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Maple Leafs, Ducks need to reverse trends

Monday, 11.04.2013 / 9:30 AM
John Kreiser  - NHL.com Columnist

We're already into the second month of the new NHL season, and some things we've seen so far -- Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby piling up points, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks doing the same in the standings -- are happening as expected. Others, such as the Colorado Avalanche's 12-1-0 start and St. Louis Blues forward Alexander Steen scoring 12 goals in his team's first 12 games after finishing with eight last season, fall under the realm of complete surprises.

We know Steen isn't going to score 82 goals and that the Avalanche aren't going to go 81-1-0. But there are other early-season trends that lend themselves to closer examination. Here's a look at four that may or may not be sustainable.

Item 1: Toronto Maple Leafs off to 10-5-0 start

If you watched the Maple Leafs' 4-0 loss to the Vancouver Canucks on Saturday you're probably wondering how this team has won two-thirds of its first 15 games.

In an era in which puck possession is king, the Maple Leafs' performance so far defies imagination.

Toronto enters the week second in the Atlantic Division despite being outshot by more than 10 shots game. Goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer are seeing an average of 36.8 shots per game; their teammates are managing 26.1. That's a difference of 10.7 per game, tying the last-place Buffalo Sabres for the worst differential in the League.

To say the goaltenders are making the difference for the Maple Leafs would be an understatement.

Opposing shooters have scored 36 goals on 552 shots (6.5 percent), while Toronto has 47 goals on 392 shots (12.0 percent). The average shooting percentage in the NHL this season is about 8.9 percent; it's been leaking downward since spiking at 10.1 percent in 2005-06.

Logic and history say a team can't win when it's being outshot badly on a nightly basis, though the Maple Leafs did make the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season despite being outshot by 6.0 shots per night during the 48-game season. However, since the 2005-06 season, no team in an 82-game season has made the playoffs while being outshot by more than 3.5 per game; that team, the 2009-10 Montreal Canadiens, squeaked into the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

Is Toronto's success sustainable?: Neither Bernier (.933 save percentage) nor Reimer (.942) has enough of a track record to suggest that they can continue to stand up to the barrage of shots the Maple Leafs have been allowing. History says if Toronto doesn't tighten up, it's headed for a fall. Shots on goal numbers like these are not sustainable by winning teams, no matter how good their goaltending is.

Item 2: Anaheim Ducks off to a fast start despite woeful special-teams play

The Ducks enter the week with the NHL's worst power play and the next-to-worst penalty kill. They also enter their game Monday at the New York Rangers, which closes an eight-game road trip, with an 11-3-1 record.

Anaheim is 4-for-58 (6.9 percent) on the power play and has allowed two shorthanded goals. The penalty-killers have allowed 13 goals in 49 times shorthanded, a 73.5-percent success rate that's 29th in the League.

The Ducks have played five of their first 15 games at Honda Center; they've made the most of those games, however, winning all five, but they're battling the San Jose Sharks for the Pacific Division lead because they're also 6-3-1 outside Orange County.

Anaheim has survived and thrived so far because it has excelled while playing 5-on-5 hockey. The Ducks lead the NHL in goals for/against ratio at full strength at 1.91 -- in other words they're scoring nearly two goals for every one they allow at 5-on-5.

So far that kind of 5-on-5 play has been able to overcome their shoddy performance on special teams.

Is Anaheim's fast start sustainable?: The Ducks were tied for fourth in the NHL in goals for/against ratio (1.28) in 2012-13 when they won the Pacific Division, so this season's early success at even strength is no accident. But they also were fourth in the League on the power play and in the middle of the pack killing penalties.

The 5-on-5 scoring tends to correlate with success: Check the teams at the top of the list and usually you'll find the ones at the top of the standings. Anaheim's 5-on-5 numbers aren't sustainable -- the 1.57 figure by the 2009-10 Washington Capitals is the best since 2005-06 -- but neither are the Ducks' awful special-teams totals. Any team with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Teemu Selanne (when healthy) will score on the power play over the long term.

Neither Anaheim's special-teams problems nor its 5-on-5 success likely will continue at their current rates, but the Ducks' success in the standings is no mirage.

Item 3: Newly re-signed Sedin twins are seeing the most ice time of their careers

Say this for John Tortorella: He means what he says. When Tortorella took over as coach of the Vancouver Canucks, he said he wanted to make more use of the Sedin twins. And he's living up to his word.

The Canucks are 10-5-1 under Tortorella, who is giving the 33-year-old Swedes more ice time than at any time in their careers. Lots more.

Neither Henrik Sedin nor Daniel Sedin ever has averaged 20 minutes of ice time a game; Henrik's high was 19:41 in 2009-10; Daniel's was 19:08 that same season. Henrik averaged 19:20 last season; Daniel's average was 19:01.

But Tortorella has a habit of riding his stars, especially in close games, and he's doing just that with the Sedins this season. After 16 games Henrik is playing 22:47 per night; Daniel is right behind him at 22:25. Henrik is second in the NHL in ice time among forwards -- teammate (and occasional linemate) Ryan Kesler is tops at 22:57. Daniel is fourth, 12 seconds per game behind Crosby.

Part of the increase has come because Tortorella has used the twins on the penalty kill much more than predecessor Alain Vigneault. Henrik is playing 1:02 a game with the Canucks shorthanded while Daniel is seeking 1:00 on the penalty kill; both saw less than 10 seconds of PK time last season.

The extra ice time has paid off so far. Henrik leads the League with 16 assists and is third with 19 points; Daniel has seven goals and 16 points.

Will the Sedins continue to handle all the extra ice time?: Increases of this magnitude usually are made with players who are blossoming into regulars and stars, not with elite veterans who are 33 years old and accustomed to a certain amount of ice time (and who just have been signed to four-year, $28 million extensions). The Sedins play a physical, down-low cycling game; they are not perimeter players. Tortorella loves to ride his stars; what he really needs is for his team's secondary scorers to step up and allow him to cut back on the twins' workload. The Sedins aren't kids anymore; at some point adding about three minutes of extra time every game has to take a toll. If they're worn out in the spring, all that early-season ice time might be the reason.

Item 4: The Western Conference is tearing up the East

The Western Conference has a winning record against the East in every season since the start of the 2005-06 season, ranging from a .574 winning percentage in 2009-10 to .504 in 2011-12, the most recent season of interconference play. With the Detroit Red Wings and the improved Columbus Blue Jackets moving East and the Winnipeg Jets heading West, it looked like the East finally might have a chance to overtake the West this season.

Instead, the West has been beating up on the East at an unprecedented rate.

Through the first five weeks of the season Western Conference teams have won 61 of 96 games against the East, a .635 winning percentage. Only one Western team, the Edmonton Oilers (3-7-1) is below .500 against the East; four teams from the East -- the Carolina Hurricanes (0-3-2), New Jersey Devils (0-3-3), Philadelphia Flyers (0-3-0) and Buffalo Sabres (0-6-0) have yet to win a game against the other conference.

Most of the damage has been done against the Metropolitan Division, by far the weakest through the early stages of the season. Central Division teams are 12-0-1 against Metropolitan Division teams; Pacific Division teams are 17-7-2, and four of the seven regulation losses belong to the Oilers.

Is the West's domination sustainable?: Six of the bottom seven teams in the League standings are from the East; only six Eastern Conference teams have won as many as half their games, as opposed to 10 from the Western Conference. Though its .635 percentage figures to come down somewhat, there's no question that the West is best and likely will keep beating up on the East at the highest rate of the shootout era.

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