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Weekes: Blackhawks, Islanders top stories at break

by Kevin Weekes

Happy holidays, everyone.

It's Christmas Eve, and that means the NHL is on its holiday break, so no game tonight on NBCSN. Wednesday Night Rivalry is on ice until Jan. 7, when the Boston Bruins play the Pittsburgh Penguins at TD Garden.

So here is my chance to dish on the teams, players and trends that have caught my eye so far this season. Here's my holiday gift to you: My top 10 takeaways so far this season.

1. Where else to start but with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The run the Blackhawks have been able to go on and how they've been able to turn their game up after what was, at least for them, a pedestrian start has been amazing.

Chicago's goal differential is the best in the League. Its goaltending has been amazing, and I'm talking about all three goalies -- Corey Crawford, Antti Raanta and Scott Darling. Before he went down I thought Crawford was on track to be a Vezina Trophy finalist. He could get back on track soon.

Patrick Kane
Right Wing - CHI
GOALS: 16 | ASST: 20 | PTS: 36
SOG: 110 | +/-: 9
The production the Blackhawks are getting up and down the lineup has been great. Brad Richards has been a great fit, especially when Patrick Sharp was out. He got Patrick Kane going.

Overall they're just really impressive, but what really gets me all revved up when I talk about the Blackhawks is how hard they work to get the puck back when they don't have it. You have to start with that and admire that.

So there is not one guy in the League, the world really, that has more talent than Kane, and he's always working to get the puck back. Other than the Los Angeles Kings there is not one team that has had more success than the Blackhawks, so if you're an opponent watching them on film or playing them, and you're not trying to do what they do, then you're not getting it.

This is a team with world-class players, and they're also the hardest-working team around.

And as of late they've been going through a real tough time. Losing assistant equipment trainer Clint Reif has been brutal. I've felt it too. I've known Clint since he was 13 years old. That was a really disappointing call to get Sunday.

But this isn't about me; this is about the Blackhawks and how they've coped. They were grieving, but they went out and won a hockey game, 4-0 against the Toronto Maple Leafs. They played with heavy hearts, they went out and delivered a decisive win for Clint, and then they honored him. That was very emotional.

I always say you get a measure for what people are made of in those situations, and that really reflected on the class of the Blackhawks players and the organization.

2. The New York Islanders have been a great story.

I tell you what: I'm buying what the Islanders are putting on the ice right now.

Jaroslav Halak has stabilized the net. We know about Johnny Boychuck and Nick Leddy, but overall their defense is really improved, and they're underrated up front.

I remember Islanders assistant coach Doug Weight talking about how good this team could be, but that was two years ago. As great as he was as a player and as smart as he is, I wasn't buying what Weight was selling. Credit to him, he saw it and these guys are a great story.

3. The Florida Panthers have been a really nice story as well.

Roberto Luongo playing as well as he's played there is super impressive, and the emergence of Nick Bjugstad has been too. I think he can be a 30- or 35-goal scorer in the NHL. I think he's just starting to scratch the surface.

As for rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad, and I say this tongue-in-cheek, somebody check his birth certificate because there is no way this kid can be 18 years old. He looks like he's been in the League for 10 years in every situation, which is beyond impressive.

4. The Philadelphia Flyers' Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux have been dynamic.

No, this is not a recording. They are one of the best duos we've seen in the League, without question. They had a huge week too. I haven't seen too many teams in the Eastern Conference find an antidote to those guys yet.

5. I've been very impressed by how the Pittsburgh Penguins have played in light of their injuries and illnesses.

Marc-Andre Fleury has reacted and responded in an amazing way since signing his extension. I talked to general manager Jim Rutherford about how comfortable he is on the ice and off the ice. Certainly he's at peace, and it was a contract that made sense for both sides. More importantly the way he's playing he's contending for the Vezina right now. He's been a great story and an underrated story.

6. Let's start my disappointment section of this blog with the Dallas Stars.

I thought the Stars were further along than they are.

I like general manager Jim Nill bringing in Jason Spezza. He adds a lot to that group. He's a point-per-game player, and it's hard to find those players. He's had a nice impact.

Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin have been amazing. Seguin is a top-three or top-four player in the League right now.

But the challenge for the Stars is in the defensive end. They are not where they need to be. They made strides against the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks, but went into play the Edmonton Oilers and didn't play well. They are too inconsistent.

7. I'm also disappointed in the Minnesota Wild.

General manager Chuck Fletcher has made some really nice moves, probably none better than bringing in Nino Niederreiter. That was an amazing trade. Jason Zucker has been awesome. Zach Parise is a point-per-game player. All good things, right?

Yeah, but the Wild's power play is a head-scratcher for me. I feel they have taken a step and a half, if not two steps, back so far this season. They are a much better team than what they've shown.

8. The Colorado Avalanche can't be forgotten when we're talking about disappointments.

The Avalanche are playing way below par. Even if there was going to be a market correction because Semyon Varlamov was the big reason why they had 112 points last season, I didn't think it would be like this.

That being said, goalie Calvin Pickard is an amazing story. I was told they were not high on him to the point where they were thinking about moving him. Well, he's played so well, especially considering he's filling Varlamov's shoes and he has Patrick Roy watching him. That's a lot to handle, but he's done an amazing job.

When you look at his numbers, especially on that team, it's a big story that isn't getting told enough.

9. Back to the positive, so let's spin it to the Nashville Predators.

The Predators have been amazing.

They have so much stability in that organization. General manager David Poile is the steady hand there. We know the great job Barry Trotz and Mitch Korn and the staff did there for years. Maybe you could argue Chicago, Los Angeles and the Detroit Red Wings have drafted and developed as well as Nashville, but that may be about it.

Poile getting Filip Forsberg from the Washington Capitals was a steal. For him to produce the way he has, and also lead the NHL in plus-minus, is super impressive.

I played for Predators coach Peter Laviolette. I have to give him a lot of credit. He likes the foot on the gas pedal, but it hasn't compromised what the Predators do defensively. They have struck a nice balance. Nashville is fun to watch.

10. This isn't team-specific, but one thing that has been so obvious this season is the importance of playing with pace.

I'm not talking about speed necessarily, because not all the good teams in the League are especially fast, but they all play with great pace. They don't back off. They come at you. They force you to match them, and not only to play at a pace, but to think the game at a pace too. They are forcing the opposing teams to read and react quicker.

The St. Louis Blues doing it. The Tampa Bay Lightning are doing it. The Islanders are doing it. Chicago is doing it. Nashville is doing it. Obviously Pittsburgh has been amazing at it.

Pace is so important.

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