hire of outstanding head coach Gerard Gallant. With the help of NHL goal-leader Chris Kreider (33 goals), elite goaltender Igor Shesterkin (.937 save percentage, best among starters), and defending Norris Trophy winner and co-points-leader among defensemen Adam Fox (47 points), this historic Original-Six franchise has brought championship hopes back to Madison Square Garden.

TAGS

AARON EKBLAD ADAM FOX ALEKSANDER BARKOV ALEX OVECHKIN ALL-STAR ANDREI SVECHNIKOV ANDREI VASILEVSKIY ATLANTIC DIVISION BERNIE PARENT CAROLINA HURRICANES CHRIS KREIDER EVGENI MALKIN FLORIDA PANTHERS GERARD GALLANT IGOR SHESTERKIN ILYA SAMSONOV JONATHAN HUBERDEAU MARC-ANDRE FLEURY MARIO LEMIEUX METROPOLITAN DIVISION NEW YORK RANGERS NFL NIKITA KUCHEROV PHILADELPHIA FLYERS PITTSBURGH PENGUINS SAM GEMINI SEBASTIAN AHO SIDNEY CROSBY STANLEY CUP STEVEN STAMKOS TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS TRISTAN JARRY VICTOR HEDMAN VINCENT TROCHECK VITEK VANECEK WASHINGTON CAPITALS

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