So here we are, coming towards to the end of the 09-10 NHL regular season, with many teams in contention for a playoff spot. I am writing this article to reflect on this season and to relive some of its surprises and shocks.
First I'll start off with the current President's Trophy leaders, none other than the Washington Capitals.
What can I say? They have been phenomenal this year, able to score goals for fun due to the awesome depth they have in their squad. It must be nice to be Bruce Boudreau and know that you are going to get goals from every line.
However, it must also be noted how Nicklas Backstrom has become much more of a goal scorer this year, going from 22 last year to 28 so far this year. This is a notable reason as to why the Caps have scored the most goals this year (266).
As well as Backstrom becoming a more prolific goal scorer, it seems that Alex Ovechkin has become more of a helper since getting the "C" stitched onto his jersey. He is playing like he was born to be the captain, and he is on course for the NHL scoring title again, however this time with more assists than goals.
One of the Caps' biggest threats in the playoffs comes from the current champs, the Pittsburgh Penguins and most notably Sidney Crosby. Sid the Kid is having an awesome year, and this is because he is shooting the puck a lot more and currently sits atop the goal scoring charts.
The Pens are a big threat to the Caps because they seem to be able to get goals from whoever is on the ice. I did fear a little for the Pens because they didn't seem to make a big signing in the offseason, however the deals they did make have paid off well.
Moving on to the Pen's Atlantic Division Rivals, the New Jersey Devils, who like the Pens, are in the hunt for the title. Many people believe that the Devils pulled off the biggest coup of the season, with the trade for Ilya Kovalchuk.
Kovalchuk was easily the biggest prize available before the trade deadline, and the Devils managed to beat off competition from numerous teams, (including a massive contract extension from Atlanta ), to secure his services. Even though Kovalchuk hasn't made a huge impact in NJ just yet, watch for him in the playoffs because they will need stand out performers and he fits that bill.
Talking about big deals in the season, few were bigger than Phil Kessel being traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs from the Boston Bruins. A lot of people probably thought that this was going to be the catalyst for the Leafs to make the playoffs this year.
However, they have struggled all season whilst slumping to the bottom of the Eastern Conference (23-34-12) and even with the blockbuster trade on Jan. 31 (that brought Dion Phaneuf, Freddie Sjostrom, and Keith Aulie in exchange for Ian White, Matt Stajan, Niklas Hagman, and Jamal Mayers), haven't really improved dramatically. However Leafs fans shouldn't worry too much because the rest of this season is a transition period for all younger players such as Bozak and Caputi to show what they can do ahead of training camp in the summer.
The other team involved in the Kessel trade, the Boston Bruins, has been rather surprising this year, going from President Trophy candidates last year to fighting for a playoff spot this year. I would say this is partly due to the trading of Kessel, who was one of the bright lights for the Bruins.
I would also say that Tim Thomas' performances this year have been to blame. Last year's Vezina Trophy winner is less than .500 this year (15-17-8) and has been replaced with Tuukka Rask, a rookie goaltender from Finland, on numerous occasions.
Talking about Rask, he has been in fine form this season and has needed to be to give the Bruins a chance of making the playoffs. He currently leads the league in GAA (2.09) and is third in save percentage (.928). If he can keep playing like this, it is more than likely he will have the starting job for the Bruins if they make the playoffs and for next season.
Bruins fans should be excited no matter how they finish this year, because of the fact that they have Toronto's first round draft pick. This is awesome because seeing as the Leafs are so low this year, they are looking at either a potential No. 1, 2, or 3 pick, depending on how the lottery goes.
Other teams battling it out with the Bruins for a playoff spot are the Philadelphia Flyers, Montréal Canadiens, New York Rangers, Atlanta Thrashers, and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Moving on to the Montréal Canadiens. With the number of moves they made in the offseason, I had them down as being Eastern Conference contenders, but after a while it looked like they would struggle to make the playoffs, especially when they lost Mike Cammalleri.
But since the Olympics it's been a totally different story and, at the moment, they are on fire! I believe that they are well on their way to the playoffs, and it will be interesting to see how they do with Cammalleri back in the lineup.
Moving on to the New York Rangers and their up and down season. This year I thought they would be a challenger for the Atlantic Division title, especially after signing Marian Gaborik and their 7-1 start. However, the Rangers seem to be unable to sustain a long winning run, especially when they have been in winning positions.
I have been impressed by the play of people like Gaborik, Prospal, Christensen, Callahan, and Lundqvist (as usual), but the rest of the team have struggled to provide secondary offense this year and I do believe they will struggle to make the playoffs, which disappoints me massively as I am a huge Rangers fan.
Another team fighting it out for the playoffs is the Atlanta Thrashers, who have been extremely inconsistent this year. They have had some great results, and then they have had some disastrous ones as well. However, with the trade for Kovalchuk the future looks bright as they are stacking up with some handy youngsters such as Nicklas Bergfors, Evander Kane, and Zach Bogosian.
Therefore, Thrashers fans shouldn't worry too much if they don't make the playoffs this year, because they will have a great chance next year.
Moving on now to one of the Thrashers' Southeast Division rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
The Bolts, like the Thrashers, have had quite an inconsistent year; however the play of Steven Stamkos has been phenomenal. After an average rookie year, he has absolutely exploded on to the big stage this year, with 42 goals so far (third in league).
