This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

Teams:

  • that the Vegas Golden Knights would lead their division with games in hand after Thanksgiving…
  • the Detroit Red Wings would hold a playoff spot and the Montreal Canadien’s who won the division last year would not…
  • at the quarter pole the best record in the NHL would belong to a healthy Tampa Bay Lightning would lead the NHL in points, wins, home wins, and goal differential…
  • the Pittsburgh Penguins would have the fifth lowest goals per game in the NHL..
  • the New York Islander’s would have the 2nd highest goals for per game and be barely 8th in the overall NHL standings after all their off season forward turnover.
  • the Saint Louis Blues would have lost the third most man games to injury and still be the best team in the west after Thanksgiving
  • after going to the second round in the spring the Edmonton Oilers would be back to their seemingly traditional position in the bottom five in the NHL.

Players:

  • the goalie controversy in Boston wouldn’t be who was going to be backing up Tuukka Rask this year, but when he would be allowed to take the net again
  • we would have two players over 1.5 goals per game (Steven Stamkos & Nikita Kucherov) who are not named Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin, or even McDavid.
  • none of the last five Norris Trophy awardees (Brent Burns, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson, Duncan Keith, P.K. Subban) would be in the top 3 in scoring among defensemen.
  • that Mike Green who has only passed the 40 point mark once since the 2009-10  season would be among the top 10 defensemen in scoring.
  • the NHL’s highest scoring rookie would be Brock Boeser of Vancouver Canucks and he’d have a line of 11-10-21 through 19 games with three game winning goals
  • at the quarter point of the season 553 players would have scored at least one goal versus 774 total last year to do the same

The time is now. No one knows how this series will end. History and statistics are on the side of the Pittsburgh Penguins who are up two to nothing. If it gets to three nothing, the team with that lead wins almost all the time. But games aren’t decided by historical statistics, they are decided by the men on the ice.

If Pekka Rinne remembers not the last couple games, but the last couple months and plays the way he did against Chicago, and Anaheim, and Saint Louis, he’ll be a completely different player. If James Neal can recall that he’s capable of thirty and forty goal seasons, and focuses on the game he might, might just score a goal for the first time in seven games. Similarly Victor Arvidsson who ran the board in the regular season hasn’t scored since April, in the first series, against the Chicago Blackhawks. Whatever jitters he has need to die as thorough a death as the notion Nashville isn’t a hockey town.

Arvidsson, Neal, and Rinne aren’t alone on the ice and aren’t even the only problems. The number of penalties the team has taken needs to be addressed. While I’m all for physicality, and on ice leadership and will never complain about two willing combatants going after it, Subban is a huge part of the team’s success both offensively and defensively. He’s not the first guy to punch Malkin in the face, he won’t be the last, but even on a defense as stacked as Nashville’s Subban is not a player you can lose when your back is against the wall, you’re already down your best center and you’re in the fight of your life with no one stepping up.

This team is better than the part time effort they are putting in. They haven’t played a sixty minuted game since maybe game six in Anaheim, and they won’t be winning their last game of the season if they play 37 to 40 minutes a night until the series is over.

Every game teaches lessons. Sometimes the lesson is subtle, it might apply to just one player, just one matchup. Or it might show the balance between various units on the opposing teams.

What they should have learned:

Pittsburgh Penguins

  • Use your speed through center ice.
  • Five men pack in the defensive zone to support the puck.
  • Don’t underestimate the speed of the Predators, especially their defense.
  • Trying to play counter punch hockey with a team faster, and about as offensively gifted is perilous.

Nashville Predators

  • Don’t get distracted by officiating.
  • Never, ever take your foot off the snake.
  • Support Rinne, especially when there are long gaps between shots on net.
  • You can play with the defending champions.

It’s pretty simple at this time of year. You either reset and recover after a grueling loss or you are sure to suffer another one.

Three to Watch:

Predators:

  1. P.K. Subban, he’s hot right now, when he’s on a hot streak he can take over and dominate, and he’s got the perfect complements in the rest of the Nashville defense to do that.
  2. James Neal he said before the series started “they didn’t want me” in regards to his former team the Penguins. He’ll love making them pay in multiple ways.
  3. Pekka Rinne he has not allowed three or more goals in back to back games all post season, and after his last four goal game he only allowed one.

