What makes good teams great? Or at the very least leaders of their divisions as we pass the midway point of this season?
As of Tuesday morning, the Rangers were best in the Atlantic and tops overall based on fewest number of games played between themselves, Chicago and St. Louis. And looking back to last season I was somewhat surprised to see that they are still averaging just over 2.7 goals per game. But inside those numbers one can look at the players that were to be counted upon to score and they have in the critical moments. Brad Richards may not be averaging a point per game but he is among the league leaders in game winning goals with six and Marian Gaborik's five game winners are more than he had a year ago. Combine that with Henrik Lundqvist shaving a third of a goal per game off his career goals against average of 2.32, and with his workload being reduced to keep him fresh, the Rangers are in excellent shape to capture their first division crown since 1993-94, the year of their last Cup win.
As successful as the Rangers have been, most still seem to defer to the defending champion Boston Bruins as the best in the Eastern Conference -- if not the entire NHL. How can you not?
They too have shaved more than a third of a goal against per game off their bottom line and surged from 2.98 goals per game to an astounding 3.55!
The Bruins had four 20-goal scorers last year. This season they are on pace for six, and have an outside chance at having as many as nine! The Bruins of 1977-78 still hold the record with 11.
On any given day the Southeast Division lead will change, but a tip of the cap to Kevin Dineen and the Florida Panthers for holding it through 44 games. They aren't much better offensively than a year ago (2.50 gpg compared to 2.33), and the improvement is even less on the other side of the puck (2.68 gaa compared to 2.71). But for a team that hasn’t made the playoffs since 2000, and underwent the largest off-season makeover, the quest to create a better vibe in their own market has been their greatest achievement. After winning just 16 times at home in 2010-2011, the Panthers have already won 11 times in Sunrise this year with points in 17 of their 22 home games (11-5-6). Changing the mindset to the rest of the league that they won't just be two easy points for the road teams is a huge positive for Dale Tallon's organization.
The Central is even more ever-changing. Three teams separated by a single point with the Blues holding the lead as of Tuesday morning.
We could go into great detail about a number of players having bounce back or career-type seasons, but in this case only one stat line matters: 21-5-6. That is the Blues’ record since Ken Hitchcock took over behind the bench. From 14th in the conference to first, with the most home wins in the NHL, the Blues are a legitimate contender for the first time in a long time.
As runners-up for the Cup, the Vancouver Canucks have the pedigree and certainly appear headed for a fourth straight Northwest Division crown. They've played a road heavy schedule so far and like last year en route to the President's Trophy, there is no drop off in their game home or away. In 2010-11, they won 27 at home and 27 on the road (the latter a club record), and this year will probably finish with at least 24 road wins. They have currently accumulated the second-most road points via a 16-9-1 mark through 26 games.
Lastly the San Jose Sharks, beasts of the Pacific in each of the last four years, and on pace again for what would be a sixth division crown in eight seasons.
What makes them so good? Probably balance. It's not easily quantified and some of their team numbers are very ordinary, if not worse: 17th on the power play, 28th on the penalty kill, and not a single player on pace for a point per game this season.
But here's where the ice tilts in their favor. First in shots on goal per game and sixth best in fewest shots allowed. Number two in the league on face-offs. Third in winning percentage when they score the games' first goal, and sixth best in goals against average.
Proving that there is no exact blueprint for success in the NHL. But the current division leaders can dream big at the moment because of the groundwork they have laid so far.