Is it time for panic or patience?
Several teams pegged as Stanley Cup contenders are wondering just that now that 25 percent of the truncated 2012-13 season already is in the books.
Let's take a closer look at five of them and try to determine if they're truly contenders or really just pretenders:
Time for: Patience
Why: Despite being a popular pick as the preseason favorites to win the Stanley Cup, the Rangers are a different team from last season and they're still trying to figure out who fits into what hole in the lineup.
It takes time and a lot of experimenting, which is precisely what coach John Tortorella has been doing so far this season.
"In trying to get all the different pieces molded together, we're not displeased as long as we take off from here," Rangers assistant coach/general manager Jim Schoenfeld told NHL.com. "That's what you're seeing the last couple of games."
Already notorious for tinkering with his lines, Tortorella has gone above and beyond that so far, moving players all over the place to try to find the right combinations. There are times when he has his big three of Rick Nash, Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik together, but other times when he keeps only two of them together and moves the third player onto a different line.
Losing Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Brandon Prust and Ruslan Fedotenko from last season's team also meant Tortorella had to find some new penalty killers. Jeff Halpern and the recently acquired Darroll Powe have stepped into the role, along with Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards, but Halpern and Powe still are learning what the Rangers do on the PK.
Nash still is trying to get comfortable in New York and it hasn't helped that both Callahan and defenseman Dan Girardi have missed time due to injury.
Time for: Patience
Why: The Flyers were getting perilously close to panic mode, but they staved it off by going 3-0-1 in their last four games, including a 4-3 overtime win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday, when they blew a third-period lead but got a goal from Danny Briere in overtime.
"I would use the term urgent, not panic," NBC Sports Network analyst Keith Jones told NHL.com. "It's more controlled, but definitely [they're] trying to address any of the weaknesses that have shown themselves."
It has been a struggle with notable injuries to Scott Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds, Andrej Meszaros and Briere, who missed the first four games of the season, but even with the game-winner Saturday still has only four points in eight games.
Ilya Bryzgalov, who was the wild card for this team heading into the season, has been the least of their problems, with a 2.27 goals-against average and .921 save percentage through 11 starts. However, the defense in front of him isn't even close to what it was when Chris Pronger and Matt Carle were the top pair.
"I think they've gone to a bit of a safer style, getting pucks out of the zone as quickly as possible, maybe not looking for the perfect pass," Jones said. "They've got some highly skilled forwards that can do some damage in the offensive zone. Defensively there were some lapses that need to be fixed."
Time for: Panic
Why: Save for a 5-0 win against the Florida Panthers on Saturday, next to nothing has gone right for the Capitals and their playoff hopes already are on thin ice just 12 games into the season. Washington has only seven points, which is just one fewer than the eight that they've gotten from both Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
"It's a mess," Jones said. "I would have great concern for Backstrom; he doesn't look like the same player that had a 100-point season just a little while ago [2009-10]. Ovechkin's play is similar to what it was last year, but still not going to be enough to carry the team. And Mike Green, who was such a dominant offensive player, now is just a regular minute-logging defenseman, more like a Joni Pitkanen now than like a Kris Letang."
There are a couple of built-in excuses, such as the fact that coach Adam Oates did not have a full training camp to install his systems, which are vastly different than the ones Dale Hunter used last season. And Brooks Laich, the Capitals' do-everything forward, hasn't played due to a groin injury.
However, Washington's goaltending, which needs to be strong when a team is trying to build new chemistry in a new offensive system, has been average at best. The Capitals are getting exposed in their own end, especially when they're on the penalty kill, and they're incapable of holding onto a lead when they do get one.
They're 1-4-0 when they score first in a game.
"There's a difference between a team that is trying to find their way and a team that looks completely lost, and to me the Capitals look completely lost," NHL Network and TSN analyst Craig Button told NHL.com. "They're 23rd in goals scored, 29th in goals against. Five-on-five, they're terrible. Their penalty killing is awful. Faceoffs, they're awful. It's not one area of the game they've got to clean up; it's every area of the game. It's every aspect of their game. You just can't play like that."
Time for: Patience
Why: Trying to fill the holes created by Nicklas Lidstrom's retirement and Brad Stuart's departure to San Jose already is a challenge, but the Red Wings' biggest problem this season has been injuries. They're difficult to overcome on their own, but when they ravage a blue line that already was missing Lidstrom and Stuart, it becomes almost impossible.
Yet, it hasn't been for the Red Wings, who have won three games in a row, including a 3-2 thriller win against the Los Angeles Kings on Sunday.
Even with 10 players missing time with injuries, including speedy center Darren Helm, who has only played in one game, Detroit is right in the middle of the Western Conference playoff race with 15 points. The Wings already have beaten the St. Louis Blues twice, got solid wins against the Kings and Minnesota Wild, and were one of the two teams that had taken a point off the Chicago Blackhawks entering Sunday.
"I think you panic when you're healthy and you have all of your assets in place, because when you have a full complement of your players, then you can get a really good idea and that's when you can start questioning if you need to do something," NBC Sports analyst Eddie Olczyk said.
"Without Nicklas Lidstrom and Brad Stuart, I really believe over an 82-game schedule they were going to take a 12-15 point hit. That's just the reality of it," he added. "So, there is a transition going on there. But panic? No. I think they have to get healthy."
"They have to get Darren Helm back. He really is a key part of their team," Olczyk said. "He brings a different dimension that they don't have -- a guy who can really skate, get in on the forecheck, a guy that is not afraid to run you into the second or third row, plus he can kill penalties and can win faceoffs. They're going to have the puck more when Darren Helm is in the lineup."
Time for: Panic
Why: The champs are in a rut and don't seem to be able to find their way out. They are struggling to score and aren't playing well enough defensively to overcome it.
They're minus-9 in goal differential (22-31). Anze Kopitar and Kyle Clifford lead the team in scoring, but they have only six points each. Mike Richards has just one goal and Jeff Carter doesn't have an assist yet this season. Dustin Penner has been a healthy scratch and Drew Doughty is a minus-10.
If they could have pulled out a win in Detroit on Sunday, maybe the Kings would have something to build on, but instead Jonathan Ericsson scored with 4.5 seconds left in regulation to lift the Wings to a 3-2 victory.
"They didn't score easily in the playoffs, but they were able to be really comfortable in tight games and were able to find a way to play with the lead," Button said. "This year, they haven't had the same luxury."
Why has it been such a struggle?
Part of the blame has to go to injuries to key defensemen Matt Greene and Willie Mitchell -- a pair of penalty killers and big, physical blueliners who can eat up lots of minutes. Greene is done for the season after back surgery and Mitchell hasn't played yet due to offseason knee surgery.
"It's not that you don't have depth, but now you're asking players to carry more minutes and are they capable of contributing when they do," Button said. “Drew Doughty has to carry more of the load. Slava Voynov is asked to do more. Rob Scuderi is asked to do more. [Alec] Martinez fell into that 5-6 area and when you get those injuries, you're asking him now to play top-four minutes. Everybody gets extended and from a defensive point of view, that becomes a challenge.
"I mean, Mitchell and Greene, it's penalty killing and being able to clean up the front of the net. Those aspects are so key to not spending time in your own zone. The more time you spend in your own zone the less time you have to try to generate offense. That's the one thing I thought L.A. did a tremendous job of last year in the playoffs -- they were able to not give up very much in their own zone and not spend a lot of time in their own zone."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl
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