Penguins:

  1. Phil Kessel, zero shots on goal is not a common occurrence, and no one should expect a sequel.
  2. Justin Schultz he had a very quiet sixteen minutes of ice time, well below his normal twenty one range.
  3. Matt Murray, like his counterpart he needs to be better to give his team a shot at winning. An .885% isn’t good, it isn’t even average and on any night the opposition plays respectably it’s a loss.

Check out the most recent Two Man ForeCheck on iTunes & TuneIn.

The Conn Smyth is the NHL’s highest award for an individual player. More times than not the man who hoists the award given to the post season MVP has helped his team win the only team award in the post season. This year each team has a player that is leading the team in what they do, and maybe just a little more.

The Nashville Predators

It’s almost insulting to put anything but the name of the an on this team who is through two rounds the most valuable player. Pekka Rinne is so far ahead of every other goalie to play this year in save percentage it isn’t even worth making comparisons. His goals against average having played two strong playoff opponents is equally eye popping. Seriously, .951 and 1.37 sound like numbers from an exhibition game against a German league team. Add in only 8 skaters on his team having more points than the three assists he’s garnered, and yeah Rinne may just win the Conn Smyth if they make it to the Stanley Cup Finals and lose.

Anaheim Ducks

It’s become something of a truism that when the chips are down and you need a guy to do something special if you close your eyes and pick a guy drafted in 2003 it’s pretty likely to happen. For the Ducks, Ryan Getzlaf is that man. His 1.36 points per game average this post season is probably secondary to the terror he has been to opposing players he’s being credited with three hits a game, picking up blocked shots on a regular basis, he’s played more time than any forward or defenseman on the Anaheim roster, and he’s playing in all situations. The 54.6 faceoff % is worth putting him on the ice for all by itself.

The Pittsburgh Penguins

Most people have their Conn Smyth ballot penciled in when the Penguins make it this far. They either put Crosby or Malkin in without questioning who else is still playing. This year you just can’t do that. Malkin does indeed lead the playoffs in total scoring, but his points per game dipped in the second round, and he was held off the score board in the first and seventh games against Washington. The guy you just can’t ignore is Jake Guentzel, he leads the second season in goals, is over a point per game, and put up eight points against the Capitals

The Ottawa Senators

Like the Predators, the Senators have a no brainer pick on their roster. If this player doesn’t play at his best, they have no shot going forward. He’s currently playing through fractures in his heel. In consideration of that injury he’s taking a leisurely 28:56 of TOI a night, despite having missed the entire third period of one game in the second round. He’s the only defensemen with more than a point per game. He delicate condition has him blocking a mere two shots per game, bettered only by Ceci on the capital city squad.

The Dark Horses

Ryan Ellis is producing .90 points per game in the playoffs. That’s the second highest of any defensemen, and higher than nearly every forward. Why is he still an afterthought?

Cam Fowler missed four playoffs games, but has made up for it playing more and longer shifts than any other defenseman on the team. We all know h’s not a physical player, but he’s slick and positions himself well.

Justin Schulz is doing what no one really expected any one to do: Filling Kris Letang’s void. He leads the blueline in scoring with .67ppg and eating up powerplay time at a ravenous 3:35 per night. He’s turned in 5 powerplay points and a game winning goal in the post season.

Bobby Ryan has scored two game winners to hold him even with Karlsson, one of them in overtime against Boston. Hes also scored the first goal of a game. He’s played smart hockey since the playoff’s started and don’t be surprised if we see yet another level from him.

The Central division is the toughest in the NHL. Last season five teams from the division made it into the playoffs something no other division in hockey matched. In the division you’ve got dynamic goal scorers Norris quality defensemen, top flight goalies and not a lot of mutual love.

Top Shelf

Chicago Blackhawks

They got edged for a trip to the Finals, and will likely be trading someone pretty soon. Two of their core forwards Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa are closer to the ends of their careers than the beginning, but they are probably the best balanced team in the conference. They’ve got got great forwards, strong defense and adequate goaltending.

St Louis Blues

This team is likely to take a half to a full step back this year. Elliot has never thrived as a number-one goalie, and Jake Allen is still an unknown quantity. That said, they may have the best top three for defense in Pietrangelo, Shattenkirk, and Bouwmeester. They downgrade slightly going with Steve Ott over Vlad Sobotka, but did add Paul Stastny. Jaden Schwartz remains unsigned and doubtless need to do some catching up when he gets back into the fold.

