As NHL teams approach the one-third mark of the 2011-12 campaign, I think we can all agree that this season has been nothing short of unpredictable. Heading into tonight's action, the Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers, and Florida Panthers lead their respective divisions in the Eastern Conference. In the West the Chicago Blackhawks, Phoenix Coyotes and Minnesota Wild are atop their divisions. Six points currently separate the No.8 Washington Capitals from the first place Flyers. In the Western Conference, the No.8 San Jose Sharks trail the conference leading Wild by 10 points. Not a single NHL expert analyst predicted that the Panthers, a team that has failed to make the playoffs in the past decade would be leading their division after 29 games played or that the Toronto Maple Leafs would be a mere two points back of the Northeast division lead sitting 2nd behind Boston. Prior to the start of the season nobody imagined that the Wild would overcome a goalie carousel to lead the league in points and that the Coyotes would be 2 points clear of the Sharks and Stars despite loosing G Ilya Bryzgalov in the offseason. The explanation to this peculiar start is simple: the NHL's elite teams have taken an extremely difficult path to December hockey.
The start of the season for the Stanley Cup finalist Vancouver Canucks was one of their slowest since drafting the Sedin twins back in 1999. The Canucks won only four of their first 10 games thanks in large part to an assortment of injuries to some of their best players. C Ryan Kesler missed all of training camp and the first five games of the regular season due to offseason hip surgery. Although Daniel and Henrik Sedin will surely lead the Canucks in goals and points by seasons end, Kesler is the heart and soul of this hockey team and the key to their playoff success a year ago. When Kesler finally rejoined the team, he struggled mightily and has only found his game in the past two weeks tallying 5 goals and 18 points. Kesler's resurgence has helped lead the Canucks to an 8-2 record in their last 10 contests. Another reason for the Canucks improvement is that back-up goaltender Cory Schneider has played phenomenal filling in for the injured Roberto Luongo. Schneider posted a stellar 7-4 record, 2.02 goals against average, and a .934 save percentage along with 2 shutouts in the 15 games he has started thus far. He's been so good that head coach Alain Vigneault opted to stay with Schneider even after Luongo was cleared to play before turning back to the veteran in a 4-3 OT win Thursday againstMontreal.
The Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins have faced a similar fate as the Canucks in the early stages of the season. The Bruins dropped seven out of their first 10 games sparking rumors that head coach Claude Julien would be replaced. A major reason of the Bruins struggles is due to the fact that their line of David Krejci, Milan Lucic and Nathan Horton thus far haven't been putting points on the board the way they did last season. Recently, Krejci went through nine games with zero goals, Lucic with eight and Horton with four. As one of the Bruins best lines rediscovered their game and their confidence so did the rest of the team. Since winning only three of ten games, the Bruins incredibly wrapped up the month of November without a regulation loss and are currently 7-2-1 in their last 10 tilts. The outstanding performance of goalie Tim Thomas is not to go unnoticed seeing as he has posted a sparkling 13-5 record, 1.83 goals against average, and a .941 save percentage with 3 shutouts this season. The reality is that the Bruins are strong in every area of the game and you can expect them to continue to regain their form from last year’s championship team.
The race to the playoffs always has been a marathon. There are always parts in the schedule when even the best teams struggle, as the Canucks and Bruins have done, but eventually the best teams show what they're made of.
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