November 1, 2011

Canadian Teams are heating up to end October ! Part 1 Eastern Conference

With only 1 out of 4 Canadian teams (Atlanta is now Winnipeg) making the playoffs last season for the Eastern conference, and that playoff  team (Montreal) finishing only 3 points ahead of 8th. It really didn’t seem like this season held a lot of promise for Canadian teams. Ottawa and Winnipeg were both considered to be in rebuilding mode. Toronto was a team that nobody was giving a chance too, as they were just “too young”. Montreal was the only Canadian team in the East that was given a chance to make any noise this year. After Montreal’s horrendous start, you would assume that this year would not be looking good for Canada, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Canadian teams have been on fire as of late, especially in the East. Now let’s take a look at each individual team and see why they are giving their respective cities reasons to be hopeful this year.

Toronto Maple Leafs: 11 GP, 7-3-1, 15 points. 2nd place in the Eastern Conference.
The Leafs have not only been the best Canadian team in the East so far, but they’ve been one of the best in the entire league! 7 wins in 11 games is an incredible start, and it is due in large part to its top line. Phil Kessel has been an absolute force, netting 10 goals (including 3 game winners) and 18 points in 11 games and he leads the league in all of those stats. His linemate Joffrey Lupul has been great as well as he has added 5 goals and 11 points. The 2 clearly have something special going on here, as Kessel has been a completely different player ever since Lupul came over in the Beauchemin trade. That line has just become even more dangerous as Tim Connolly has now returned from injury, and has already shown some early flashes of brilliance with his linemates in his 1st 3 games. The other key player for the Leafs so far this year has been captain Dion Phaneuf, as he has 11 points in 11 games. He is also a team best +7, while playing almost 27 minutes a game! He is beginning to look like the Phaneuf of old that dominated the league in his 1st few seasons in Calgary. After suffering 2 tough losses against the Bruins and Flyers, the Leafs bounced back nicely and beat both the Rangers and the 1st place Penguins, before losing on Sunday to the suddenly hot Senators. The good news for the Leafs is that in their last few games, they have begun to get secondary scoring from the Grabovski/Kulemin/MacArthur line. MacArthur has improved the most of late, as after having only 1 point in his 1st 5 games, he has 4 goals and an assist in his last 3 games! The addition of Steckel has also been a very underrated move as he has won 60.9% of his faceoffs and has been a great addition to the team. Toronto’s special teams haven’t been a strength, as the slightly above average 13th ranked powerplay, has been erased by the 27th ranked PK unit. What is saving the Leafs is the fact that they are one of the best 5 on 5 teams in the league, as they score 1.33 goals (3rd in NHL) for every time they are scored on at even strength. The good news for the Leafs is that the secondary scorers are starting to contribute, Connolly is in the lineup, and Reimer should be coming off of the IR soon.  For those of you doubting Toronto’s start and thinking they aren’t that consistent, only 1 game this year has been decided by more than 2 goals, meaning they might not blow anybody out, but they have had a chance to win in all but 1. Could this be the year Toronto finally makes the playoffs? Sure looks like it so far!

Ottawa Senators: 12 GP, 7-5-0, 14 points. 4th in East
Ottawa’s record might not be as good as the Leafs, but they are definitely the hottest team not only in the East, but in the entire league right now. After starting the year with a horrendous record of 1-5, the Senators have completely turned the ship around and fired off 6 straight wins! After an embarrassing 7-2 loss to the Flyers, the Senators have scored at least 3 goals every game during a 6 game win streak. All but one of those wins came by one goal, 3 of which took incredible comebacks to win, but nonetheless the Sens have banked 12 out of the last possible 12 points! How are they having all of this success? The answer is definitely not defense or goaltending, as the Sens have allowed 45 goals in 12 games, and starter Craig Anderson despite having a 6-2 record, has posted a 3.66 GAA, and a .881 save %. To say those are weak numbers would be an understatement, especially considering the success he had last year after coming to Ottawa. The Senators are winning because of the offense. Spezza has 6 goals and 15 points in 12 games putting him among the league leaders in points. Linemate Michalek isn’t far behind as he has a team-leading 8 goals, and has contributed 13 points . Also, D-man E. Karlsson despite having only 1 goal, has also pitched in with 13 points! How are these players putting up so many points?? That is simple…Ottawa has the top-ranked powerplay in the league right now, they are almost impossible to stop from scoring on the man-advantage. Ottawa has scored a league leading 13 power play goals, on only 42 opportunities. That is a WHOPPING 31% PP scoring rate! Ottawa’s recent run has put them right in the thick of things with the top teams in the conference, and with 4 of their next 5 games coming against division opponents, the Sens have a great chance to make themselves a legitimate playoff threat! Not too bad for a team that people thought had no reason to be excited for this season other than another possible lottery pick!