Wild Cards

Minnesota Wild

Mikko Koivu led the team to the playoffs where he, Ryan Suter and the rest waged a fierce battle in the second round with the Blackhawks. Out are Clayton Stoner and Dany Heatley. Goaltending remains as unsteady as ever, but that doesn’t distract this team. Charlie Coyle, Erik Haula, Mikael Granlund and the rest will have to dig deep and pull in some more offense, but this team is capable of laying anyone out.

Colorado Avalanche

The advanced stats and the eyeball test said this team should not have been as dangerous as they proved to be in the regular season last year. It took until the playoffs to prove it. They did lose long time contributor Paul Stastny, and replaced him with the notably older Jarome Iginla. I don’t expect them to fall out of the playoffs, but 112 points again is not that likely. It will be interesting to see how older players like Briere and Iginla adjust to playing at altitude.

The Rest

The Dallas Stars

Finally a return to the playoffs last year. This year among other moves was punting the push and passion of Alex Chaisson for Jason Spezza’s finesse and offense. Anders Lindback will be this years backup in the crease. With a full season under his belt Valeri Nichushkin should be crossing the 20 goal mark this year. Given the changes in the roster, and the injury history of some players, this team a not a lock for the playoffs, but I don’t see them in the lottery.

Nashville Predators

In the off season the Predator made several moves that collectively add up to some big question marks. James Neal an elite sniper was added at the expense of Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling. Derek Roy, Olli Jokinen, Viktor Stalberg and Derek Roy were brought in to rearrange the forward group. I have no idea what these players will look like this season, and I don’t think anyone else does either. On the plus side, Pekka Rinne will have a full summer of health under his belt, Seth Jones and the other youngsters have played through the worst of things and the light is indeed brighter this year. Whatever else, the Predators have Shea Weber, and their opponents do not.

Winnipeg Jets

The weak sister of the division, the franchise hasn’t made the playoffs in years. Ownership needs to decide if they are building or breaking down, because what they are doing isn’t going to get them a Stanley Cup. They have a lot of talent in Evander Kane, Blake Wheeler, Zach Bogosian, and Dustin Byfuglien. When you look at the talent level at the top, and an average to above average middle of the roster, you have to wonder if it isn’t either the environment or the players themselves. Without reinforcement, and a strong on ice system, this team is not making the playoffs.

With Mike Fisher’s injury given a preliminary recover time that takes until about the time of the Winter Classic, assuming no set backs, the Nashville Predators are now in dire need of a quality center. Having spent the assets to acquire James Neal and Filip Forsberg in the last fifteen months, the time and the circumstances are right to double down and aim for a playoff position again.

Shea Weber is signed, rested, and should have a chip on his shoulder after another season where he probably should have gotten the Norris, or at least finished second. Seth Jones has spent a year learning the NHL. Craig Smith and Colin Wilson are now tested NHL players who have weathered the storm of disastrous seasons. Most importantly Pekka Rinne is healthy and ready for the hunt.

Out on the coast are the Boston Bruins, for many reasons the team is in cap jail and the situation isn’t going to get better any time soon with Soderberg, Boychuck, McQuaid, and Hamilton all due new contracts next year, and that’s with Torey Krug and Reilly Smith still unsigned right now. With moderate salary increases you’re likely looking at about $12 million in salary minimum between these players. Someone has to go.

Bergeron has a no movement clause and trading him for anything less than 6 first round draft picks, the Holy Grail and a roster player is likely to result in Peter Chiarelli being burned in effigy outside the Garden, (and also lower concessions, ticket sales and merchandise).  Chris Kelly, when healthy, is a great penalty killer, a top shelf checking line center, and the type of all around good dude that teams seek out, unfortunately he finished last season on the shelf, and has a full no trade clause. He’s also not the type of center the Nashville Predators currently need.  Greg Campbell is a fourth line version of Kelly with all the same problems, excepting the no trade clause.

Realistically, that leaves Carl Soderberg who has one season of NHL play to set his value and David Krejci. Krejci has found success with wingers as varied as Milan Lucic Michael Ryder and Blake Wheeler, and incidentally lead the NHL in post season scoring. Moving Soderberg has essentially no impact on the Boston Bruins cap situation, it would give them about $2.6 million in cap space, about enough to renew Krug and Smith if the brass turns the screws and risks alienating both players and their agents but not really enough to add a replacement as well.

