Stoop Sports’ hockey staff writers Corey Cahill, Jake Chernok, and Anthony Pucik, and VP of hockey content Ryan Pavlicek look at the first half of Eastern Conference hockey.
1. Which team is most likely to represent the east in the Stanley Cup Finals?
Ryan Pavlicek- At the halfway point of the shortened 2012-13 season, the Boston Bruins are most likely to represent the East in the Stanley Cup Finals. They are playing the most complete hockey in all of the conference, with an impressive 16-3-3 record. They’ve only played 22 games and are only one point behind the Montreal Candiens for the number one seed, despite three less opportunities to earn points. The Bruins have a great mix of young and veteran talent which has equaled a flat out dominant team as a whole. They’re as physical as any team in the league, which is expected with a 6’9”, 255 pound captain in Zdeno Chara. Even at 35, he is one of the most dominant defenseman in the game. Tuukka Rask was the only question mark filling in for Tim Thomas, but that’s not a question anymore. Rask is Vezina trophy nominee with a record of 11-2-3 with a 2.09 goals against average. This will be a tough team to beat in a 7 game series.
Anthony Pucik- As of right now, I would say the team that is most likely to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals is the Boston Bruins. The Bruins have one of the most complete teams in the entire NHL. They can put the puck in the net and their defense and goaltending is absolutely phenomenal. Led by captain Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the Bruins’ defense has the best penalty kill in the league with a 91.9% percent success rate. Overall they are one of the most physical, intimidating teams in the entire league. Many people questioned how well Tuukka Rask would handle being the everyday starting goalie with Tim Thomas taking his “year off,” but he has silenced those critics thus far. His 11-2-3 record and 2.09 goals against average is impeccable and a huge reason why the Bruins are doing so well this season. To top it all off, the Bruins have big bodies who have the ability to put the puck in the net like Brad Marchand, Milan Lucic, and Tyler Seguin. This complete package will allow the Bruins to strive all season which they will then take into the playoffs.
Corey Cahill- At this point, I’m not completely sold on the Montreal Canadiens just yet. I know were already halfway through this shortened season but I’m going to wait until the second half to see what they do. With that, I am going to have to say the Pittsburgh Penguins are the team most likely to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. We all know about Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, but I think the guys that make this team so dangerous are guys like James Neal, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, and Brandon Sutter. Their defense still isn’t the strongest, but if they score 4 or 5 goals a game, they are most likely going to win. This is probably the most powerful power play I’ve ever seen on paper, and on the ice. With Letang, Malkin, and Crosby moving the puck around up top and Neal and Kunitz down low, their it is very difficult to contain. I like the Bruins a lot, but with the experience and fire power that the Penguins have, they stand a better chance. If Marc Andre-Fluery can find a groove down the stretch, look out for the Penguins in the postseason. Bruins versus Penguins would make for a hell of an Eastern Conference Finals, but its one that I see the Penguins taking from what I’ve seen so far.
Jake Chernok- The team most likely to represent the east is the Boston Bruins. They have been extremely consistent all year long, and avoided the rough patches that have plagued most teams. Tuukka Rask has been a more than capable replacement between the pipes for Tim Thomas, and this team is loaded with talent at both forward and defense.
2. Which team has been the most surprising?
Ryan- This is undoubtedly the Montreal Canadiens, who stand all alone on top of the Eastern Conference. The Canadiens carry a 16-5-4 record after finishing the 2011-12 season dead last in the conference at 31-35-16. Carey Price has always been a top-10 goaltender, but the Canadiens have wasted that talent as of late. Although the roster is similiar to last year’s, everybody is playing better under new coach Michel Therrien, who had coached the Canadiens once before. This time, he has the team clicking, while Brandon Prust continues to prove why he felt he was worth more money than the New York Rangers offered him when he left this past off-season. A shortened season is sure to bring some surprises, and the Canadiens are proving why that was expected.
Anthony- The team that is most surprising in the Eastern Conference this season is the Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens were the worst team in the Eastern Conference last season, and somehow find themselves atop the Conference this year. They did not make any major changes in the offseason, but are simply playing far better. They are one of the best teams in the league in putting the puck in the net (tied for fourth with 3.08 a game), and keeping the puck out (seventh in the league with 2.46 goals against per game). With an All-Star caliber goalie like Carey Price, all the Canadiens needed to do was figure out how to play around hi, and they finally have. From worst to first, the Canadiens are the surprise team of the Eastern Conference this season.
