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Melrose Minute: Early contenders and pretenders

by Barry Melrose / NHL.com

We're almost a month into the 2014-15 NHL season and not only are we seeing who contenders and pretenders are, we're seeing which teams we thought would contend are struggling to fulfill expectations.

Let's take a look at some of the teams that are impressing and some that are struggling to stay afloat.

LIGHTNING STRIKES

For a while it looked like the Atlantic Division would be a two-team race between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens, assuming Boston didn't just run away with it. Well, it may still be a two-team race, but it might be Montreal and the Tampa Bay Lightning. The Lightning have a lot of weapons. Steven Stamkos gets all the ink, but Ben Bishop has proved he's as good a goaltender as there is in the Eastern Conference, they have tons of scoring up front, I love the addition of Jason Garrison and his rocket shot on the blue line, and Victor Hedman's return will only make Tampa Bay better.

This is a really good team both offensively and defensively, and while there are some other strong teams in the East, Montreal and Tampa Bay look like the class of the conference to me at the moment.

The one thing I'm really noticing is how versatile and multi-dimensional the Lightning's players are. If you ask me, that's a tribute to general manager Steve Yzerman and where do you think he learned that? You can see that Detroit Red Wings influence in the type of guys Yzerman brings in and the type he drafts. They're all guys that can score when they get the chance, but every line is good defensively. This is a strong group at both ends of the rink. I think the Lightning are an excellent hockey club and they're showing it right now.

LIMPING 'LUMBUS

Usually as a coach you can't really talk about injuries or use them as an excuse, but if I were Columbus Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards I don't know what I'd be thinking. I'm not sure I've ever seen a team hurt this badly this early. It started with Nathan Horton, whose career might be over. Then Boone Jenner, who's been great, gets hurt. Brandon Dubinsky, who's been great, gets hurt. Now James Wisniewski gets hurt. And then the big one, Sergei Bobrovsky gets nicked up. Several key players have been injured for the Blue Jackets and you can see it's starting to really take its toll.

Columbus managed to hang tough for a while. Ryan Johansen didn't show any rust luckily, but now teams know they can load up against him and Cam Atkinson, and that makes it very tough for Columbus to do anything offensively. With a healthy lineup this is a pretty good defensive team. The Blue Jackets don't blow leads in the third period like they did against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday. Now with Bobrovsky out, the challenge has gotten that much tougher. Bobrovsky is an elite guy in net, and even with guys out of the lineup he can still steal a game here or there for you to avoid losing streaks. Now that Bobrovsky is out, that safety net just isn't there. Eventually you start changing how you play. You sit back defensively and don't attack offensively. That robs Columbus of its forecheck, one of its best weapons.

The deck has been stacked against the Blue Jackets so far this season and it's starting to show. This is a team that needs to find a way to hang tough and pick up points, whether they're wins or shootout and overtime losses, to stay in the race until guys get healthy. They always say you can't win the Stanley Cup in October or November, but you can certainly miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs in October or November. This is a very pivotal time in Columbus.

RUNNING DRY IN THE DESERT

The Arizona Coyotes picked up a big win against the Washington Capitals on Sunday, rallying from a 3-1 deficit to win 6-5. This is huge for them because before that game you could arguably call them the worst team in the NHL. The night before Arizona was shut out by a winless Carolina Hurricanes team. The Coyotes are behind the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames in the standings, both teams they were expected to be above, and they just don't really look like a good team right now.

Arizona has always been good defensively since coach Dave Tippett came in. You always knew that if you were going to beat the Coyotes, you'd have a low-scoring game and you'd have to play smart hockey. Right now that's not the case. They're not good defensively, goalie Mike Smith has struggled in net and they were offensively challenged until breaking out Sunday night. Last season they tried to build up their scoring by bringing in Mike Ribeiro and relying on Radim Vrbata, who had always been a dependable offensive producer. Now Vrbata is gone and Ribeiro did not work out and has moved on to the Nashville Predators. The offense was never Arizona's strong suit, but the defense has simply not played the way it usually does. To win in the NHL you have to be good offensively or defensively if you're not good at both. Lately the Coyotes haven't been good at either.

Tippett needs to do what he's used to doing. He has to settle his team down and get it to play well defensively. Even in the Coyotes' win against Washington they gave up two late goals and nearly let it slip away. This is not a team that will consistently score six goals. It will not outscore the California teams or the other good teams in the Western Conference. Arizona needs to get back to defense because it's dropping like a rock in the West, and it's too competitive out there to fall so far so early. At this point the Coyotes are playing themselves out of even being in the race for the final playoff spot.

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