As December skates into play, all teams are at least a third into their seasons. The Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues and Eastern Conference titleholder Boston Bruins rank among the top three NHL teams in standings points, joined by the 2018 Cup champion Washington Capitals.
Those stellar teams are joined in the upper echelon by surprise clubs: Edmonton leads the Pacific Division, followed by Arizona in second place. Florida is second in the Atlantic. The next third of the season (effectively December and January) will shake out the contenders for post-season slots.
Let's drop the puck on the last month of this decade.
Calgary's Newest Ward
After a tumultuous week, the Calgary Flames have appointed Geoff Ward as interim Head Coach, who so far so good has guided the Flames to two straight wins. Ward arrives with credentials and a lot of respect for his long journey from school teacher to NHL coach: Ward coached all sorts of junior teams (while living on his teacher's salary), lower-level pro teams, a stop in Germany and, decades in, the NHL. He worked as an assistant coach for New Jersey, won a Cup with Boston in 2011, interviewed for the Flames job in 2016 and was later hired in Calgary to help improve the team's man-advantage power play scoring production. His task went mega this past week. After a Saturday night home win over Ottawa, the new coach made a veteran move: Two full days off for his team, canceling Sunday practice, affording time to recharge and regroup.
Toronto Turning Around
After its own coaching change and related fallout in another hyper-focused Canadian hockey market, Toronto has won four of five games under Sheldon Keefe. The Leafs players are praising Keefe's ability to communicate, especially to deliver a message about tactics in between periods of games. While U.S. sports fans are familiar with the effect of the right halftime adjustments in football games, we tend to think less about what NHL teams do from period to period. Those intermissions is an opportunity for the coaching staff to right some wrongs or emphasize what to keep doing for the night's victory. John Tavares, the veteran captain, says Keefe "just stays very composed and has a very good sense of himself.
The first half of November was solid for the storied Montreal Canadiens franchise. But next couple of weeks? Different story. Montreal players and fans alike are enduring an eight-game losing streak, earning a point in each of three games in which it reached overtime but racking up five regulation losses in the later November month, including a 3-1 heartbreaker in Boston on Sunday. The Canadiens scored early, did all the right things, forechecking, backchecking, playing the whole 200 feet as hockey coaches and managers like to say. Carey Price was his usual brilliant self in goal. Then the Bruins' David Pastrnak scored his league-leading 25th, followed by two more Boston goals. Montreal dropped from second to fifth place in the Atlantic division and outside the top eight from the Eastern Conference who qualify for the playoffs. While the Canadians will be home, it won't get easier this week: The New York Islanders (still red-hot) visits Tuesday and an impressive Colorado club, which dominated Chicago in a home-and-home series over the weekend, comes to town Thursday.
League Leaders and Linemates
Pretty impressive, Edmonton's Connor McDavid leads the NHL with 51 points (19 goals, 32 assists) and linemate Leon Draisaitl is second with 50 points (18 G, 32 A). Big reason why the Oilers are still running strong at the top of the Pacific division. Equally impressive, Boston's Brad Marchand (43 points with 18 G, 25 A) and linemate David Pastrnak (42 points with 25 G, 17 A) are the next two leading scorers. If you look at the numbers, you might be tempted to think, well, each guy assists on the other guy's goals and vice versa. Not quite, but pretty close.
Games to Circle This Week
OK, pull up your phone calendar or pick up your stylus-hey, Weekly Warmup is with it-it's time to mark intriguing games this week. Long-time rivals St. Louis and Chicago play tonight at the Blackhawks' United Center. The Blues are flying high while Chicago goaltending dipped lower than early winter temperatures during a two-loss weekend against Colorado; let's see if the Blackhawks can get back to .500. Washington arrives in San Jose Tuesday seeking its 20th win in 29 games. Buffalo travels to Calgary Thursday to see if captain Jack Eichel can keep up his torrid scoring of late, while Flames fans will see if two days of rest and two days of practice under Geoff Ward will move the expected playoff team to get two games above .500 for the first time since early November.
Decision Day is Quiet
The first day of December included no announcements of restricted free agents (who could only be signed by their assigned NHL team). In Edmonton, fans were hoping that former first-round draft pick Jesse Puljujarvi might sign on to play with the high-flying Oilers and new coach Dave Tippett. Puljujarvi, who was selected No. 4 overall in 2016, will continue his season back home in Finland, playing for the JvP Jyvaskyla franchise in the highly-respected SM-liiga, that country's pro hockey league. Another JvP teammate, Julius Honka, did not sign with Dallas and is reportedly evaluating his options for the rest of the season.
'Moore' on Toronto
The American Hockey League's Toronto Marlies franchise is famed and beloved/no so much across Canada. The Marlies were highly successful the last five seasons under coach Sheldon Keefe, now running the parent club Maple Leafs bench. Toronto GM Kyle Dubas and colleagues conducted a deep search for a new coach. The selection: Greg Moore, a former Team USA player who won world championship gold medal with U18 and U20 teams, then won two more golds as an USA Hockey assistant coach with U17 and U18 teams. That's a lot of gold for Moore and silver or less for Canada in those tournaments. Moore inherits a team with the second-best record in the AHL.
On 'Q' for the Panthers
Everything is coming up rosy for new coach and future Hall of Fame coach Joel Quenneville in Florida. The Panthers are squarely in the playoffs hunt, getting scoring production from its top players and, as of Sunday, a shutout performance from a rookie goalie. Chris Driedger, called up from AHL affiliate Springfield a week ago, posted a shutout in his first career start as the Florida Panthers beat Nashville 3-0. Driedger stopped 27 shots. The 25-year-old appeared in three games for Ottawa between 2014-17 but had never started in the NHL.
Teddy Bear Toss
The Hershey Bears and their fans have this thing about tossing teddy bears onto the ice for charity. The AHL franchise picks a game each year for the "Teddy Bear Toss," in which fans shower the ice with teddy bears after the first Hershey goal is scored. Sunday was Teddy Bear day in Hershey, PA: Fans deposited more than 45,000 bears after a first-period goal, breaking the club's own world record for a teddy bear toss. Every one of those cuddly bears will be donated to children's charities.