Corey- The aforementioned Montreal Canadiens have been very surprising, but I am going to go with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Here’s a team that I thought was going to finish dead last in the conference, but boy was I wrong. Randy Carlyle has done wonders for this team with the system he has implemented in Toronto. The young players are buying in and the fans are excited about hockey for the first time in awhile. The most surprising player on the team has been Nazem Kadri. The seventh overall pick in the 2009 entry draft, Kadri is in his first full season with the Leafs where he underachieved overwhelmingly in his first three campaigns. To date, the Maple Leafs leading point scorer has 11 goals and 14 assists in 25 games, surpassing his career total in points of 19 before this season. The Leafs have also gotten remarkable goaltending from young goalies James Reimer and Ben Scrivens. Toronto currently sits at 5th in the East, only 5 points behind division leader Montreal who is first overall in the conference. It will be interesting to see if this cast of young guys can continue to get the job done in the second half of the season.
Jake- The Montreal Canadiens have been the most surprising team in the East this year, as they find themselves in first heading into the second half. Led by their goaltender Carey Price, the Habs have been one of the hottest teams in the league as of late, going 6-1-3 in their last 10. They have proven themselves to be sound defensively and have enough firepower up front to make some noise come playoff time.
3.Which team has been the most disappointing?
Ryan- The Philadelphia Flyers are the most disappointing team within the Eastern Conference for a few reasons. For one, they sit in 11th place with an 11-14-1 record through 26 games played. The team has a whole hasn’t shown any spark whatsoever to show that they will pick up their game and inch closer to the elite status that they seemed to be on the verge of last season. A part of this disappointment has to fall on the shoulders of new captain Claude Giroux. Before the year, I selected him to win the MVP and I am very wrong on that one. He’s picked up his play as of late, and he didn’t have Scott Hartnell with him for a period of time, but he should have more than 7 goals at the mid-point of the season regardless. This was a team that was expected to be close to the top of the conference, but now doesn’t even look like a playoff team. Goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has been inconsistent as usual, just like the rest of the team.
Anthony- The team that is the most disappointing in the Eastern Conference this season is the New York Rangers. The Rangers won the Eastern Conference last season and find themselves eighth in the conference halfway through this shortened season. Rick Nash was acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets in order to boost the offense which had been the Rangers’ downfall last year. Although Nash is producing, a slew of injuries to key players throughout the year and lack of offensive consistency has prevented the Rangers from being one of the top teams in the conference. People thought that Nash was the missing piece the Rangers needed to complete their team and finally make a Cup run. But even with Nash the power play is still abysmal and the offense struggles greatly when he is not on the ice. Lack of chemistry with the addition of a few new faces (Powe, Halpern, Asham) on top of the same inconsistent play that plagued the Rangers last year is why they are greatly underachieving in 2013.
Corey- The Philadelphia Flyers have been the most disappointing team in the East so far. Coming into the year with so much young talent and superstar captain Claude Giroux, the Flyers have simply underachieved in all aspects of the game. Their biggest achilles heel has been their defense. Most of the times where the Flyers get hurt, it is due to lack of communication between the young guys and the veterans that lead to defensive breakdowns which leave guys wide open in front of the net. Ilya Bryzgalov has been very good at times, but has still been inconsistent for the most part. Bryzgalov has proven that isn’t the guy that is going to take the Flyers to win a Stanley Cup. The production from the forwards has been there in most games, but like I said, it is the defense and goaltending that is hindering their overall progress. The Flyers have had a boatload of injuries, but with the depth they have on their team it shouldn’t be that big of a problem, especially up front. They need to turn it around and get back to the way they played last season to make a playoff push in the second half of the season.
Jake- There are a couple of teams that could top this list, but no team has underwhelmed as much as the Washington Capitals. The Caps had a down year last season, but snuck into the playoffs and forced the top seeded New York Rangers to a seventh game. But it has been a different story this year, as new coach Adam Oates has struggled to get star Alex Ovechkin going, finding the Caps in the bottom of the East.