Montreal Canadiens: 11 GP, 4-5-2, 10 points. 11th in East
The Canadiens started the season off horrendously….after a 1-5-2 start, fans were calling for blood! They wanted the coach gone, the GM gone, and some of its highest paid players traded as well. And with the next 3 games on the schedule being Philly, and then Boston twice, it really looked like things were going to go from bad to worse for the Habs. But the Montreal team that couldn’t seem to do anything right in the 1st games, have played pretty much perfect hockey in their last 3 and have now strung together 3 straight wins vs 2 of the toughest teams in the conference for them historically. Boston and Philadelphia have had their own struggles lately, so that definitely helped Montreal, but nonetheless the Habs have played essentially error free hockey (other than the Plekanec/Price miscue) over the last 3 games. A few more wins in a row, and Montreal might even be able to forget about the brutal beginning to October. Price has been great over the past 3 games, allowing only 4 goals, and posting a .950 save %, after having a GAA over 3, and a sub .900 save % to start the year. That is more like the Carey Price we all expected this year, returning to his Vezina candidate form. Plekanec and Pacioretty have been the only forwards who have looked like All-stars at any point this year for the team. However, those 2 being the leading scorers might not be great news as they only have 4 goals each and 9 points in 11 games. Not exactly dominant numbers you would expect from team leaders. But the Habs have taken some solace in the fact that they have gotten well distributed scoring, as they have 9 players with at least 5 points. And when you think about it, the Habs didn’t have any players last season or the year before at over a point per game, so this shouldn’t cause any worry with Habs fans. The one player who has to improve however is PK Subban, as he has 0 goals and only 3 points in 11 games despite playing 24 minutes a game. And it’s not exactly like he is playing great in the defensive zone as he is -3. But if the Habs play like they do in the last 3 games, then the playoffs are definitely attainable. The key to the recent string of victories has been Carey Price, and much improved special teams! The powerplay in the last 3 games has been clicking at 27.3%, compared to 13.3% on the season. And the Penalty Kill has been successful 91% of the time, compared to 83% on the year even counting the recent dominance.

Winnipeg Jets: 11 GP, 4-6-1, 9 points. 13th in East
The Jets have been the least impressive of the Canadian teams, however, they may have turned a corner recently. In the last 5 games, they have went 3-2, both of those losses coming by only 1 goal. So the Jets have definitely been playing a lot better recently, being led offensively by Antropov (10 points in 11 games), and Burmistrov who has been GREAT. Burmistrov has 9 points in 11 games this year, after having only 20 points in 74 games last year as a rookie. Clearly he has found his game this year, and is showing no signs of slowing down any time soon. The key to the recent success however, in my opinion, has been Kyle Wellwood. He leads the team with 5 goals, and 8 points. His 8 points are good enough for 3rd on the team, despite having 6 forwards on the team who average more ice time than him. Wellwood has made the most of the little ice time he has received, and the Jets must be incredibly with the signing. Things could get better for the Jets when you consider that Byfuglien, last year’s Norris candidate has only 4 points and is a -5 so far this year! After 53 points last season, his 0 goals are shocking, and you have to assume that he will soon turn it around. If they could get better numbers out of Pavelec then the 3.63 GAA, and .885 save% then the Jets could potentially make a run at the playoffs. One thing is for sure, however, the Jets have been one of the most entertaining teams to watch this year, just look at their last 3 games. First, the beat the Flyers 9-8 in one of the biggest roller-coaster games of the year, then losing a nail-biter to the Lightning 1-0, and finally vs the Panthers, they tied it in the last minute and won it in a shootout. I for one, am incredibly happy that the Jets are in Winnipeg, and the winning record the Jets have at home shows that the team appreciates the fan support as well!

Be sure to check out Part 2 that will focus on the Western Canadian teams.

Grant Robinson (@thesportsgrind)

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