By Jeff O’Connor and Dave Turner
We’ll check in with the four other teams in the Atlantic Division from time to time, sizing up the Devils competition.
Standings as of Monday 1/28
1. Devils 3-0-1 7 points
2. Penguins 3-2-0 6 points
3. Islanders 2-2-1 5 points
4. Rangers 2-3 4 points
5. Flyers 2-4 4 points
While it may be laughable for New Jersey Devils fans right now, don’t expect this New York Rangers team to slump much longer. Sure, they have three losses thus far, but they’ve been to a pair of legitimate Cup contenders in Pittsburgh and Boston. The other game was to Philadelphia, was was due for a win after starting 0-3. Their two wins were notable. They fought off a tough Bruins team at home and produced a four-goal third period against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday night.
The worry for all other Atlantic teams regarding the Rangers has come true so far; their money players have been money. Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Rick Nash have each averaged a point per game thus far, while Gaborik has exploded for five goals in five games. This will be a challenge for all defenses and goaltenders this year.
On the other hand, the reason last year’s Rangers were so successful was because of their supporting cast. That’s been their downfall this year; there have been no Robins to the Batmans we mentioned above. Captain Ryan Callahan? One point and a minus-4 rating thus far. Brian Boyle… one point and a minus-3 rating. Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Mike Rupp, Aaron Asham and Jeff Halpern have played a total of 20 games and have recorded NO points. That’s quite an issue.
Finally, whether you want to blame the defense or the goaltending; it’s a problem all around. Henrik Lundqvist’s GAA looks more like a college GPA so far this season, as it sits at 3.14. There haven’t been a ton of shots on The King either, as it shows in his .893 save percentage. IS there a stumbling block coming for Lundy?
The Rangers can survive without the scoring depth or with their defense not being sharp, but the goaltending MUST get better. If they can at least improve in their own end, or find some additional personnel to light the lamp, they’ll be fine.
The New York Islanders have gotten off to a fair start this year’ hovering around the .500 mark so far. Two of their three losses are against playoff teams from last year in New Jersey and Boston. They beat the one team they should be able to in the Toronto Maple Leafs. Though they beat the Tampa Bay Lightning who have been hot as of late, they blew a late lead to the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday night.
So what does this all mean? For the 188,523rd time, we have no idea how to size up the Islanders. Could they make the playoffs? Sure. Are they a fringe team? Yea, definitely. Or are they a team that will undoubtedly miss the postseason? Wouldn’t surprise me either. They could find themselves in the playoffs for the first time since 2006-07.
One thing the Islanders can do to hope their chances is to take advtantage of opportunities and hold off the other teams that are chasing them and limit mistakes. So far, the Islanders have the third-best penalty kill in the league at 94.1%. That’s a nice asset to have in their back pocket if they get into penalty trouble. The power play? Pretty solid, hitting at 22.2 percent. If they can stay around those marks and play fairly well at even strength, to me, that has the makings of a playoff team.
Also, if the Islanders get the scoring depth they’ve had in this small sample size, then I REALLY like their chances. So far, 10 of their skaters have three points or more, in five games played; eight forwards and two defensemen. That’s a solid amount of balance. That equates to almost three lines of forwards and a pairing of defensemen. Much like the Rangers, their top gunnes have each averaged at least a point a game, in John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner.
For me, their season is decided if goaltender Evgeni Nabokov can avoid the “bad game” from becoming a common theme. If he’s somewhat reliable, book the Isles for the playoffs.
As for the Pennsylvania contingency of the Atlantic Division, you have two teams going in opposite directions.
While the Penguins haven’t been stellar so far, they’re going to score. I think they can be a legitimate contender as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin stay healthy. James Neal has gotten out to a fast start for the Pens, with four goals so far.
Losses to the Jets and Maple Leafs are a bit concerning, but they beat up on the Rangers 6-3 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the score indicated. With a few more games, we should be able to get a better read as to the direction of the team, but my bet is that they get rolling.
To me, the biggest question mark is Marc-Andre Fleury. We’ve seen MAF play like an elite goaltender, but then we’ve also seen him play like he did in the playoffs last year. He HAS to be consistent if this team expects to make a deep playoff run this season. So far Fleury’s numbers are solid, with a 2.28 GAA and a .986 save percentage.
Their power play has been in the top-half of the league thus far, standing at 20%, good for 10th, thus far. The Pens penalty kill has been even better, as their 87.5 % mark is currently 7th in the NHL.
One of the keys for them this season is what they can get out of Brandon Sutter. When they traded Jordan Staal in the offseason to get him, it gave Sutter a chance for some new scenery and a chance to blossom. He has only one assist thus far and he’ll have to produce if the Penguins want to have the kind of depth they’ve had in years past with Staal.
The Devils and the Pens will tussle three times in the next two weeks, so we’ll get a good look at how these two teams stack up against each other very soon.
As for the Flyers, they’re a team in search of an identity. First off, I think trading James Van Riemsdyk was a bad move. Sure, Luke Schenn might turn out to be a pretty good defenseman in years to come, but the Flyers lack scoring depth and it shows. Coupled with the loss of Scott Hartnell to a foot injury, this team is struggling to put pucks in the net. Outside of their 7-goal explosion in their win over the Florida Panthers, they’ve scored a grand total of six goals in their other five games.
Ilya Bryzgalov has been a lightning rod once again. He’s looked great at times, but he continues to struggle with giving up occasional soft goals. I think it might be a mental thing with him, because he goes from looking like a top-5 netminder at times, to someone who doesn’t even deserve to start. So far though, his body of work this season is solid. He has a 2.21 GAA and a .923 save percentage.
This looks like a team that is trying to rebuild on the fly. They have a nice young core of Claude Giroux, Hartnell, Wayne Simmonds and the Schenns, among others, but they’ve lost a lot of their imposing physical edge. The loss of Zac Rinaldo has exacerbated that problem, but he’ll be back soon.
Looking at the Flyers right now, there’s not much on their roster that makes you think that they can finish ahead of New Jersey, Pittsburgh or New York. They should continue to improve over the season as they start to grow some continuity amongst all of their young players, including rookie Tye McGinn .
Because Philadelphia is handicapped by salary cap troubles, they’ll have trouble trying to trade for a depth scorer. With a big game coming against the Rangers on Tuesday, one of those teams is going to leave the ice hurting in the standings.