That makes David Krejci the default candidate, that he’s also the most likely to bring in a quality return is fortuitous for the Bruins. If you use the Phil Kessel trade as a benchmark you will get back a solid return and don’t spend any roster space on it. If you go with something closer to the Joe Thornton trade you retool with a mixed bag. Brad Stuart was the best defenseman on the roster when he arrived, Marco Sturm would play for several seasons and score the winning goal in the Bruins only Winter Classic appearance.

Many observers would say the Boston Bruins and Nashville Predators are both a crossroads. The Predators need to reach and advance in the playoffs if they are to be financially solvent, and grow their fanbase. The Boston Bruins have several talented prospects at center where the risk is stagnation and regression with an speedy return to a system and roster that looks like the 2005-06 roster if they don’t promote one or more players. The NHL and all it’s feeder leagues are better when more teams are competitive.

The right trade for both teams is one where both teams win. The Predators need to reestablish the themselves as a playoff team if they hope to extend James Neal, and you have to be pretty jaded not to imagine fans in Smashville enjoying a line with David Krejci centering James Neal and Filip Forsberg.

It November 27th, one day before Thanksgiving in the United States of America and that’s about the time 80% or more of the playoff picture shakes out. Which teams will stay in the picture? Which are locks? Who’s most vulnerable to an injury or two that takes them out of the playoff picture?

Let’s take a look at the western conference first:

The interesting thing about the west is the amount of separation between the top seven or eight and everyone else. The Chicago Blackhawks have played one less game than the Vancouver Canucks and have nine more points. That’s their spread from sitting on the couch in April.

Western lock:

Saint Louis Blues, they’ve played just 23 games and have 8 points of separation on being on the outside looking in. Top to bottom they have the best defense in the NHL. They have the best team goal differential, and are one of just three teams to allow 50 or less goals today.

Most vulnerable:

The Colorado Avalanche, with the Varlemov situation on one hand, and the uncharacteristic play of most of the rest of the roster on the other, this is a team where one injury could result in a tailspin into mediocrity.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

Nashville Predators, with Pekka Rinne on the mend they will soon have a number one goalie to help out on the backend. That should in turn allow them to get a bit more offense out of their team.

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

NHL.Com standings for the Western Conference 11/27/13

The East:

There are more teams in the east, and more teams rebuilding, or very dependent on top line or top pairing talent.  The east is shamefully dominated by the Atlantic division with five of the eight playoff spots belonging to one of the teams in that division.

 

Eastern lock:

Boston Bruins, hands down the best team in the east, even if they haven’t played a full sixty minute game all season. They’re too deep and too good for even two or big injuries to drag them outside the playoff structure.

Most vulnerable:

New York Rangers, they don’t seem to know who they are. This isn’t surprising given the radical difference in coaching styles between the last coach and the current one.

Most likely to sneak in if someone falters:

While the Carolina Hurricanes should be better, they’ve also not had good health in their key forwards. The team people should worry about is the Ottawa Senators. Craig Anderson can’t stay this bad this long, and the team will eventually start finding ways to win consistently.

 

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com

East standings as of 11/27/2013 from NHL.com

The departure of Ryan Suter hit the Predators hard. Their defense went from 9th in the NHL to 20th, their offense was 30th in the NHL as well. Despite the star power and impressive talents of Shea Weber and Pekka Rinne, the team finished 27th in the league. Injuries were a problem and only Shea Weber, David Legwand, and Roman Josi played the full 48 games. No one on the team broke 30 points, and only three players even managed double digits in goals; David Legwand with a dozen, Gabriel Bourque with eleven, and Mike Fisher with ten. Even promising sophomore center Craig Smith regressed in the abbreviated season.

For the Nashville Predator’s retooling includes bringing Matt Hendricks to music city. The left shooting center is an alumni of St. Cloud State, the Colorado Avalanche and most recently the Washington Capitals. Another college boy graces the roster in the form of University of Michigan left winger Eric Nystrom who has since played for the Calgary Flames, Minnesota Wild and Dallas Stars. Filip Forsberg was added to the organization April 3rd via the Washington Capitals, the 2012 1st round  played in Sweden’s 1st division last year. It is likely Austin Watson, Joonas Rask and Taylor Beck will push for full time roster spots with the departure of Martin Erat. A backup goaltender will need to emerge to spell Pekka Rinne as well.

