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Melrose: Islanders, Flames look to be true contenders

by Barry Melrose / NHL.com

We're at the first-quarter mark of the 2014-15 NHL season. While some traditional contenders out West are still having trouble getting their footing, new ones are appearing and we just may be seeing a changing of the guard in the East.

Let's take a look.

NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK

The Pittsburgh Penguins might have company. For most of this season the Penguins have looked like the team to beat in the Metropolitan Division, but this past weekend the New York Islanders emphatically put their stamp on the race, sweeping a home-and-home against Pittsburgh and scoring four goals in each game. Not only that, but the Islanders held Sidney Crosby to just one shot and no points during the two games. That's something not many teams in the NHL can say.

John Tavares
Center - NYI
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 20
SOG: 59 | +/-: -4
These Islanders are for real. They're better than the New Jersey Devils, they're better than the New York Rangers, and right now they're playing better than Pittsburgh. They score a ton of goals with forwards John Tavares, Kyle Okposo and Brock Nelson all playing well. On the blue line, New York clearly benefited from its preseason trades for Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy. Bringing in those two, as well as goalie Jaroslav Halak, is exactly what this team needed to take the next step, and remember, they weren't too far off two years ago.

In the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs these guys faced the Penguins and gave them a run for their money. Last season it looked like they were poised to improve until John Tavares got hurt. No team can miss its best player and not miss a beat and that injury probably cost the Islanders a playoff spot. Now the Islanders are healthy, they're improved on the ice, and their additions on the blue line will help down the stretch. Boychuk and Leddy are two experienced players who won't panic. It might mean a big season -- or postseason -- on the Island. If you're Pittsburgh, now you know that a tough new kid just moved in down the street.

CHICAGO HOPE

The Chicago Blackhawks hit a stumbling block Sunday night when they lost to the Vancouver Canucks, 4-1, in the middle of their annual "Circus Trip." Chicago had been improving, but I think this loss was a sign that the Blackhawks still haven't returned to being the Blackhawks after an uneven first quarter of the season. Yes, the Blackhawks had won three in a row and five of six games, and you could argue that they dramatically outplayed the Tampa Bay Lightning a few weeks ago, but the teams Chicago has beaten haven't been that good.

In the past week the Blackhawks have beaten up on a struggling Dallas Stars team and the Edmonton Oilers, one of the biggest strugglers in the NHL. Those two wins did sandwich a victory against the surprising Calgary Flames, but I'm still not sure this team is out of the woods yet, and we all saw evidence of that Sunday night in Vancouver.

When the Blackhawks return home from their current six-game road trip, we'll have a much better idea of just how good they are. The Blackhawks' next stop is a visit to Colorado on Wednesday night, a game they should win, but Chicago wraps up its trip in southern California with games against the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings on back-to-back nights. I think the Blackhawks need to come back to Chicago with four wins on this trip to really be back on track, which means beating at least one of the big boys this weekend. If the Blackhawks can get one, or even two wins, out of southern California then I'll be ready to say they're back to being the Blackhawks we know.

CATCHING FIRE

As the season has gone on for the Calgary Flames, most hockey writers and fans have been impressed with their success; but we've all been waiting for the other shoe to drop. It just hasn't happened. Well, here we are, 22 games in, and the Flames aren't just alive, they're pushing Anaheim and Vancouver atop the Pacific Division. It's time to take Calgary seriously. The Flames are beating good teams, they're beating the teams they should beat, and they're doing it the right way.

Dennis Wideman
Defense - CGY
GOALS: 8 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 12
SOG: 43 | +/-: 1
This is a very solid team, with the highest scoring defense in the NHL. Dennis Wideman has eight goals and Matt Giordano has six goals. There are other defense corps that don't have five goals amongst them. The young guys up front like Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau keep getting better and better, Jonas Hiller has been great in net and no matter how long we keep waiting for this team to crack they just don't.

Take a look at Calgary's comeback win against the Devils on Saturday night. That was a game in which the Flames trailed by two goals multiple times and could have folded the tents, but they kept battling confidently and got the two points. We all keep waiting for the Flames to fall apart, but 22 games is a pretty long stretch to hide a bad team. I think we're past the point where we can consider this a bad team on a hot streak. The Flames are a real playoff contender. Maybe they'll struggle and fall out of the top eight by April, but I don't see a reason to think they're going to collapse any time soon.

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