Columbus Blue Jackets 13-6-0 +11 goal differential
With a team of unsung NHL talent led by the only true All-Star Rick Nash, I am shocked that they are in the playoff hunt, not to mention a mere 2 points from the Central Division lead. But the team's success is built around just that, team success. They rely on unheralded team unity and effort to grab wins. It all starts between the pipes where Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon have split time. Each of the netminders have pulled their weight, posting over a .900 save percentage. Follow that up with two defensemen, Marc Methot and Rostislav Klesa, who have double-digit +/- and you have a formidable defense. Their offense, though more defensive minded, has Nash boasting 13 goals and emerging Derick Brassard putting up 11 assists. After that, the numbers drop off but the core of the rest of the forwards evenly distributes the points.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="435" caption="DerickBrassard has used his vision to lead Columbus in assists"][/caption]
The Blue Jackets will make the playoffs as long as they can manage to keep their dominating 7-1-0 road record respectable. It will be tough as the Central division contains Detroit, Chicago and St. Louis, but if they steal points in conference play Nationwide Arena may host another playoff series. Their team first mentality is a rarity now-a-days as the NHL becomes more star-oriented with the Crosbys, Ovechkins and Stamkos of the league. However, this mentality is what will help them prevail down the stretch. Columbus may not be a cup contender but they will be a worthy advisory in the second season.
Phoenix Coyotes 10-5-5 -2 goal differential
The 'Yotes are still a surprise pick even after last season. Their mix of young guns, Kyle Turris and Lauri Korpikoski among others, and veteran leadership, Ray Whitney, Shane Doan and Ed Jovanovski, is what makes the Coyotes tick. Doan especially leads by example on and off the ice. His throwback style gives the Coyotes forecheck its bite. Their offense sports 7 different players with 10 or more points and two more on the cusp with 9. They may not be a heavy arsenal up front but their timely goals are enough when they have Ilya Bryzgalov in the crease. Bryzgalov is impressing in his last year of a contract with a .919 save percentage. The real story for Phoenix is the "where did he come from?" story of Lauri Korpikoski. The 2004 1st rounder is finally bringing it at the NHL level with an even split of 5 goals and 5 assists. He is a mainstay on the penalty kill and has netted a shortie by way. His confidence and ice time seems to be growing by the game as his, along with the other younger legs, are pressing hard on the forecheck.
[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="400" caption="Captain Shane Doan leads by example"][/caption]
Despite the great early start I don't see the Coyotes finishing in the top 8 out West. Their standing is reflective of their 6 game win streak and without that momentum I could easily see them in the basement as we speak. Their back line without Jovanovski is too shaky. Look at Keith Yandle (-7) and Derek Morris (-5). Though they have put up solid offensive numbers their defensive play has been glaring. Not to mention, a playoff contender needs good penalty killing and the Coyotes rank 24th with 78.7% of their penalties killed. They have the goaltending and a good group of forwards but I doubt their defense, as is, can handle the full season.
The West is a tight conference this year, not like the East, and by Christmas the table may be upside down. Who knows, I guess that is the fun of seeing how the 82 game season shakes out.
Stay tuned for Part 2 where I look at two surprising teams in the Eastern conference.
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