The season opens to a mixed schedule. The Blues are tough defensively and will open the season with a visit from the Predators, the Avalanche will be next on the opening two game road set the next night. Then they are home for five straight games at home. The home stand opens with Mikko Koivu, Ryan Suter, and the Minnesota Wild. Next to visit will be Jake Gardiner, Tyler Bozak, and the Maple Leafs. Next up are John Tavares and his New York Islanders. Their opening five have four team who were in last years playoffs, but all four were eliminated in the first round.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Minnesota Wild

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 3

Projected points: 5

If Barry Trotz can get all his meat eaters hungry and hunting together when camp ends the Predators opening sortie will tell us a lot about this years edition of the team. No one is particularly worried about Shea Weber or Pekka Rinne and their ability to bring their “A game” in the new season.  The questions revolve around Mike Fisher who’s frequently inform, Colin Wilson and the status of his recovery, as well as the integration of new players.

With the diverse origins of the teams former divisions, the central division might as well be the called “the melting pot”. Two former Northwest teams, a former pacific team, three of the former central division’s teams and an alumni of the southeast division just for good measure. While some teams know each other pretty darn well, the intensity of long time rivalries might just be lacking.

Chicago: We know the Blackhawks didn’t have a fire-sale this time. Who knows, they might escape a cup hangover too. Not likely, not as late as the season ran and as many people as they retained. On the plus side, there were no injuries to key players that will shorten the returning roster going into training camp. We know that with cross conference play, the BlackHawks will have to play more good teams next season than last season.

Colorado: We know Patrick Roy has a new job with the Avalanche. We know this is the longest predicted hiring in the history of the NHL. We know they still have nothing that resembles an NHL defense. We know the franchise has yet to put into evidence a viable plan for a return to relevance. We know Cory Sarich and Alex Tanguay are the biggest additions to this team. We know its gonna be another ugly season.

Dallas Stars: We know the team believes they’ve addressed their needs at center. We know the team dumped a first round pick defenseman, an All Star quality forward and some b prospects to get a guy who was playing third line wing, and a guy with epic scoring droughts. We know Jamie Benn is still the best player on the team, and that Alex Goligoski is still the most underrated player on the team. We know that Rich Peverley is likely to improve the penalty kill 2-3% all by himself. We know that Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley are a remarkable uptick in foot speed over Jaromir Jagr and Michael Ryder.

Minnesota: We know that after a run to the playoffs last year with a very, very young and inexperienced crew the team should be better this year. We know that with little in the way of real losses in players team chemistry should be good. We know the team needs to hit the playoffs and win a round to be financially viable. We know they really, really need to find a goalie who can be healthy for a whole season. We know the team is just about a shoe in for a playoff spot in a bottom heavy conference.

Nashville: We know the teams defensive top four is set well into the next collective bargaining agreement. We know Pekka Rinne will play close to seventy games. We know they still need a backup goalie. We know they haven’t done a thing to improve their forward core group in years. We know they will make the playoffs in Rinne, Weber, and Ellis are healthy and productive. We know that without upgrades to complete a viable top six they will eventually be beaten by a playoff team that can score consistently.  We know most people would be shocked to know the Predators were the prey on the penalty kill last year ending up 29th with a 75.5% effectiveness.

St Louis: We know the Blues traded out odd duck David Perron for Magnus Paajarvi who they still haven’t signed. We know they have 14 forwards signed. We know that despite it being as close to the end of their last season as it is to the beginning of the new one, their franchise corner stone Alex Pietrangelo is still not signed. We know they will return two goaltenders to the crease whose inconsistency is the one thing you can count on.

Winnipeg: We know that with their first season playing as a western conference team many of the teams players will have to get used to a different traveling and playing schedule. We know that with eight defenseman signed, UFA’s Mark Stuart and Paul Potsma may not want to renew their magazine subscriptions too soon. We know that Devin Setogouchi isn’t a big enough offensive upgrade, but that Michael Frolik might be the perfect solution to their penalty kill woes. We know Olli Jokinen will continue to baffle and befuddle people across the hockey world.