This week I'm taking a look at one of the top contenders in the Eastern Conference, a surprise struggler in the West and an unsung goalie who just keeps impressing. Let's get right to it.
ARE THE PENS MIGHTIER?
The Pittsburgh Penguins have spent the past few regular seasons looking like a top-tier team only to suffer a surprising postseason flameout. This season, once again the Penguins are looking unbeatable, but the big question is: "Will this time be different?" I think the Penguins have to be considered a legitimate Stanley Cup contender, but the regular season has never been a problem for Pittsburgh. Once again, the Stanley Cup Playoffs are going to be the big test, particularly in net where Marc-Andre Fleury will need to prove his worth after signing a big contract extension recently.
The Penguins look awesome right now. They're winning low-scoring games, they're winning high-scoring games, their power play has been phenomenal and it looks as though they haven't missed Brooks Orpik or Matt Niskanen on the blue line. It appears they're really taking to heart what coach Mike Johnston asked them to do offensively and defensively. Ultimately, the need for a new message might make the difference for this team. Dan Bylsma is a great coach, but sometimes a shakeup is necessary. Beyond that, though, Pittsburgh does look sharper on defense. They don't take as many chances and the chances they take are high-percentage chances. Fleury isn't left out to dry by as many odd-man rushes as he used to be.
Right now the Penguins look as good as, if not better than any other team in the Eastern Conference. With wins in nine of their past 10 games, it's hard for them not to be. But we've had this conversation before. The Penguins look great, but until they fulfill that promise again like they did five years ago there will always be uncertainty. Until they show me in the playoffs, there's always going to be a little doubt.
The Dallas Stars are a team I thought would have a great start with Jason Spezza, Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin generating tons of offense. Kari Lehtonen is solid in net and there's a strong, mobile defense. After an impressive showing against the Anaheim Ducks in the playoffs last season it seemed this was the makeup of a good team on the rise. Now the Stars sit at the bottom of the Central after a rough loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday, and you have to wonder what exactly this team needs to do to right the ship.
The Stars may be in last place, but it's early enough that the season isn't over for them yet. They can make up the ground and get back into the playoff chase, but they need to start getting wins and need to get them now. That's a pretty stiff challenge in the Western Conference. Talent-wise, this team is capable of making a run, but the conference is so deep that it seems unlikely. The Calgary Flames aren't two easy points anymore. The Winnipeg Jets are playing better. The Arizona Coyotes are hot and cold, but they're certainly capable of beating anybody on any night. It's hard to put together a five-or-six-game winning streak in that conference. You're always going to face somebody good.
To me, the biggest indicator something might be really wrong came this past week when general manager Jim Nill sent Sergei Gonchar to the Montreal Canadiens for Travis Moen. Trading a veteran like Gonchar for a character guy like Moen was an interesting move to me, and something that may have been a message sender to the rest of the lineup or at least an indication that something was off in the dressing room. Perhaps a move like that will shake up the Stars and get them back on track, but time is running out. I know it's only November, but the season can get away from you quickly. You think you have lots of time, but suddenly it's February and you realize you've got to win 15 of your next 18 games to have a shot at the postseason. If things keep slipping away, that may be the hill the Stars have to climb.
BISHOP KEEPS SHINING
I've said it before and I'll say it again, but the play of Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop has been amazing this season. In the past week, the Lightning have been very, very badly outplayed by the Chicago Blackhawks and the San Jose Sharks and came away with a point against the Blackhawks and at least a chance against the Sharks despite being outshot 31-17 in the first two periods. Bishop has looked as good as any goaltender in the NHL right now. He's been playing every game, he's been fantastic every night and Tampa Bay has had a chance to win every night.
Bishop always stood out because of his height, and he was always intriguing, but the big thing you heard when he was playing for the St. Louis Blues was that he wasn't just a 6-foot-7 blob. He was an athlete. As you watch him play you can see what people mean by that and you can also see how important he is to the Lightning. Just look at this past spring when Bishop went out with an injury and the Lightning were soon out of the playoffs. I haven't seen him play a bad game and I can't remember a bad goal he's let in.
When you look around now you notice that most goalies are suddenly 6-3 or taller, and they're all very athletic. When I was a kid playing pond hockey, you always put the fat kid in net. Always. Now you put the best athlete in net. It never did make sense to put the poorest athlete in the most important position, but now hockey is getting it right. Some of the League's best athletes are the ones between the pipes, and Bishop has shown that he's certainly in that group.