After taking a closer look at the Western Conference last week, it's time to examine how the Eastern Conference is developing. What teams have playoff aspirations? What teams are likely spending the rest of the season in the cellar, counting down to the 2011 NHL Entry Draft? It's time to take a closer look at the standings.
While the Western Conference is closely contested and filled with parity, the Eastern Conference is exactly the opposite. The three division leaders -- Washington, Montreal, and Philadelphia -- are running away with the titles (and top 3 playoff seeds), and the remainder of the Eastern teams are scuffling in mediocrity. Furthermore, those teams at the top are no strangers to the playoffs. Washington was the #1 overall seed and President's Cup winners last season. Philadelphia represented the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals. Montreal was the Cinderella team who stunned the favorites last year, only to fall just short.
So are these three teams elite? Or are they just thriving on a schedule that inflates their statistical numbers due to mediocre competition? Let's examine a few statistical anomalies:
--Eastern teams hold four of the top five scoring offenses in the NHL. They also are home to the three worst offenses.
--Eastern teams also contain five of the top six penalty killing teams in the league. Only one Eastern team ranks Top 5 for power play percentage -- and that team is below average Atlanta.
--When measuring standings by points percentage, only four Eastern teams place in the top half of the league. The three division winners listed above and the Boston Bruins.
All of these numbers suggest a league where there are a few top teams that will earn their way to the playoffs, and the remainder of the field will be a complete crapshoot. Unlike the dogfight out West, you can already pencil in three Eastern teams with high playoff seeds and then guess at what five remaining teams will back into -- and be quickly eliminated from -- the playoffs.
Colorado Avalanche Schedule Preview
vs. St. Louis, November 15 The Avalanche begin a week in Denver with a visit from the surprising St. Louis Blues. As I wrote last week, the Blues are one of the big surprises in the NHL this season. They hold one of the best records in the league, and much of it is because of Jaroslav Halak, who they acquired this offseason from Montreal. Halak carries a .933 save percentage and a sparkling 1.79 GAA into this game. St. Louis has been struggling lately, especially on the road. They have lost their last three games, by a total score of 16-6. So far, the scoring by committee has worked, but they will need someone to have a breakout year if they want to compete for the Central Division crown.
vs. San Jose, November 17 Colorado welcomes their old playoff foe, the San Jose Sharks to Pepsi Center on Wednesday night. The Sharks have yet to go on one of their patented regular season charges up the leaderboards, but they have been certainly hanging on the periphery of the discussion with their 8-5-2 record. If you look closely, however, they have been blessed with a home-heavy early season schedule, only playing six of their first 15 games on the road (with a 3-3 record in those games).
vs. New York Rangers, November 19 The New York Rangers make their only appearance in Denver this season as one of the many incredibly average Eastern Conference clubs mentioned above. They are right at league average for goals scored, goals against, and with slightly worse special teams numbers...putting them in the middle of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Unfortunately, 2001 Stanley Cup hero Chris Drury will not appear in this game, as he is out for at least the next month with a finger injury.
at Dallas Stars, November 20 After starting out the season with four straight victories (three in shootout or overtime), Dallas has struggled mightily. They have lost six of their past nine games, including a 5-0 destruction at the hands of these very same Avalanche last week. Dallas is a boom or bust team so far this year; either they will win by three or lose by three goals. Aside from their winning streak to open the season, only two Dallas games have been one goal affairs.