A week isn't always enough time to tell you which of the preseason favorites has a real shot at winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but it can be enough time to tell you which preseason favorite might not. This season several top contenders have exploded out of the gate (Boston, Chicago, San Jose), but others that we thought would be there right to the end have struggled early on.
Which of these teams are over their issues? Which of them still have reasons to be worried? Here is my take on which struggling contenders have righted the ship and which have tough sailing ahead.
This is a team that really looked like it was having some problems after it lost to New Jersey last week to give it three straight regulation losses to open the season, but I think they're on the way back now. Yes, Scott Hartnell is out for an extended period, and so is Andrej Meszaros. And yes, I know they lost to Tampa Bay on Sunday night, 5-1. But this team also just got Danny Briere back and if you look at Saturday night when the Flyers beat the Florida Panthers 7-1, you'll see that the guys they were counting on to score started putting the puck in the net. Guys like Matt Read, Sean Couturier -- the young players the Flyers got so much out of last year. They had to start scoring and we saw that on Saturday.
Now, I don't think this is a team that's going to get in a groove and rip off 10 in a row. Just look at Sunday. But I do think they'll go through a stretch where they win two games and then lose one, or win three and then lose two. I don't think they're a team that will take off because of their injuries, but they are clearly a good team and I think they're certainly a playoff team. Another big reason to be positive is that Briere's return gives Claude Giroux someone to play on a line with that can finish. With the work ethic and talent they have on their team I think the Flyers are through the worst part of their slump.
The Rangers were having a slow start just like the Flyers, but they, too, look like they're back -- and their comeback win Saturday night against the Toronto Maple Leafs is a good example of why. This was a good game for the Rangers to win because it wasn't easy. They came from behind and they were probably in a bit of a fragile mental state after trailing early because the team was already 1-3.
That they won isn't as important as how they did it, though. The Rangers grinded it out, played their kind of hockey and gave Toronto absolutely nothing. The Maple Leafs had hardly any offense in that game after scoring their first two goals, and the big names for the Rangers showed up. Marian Gaborik had two goals, Brad Richards had two points and Rick Nash was strong and had two assists. After their early blips, their defensive game was very good. I just thought it was a very good New York Rangers win. John Tortorella will look at the last two periods of that game on the video and be very happy with how they played.
The Capitals are the team whose fans should probably be most worried. Washington finally won yesterday against the Sabres -- the Caps were the last team in the League to get a win this season -- but I still don't like the way they're playing. The Capitals' win Sunday came after a game against the New Jersey Devils in which they rallied to score two goals in the third period to force overtime, but if you watched that game you knew the only reason they got back into it was because the Devils took five penalties in six minutes, giving Washington two long two-man advantages. The Capitals just don't know what type of team they are. Are they an offensive team? Certainly not by the numbers, not by watching them. Nicklas Backstrom isn't playing that well, Alex Ovechkin was almost nonexistent until his first goal Sunday, Mike Ribeiro hasn't added much to the team since they also lost Alexander Semin this offseason, and all of that is a shame since the goaltending has been decent. Michal Neuvirth was awesome against New Jersey and got the win against Buffalo on Sunday.
In general, though, they just don't look like a good team. They're not doing anything well and none of their best players look like they're in sync. Don't forget, head coach Adam Oates has never been in this situation before. He's never been a head coach at any level, so he's learning on the job, too. If this team loses a few more games soon, if we look at them after 10 games and see a team that's 2-8, the wheels might really fall off. Guys will start quitting or doubting themselves mentally, and it's just a really tough time for a coach. If that happens, GM George McPhee might have to wonder if after years of not tinkering with their nucleus, it might be time to make a major move.
Nashville has struggled like these other teams, but they've got a double whammy because they've spent so much time on the road, too. The Predators started the season with two at home, and only got two points out of it and no wins, and then headed out on a seven-game road trip which has put them behind the eight ball. What's really grabbed my attention, though, is that Nashville has blown multiple leads this season. They had leads of 1-0 and 2-1 against the Anaheim Ducks Saturday and blew them both. That just isn't the Nashville hockey we're used to seeing. This is a team that is supposed to take a lead and from that point on the game is over. That hasn't been the case this season.
You also need to look at the fact that Nashville has a history of losing talented players in free agency or through trades. In the past they've lost guys like Dan Hamhuis, Marek Zidlicky, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell -- so many good players have left Nashville and gone to other teams, but the Predators have managed to survive. That may not be the case with Ryan Suter. Roman Josi has played well in Suter's place, but maybe something is missing and it's Suter's minutes. He's a dependable guy that plays 27 minutes a night, passes the puck well and plays special teams. You can see some defensive mistakes they've made this season and it might be because they just aren't the closing team they were before without Ryan Suter. Add into that the fact that Nashville plays in maybe the best division in hockey, and you realize there won't be any nights off for the Predators. It's going to be a dogfight for them to make the playoffs.
If you want to see a reason why this team has struggled so far, look at Mike Smith and his injury. Smith was arguably as good a goaltender as there was in the Western Conference last season, so this team got great goaltending every night. Since then Ray Whitney left and though Steve Sullivan has been good in his place, Whitney was a big part of that team, especially considering the chemistry he had with Radim Vrbata. These weak spots just go to show that in Phoenix you need to be at the top of your game to win. That's true in most places in the NHL, really. Some of the really talented teams can win without being 100 percent, but most teams can't and I think Phoenix is one of those teams.
Without great goaltending and without scoring the way they did last season, the Coyotes are going to struggle. They're tough most games, but the games they won last season they're losing right now. I do think a lot of that can be traced back to the goaltending, so we probably have to wait to judge Phoenix until Smith gets back so we can see how he's playing. There's a saying in hockey: Don't overestimate your team when the goaltending is great, don't underestimate your team when the goaltending is average. Maybe we overestimated Phoenix a little bit last season because of how well Mike Smith was playing.
Finally we come to the defending champions. The Kings got their first win at long last Saturday night and it certainly looked like Anze Kopitar, who missed the first game of the season due to injury, was a big reason why. Kopitar had two goals and he gives Los Angeles an offensive element it really needs, but I think the guy that has to pick up his play, and he did Saturday, is Dustin Brown. Going into Saturday night Brown was a minus-5 with no points. Last season, you might remember, there was talk of trading Brown at one time. They didn't and all of a sudden L.A. took off, was the hottest team at the end of the year and just walked through the playoffs. It's not an accident.
I really think Brown is the key guy on that team. They've got other great players, Mike Richards, Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, guys like that, but I really think the guy that makes that team go is Brown. He got involved Saturday, assisted on the first goal, was a plus-1 and the Kings got a win. That is the guy Darryl Sutter has to get going every night. Whether you kick him in the butt to get him going, whether you pat him on the back to get him going, it doesn't matter. He's the guy that makes that team fly. He's had a poor start and the L.A. Kings have had a poor start because of it, but it looks like Saturday night might be a sign that Brown and the Kings are pulling out of their funk.
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