However, the Bolts haven't seemed to capitalize on the strong play of Stamkos, Steve Downie, Victor Hedman, and others as they are still outside of the playoff race. However, like the Thrashers, if they don't make the playoffs this year the next year still looks good.
One team that seems to have their place booked in the playoffs is the Philadelphia Flyers. However, in December, this was nowhere near the case. With the acquisition of Chris Pronger, the Flyers were expected to be fighting it out for the Eastern title. So the fact they were 13th place in the East and looking up at most teams prompted them to make a coaching change.
And it worked. Replacing John Stevens with Peter Laviolette seems to have done the trick for the Flyers, who were playing such uninspired hockey before Christmas. Since then they have been pretty steady, thanks to the sustained play of most of their stars, and their most frequently started goaltender, Michael Leighton.
Michael Leighton? Yes, and I think he has to receive a lot of credit for the resurrection of the Flyers. A pickup on waivers from the Carolina Hurricanes, this has to be one of the best signings of the season. Leighton was only supposed to provide cover for Brian Boucher, who was covering for the injured Ray Emery.
However, when Boucher was a little shaky, Leighton came in and took advantage of his opportunity. He is now the starting goaltender for the Flyers (as Emery is out for the season) and he looks like a seasoned veteran in the net. Come playoff time it will be interesting to see if he can maintain this high standard he has set.
Moving on to Leighton's old team, the Carolina Hurricanes, and how things have gone so wrong for them this year. They have gone from reaching the Eastern Conference finals last year, to finishing near the basement in the East and having the worst start in franchise history.
I think the injuries to Cam Ward have been quite a hindrance to the Canes, plus the fact that their players didn't really play with any fire in their hearts. However, I think giving Eric Staal the "C" has really helped him shape up and put up some good numbers.
Also, the recent play of a young rookie goaltender has showed signs that the future of the Carolina Hurricanes is nearly here. His name is Justin Peters and he has been brilliant for the 'Canes since being thrown in at the deep end. Along with Peters, the play of rookies like Brandon Sutter and Zach Boychuk shows that the future looks encouraging for the 'Canes.
Another team that looks like they will be missing the playoffs is the Florida Panthers, who have been extremely inconsistent this year. They have had some great road wins against the Sharks and the Red Wings, but also some lopsided defeats, the latest one being last night against the Caps.
The play of players like Tomas Vokoun, Nathan Horton, Dimitri Kulikov, and Stephen Weiss has been quite encouraging; however, they have suffered with their fair share of injuries, especially to key players like David Booth and Nathan Horton.
They have really missed the scoring touch of these guys and I don't believe that the others have stepped up their game sufficiently to eradicate this problem. I don't think they will make the playoffs this year but I think that they may receive quite a high draft pick, which may mean the future is bright for the Panthers.
Moving on to the New York Islanders, who I don't think will make the playoffs this year, but an strong finish in the standings will provide some confidence for players and fans alike. There have been some positives coming from Long Island this year, such as the play of John Tavares, Matt Moulson, and Rob Schremp.
These players have played quite well this season, but they haven't been consistent enough for the Islanders to make a splash. I think this goes for some of the other players as well, who have the odd brilliant game, but not often enough.
Someone who has been brilliant for the Islanders this season though is Dwayne Roloson. The 40 year old goaltender, who signed a two year deal in the summer, has been superb all season. Roloson (22-15-6) was released by the Edmonton Oilers in the summer, as they did not want to offer him longer than a one year contract due to his age.
The Islanders did make that gamble and the rest, as they say, is history.
Finally, I am going to look at the two teams fighting it out for the Northeast Division, the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres.
First, the Ottawa Senators, who I thought were going to struggle to reach the playoffs this year, especially when they traded Dany Heatley to the San Jose Sharks. It's been quite the opposite for the Sens, thanks to players like Milan Michalek, who came from the Sharks, and also their goaltender Brian Elliott.
However, the whole team deserves credit for the franchise record they set in January-February with an 11-game winning streak. This propelled them to the top of the Northeast Division, but the Buffalo Sabres have since caught up and are now fighting them down the stretch for home ice advantage.
Last, but no means least, are the Buffalo Sabres, who are having a much better season than they did last year. I would say this is due, in part, to both Tyler Myers and Ryan Miller.
Tyler Myers, the 6'8" rookie defenseman, has been awesome for the Sabres this year, leading all rookies in average TOI (23.44 mins/game) and fourth in points (37). He has been a breath of fresh air for the Sabres' blue line this year, and I believe he is one reason for the playoff push mounted by the Sabres.
Finally, I have to talk about the stellar play of Ryan Miller this year, more so before the Olympics, but still stellar nevertheless. Miller leads the league in save percentage (.929), second in GAA (2.21) and fifth in shutouts (5).
He has been nothing short of awesome for the majority of this year, and he continued this play through the Olympics, helping the USA come so close to winning gold.
However, I do believe that he is quite tired as a result of the Olympics and this is the reason for his mini-slump. But don't worry Sabres fans, because I do genuinely believe he will be back to his best in the playoffs, if not before.
That's my review of the season so far, and this is how I believe the regular season will end up:
1. Washington Capitals
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
3. Buffalo Sabres
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Ottawa Senators
6. Philadelphia Flyers
7. Montréal Canadiens
8. Boston Bruins
9. New York Rangers
10. Atlanta Thrashers
11. Tampa Bay Lightning
12. New York Islanders
13. Florida Panthers
14. Carolina Hurricanes
15. Toronto Maple Leafs