As the adrenaline rush from the New England Patriots’ thrilling victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX begins to simmer down, sports fans will start to recognize an NFL-shaped void in their calendars. But don’t panic, other sports are being played right now. For those who believe the NHL could be up to the task of filling football’s gargantuan shoes, here is your guide for everything you missed while injecting yourselves with any and every NFL fix you could find for the last five months.
Most Impressive Teams
- Nashville Predators: Currently holding the league’s top record, the Predators have been the most surprising team after finishing sixth in their division the previous season and hiring a new head coach in Peter Laviolette. The biggest reason for the rebound? Goalie Pekka Rinne, who missed most of the 2013-14 season but has been a leading candidate for the Vezina and even the Hart Trophy so far this year. He has a league-leading 29 wins (part of a 29-6-2 record), a league-best goals against average of 1.96 and a save percentage of .931. Other additions that have boosted Nashville include rookie and Calder Trophy favorite Filip Forsberg (44 points in 49 games), former-Penguin James Neal and his 16 goals (behind only Forsberg on the team) and former-Coyote Mike Ribeiro, who is second on the team in points. Defenseman Shea Weber continues to remain a dominant force on both sides of the ice. However, not everything is perfect in Nashville at the moment: Rinne was injured again Jan. 15 and was projected to be out 3-5 weeks. Nashville has just two wins and six points in their last six games, all without Rinne.
- Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos is fourth in the league with 27 goals and he’s not the main story on offense for the Lightning; The “Triplets” line of Nikita Kucherov, Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat has been absolutely dominant, with all three player placing in the top five in plus/minus, at 28, 26 and 24 respectively. Anton Stralman is 14th in defensive point shares and defenseman Victor Hedman continues to quietly produce on both ends of the ice. Goalie Ben Bishop hasn’t been as good as last year (18+ goals saved above average last season versus two this year), but his standard numbers (26-8-2, .915 SV%, 2.32 GAA) still look good. Tampa Bay is at the moment in the top spot of a very heated race for the Atlantic division, but the Montreal Canadiens and Detroit Red Wings have been hanging with them all season and the Boston Bruins are starting to surge and catch up.
- Detroit Red Wings: The team that just won’t go away. The Red Wings have squeaked into the playoffs the last two season to push their streak of consecutive postseason trips to 23 as age had begun to catch up with team leaders like Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, some now retired and some still with the team. But with the way the team has performed for much of this year, it seems Detroit may have engineered a seamless rebuild on the fly. Case in point: Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar. Nyquist, 25 years old and in essentially his second season, is second on the team with 20 goals and 38 points. Tatar, 24 years old and in his second season as well, leads the team with 22 goals. Pair these new weapons with the still reliable Zetterberg, Datsyuk and Nicklas Kronwall, and you have a team that is number one in power play percentage at 25.6 percent. The Wings are 29-12-6 for 67 points through 50 games and have won seven of their last eight. They still have a dog fight for playoff seeding in that tough Atlantic division and they are still awful in the shootout at 2-7, but overall the team has to be thrilled where it is at the moment.
- Honorable mention: New York Islanders (65 points through 49 games, boosted by an insane stretch from goalie Jaroslav Halak), Anaheim Ducks (again one of the best in the regular season with 70 points through 50 games, we’ll see if that can translate to postseason success this time around).
Most Disappointing Teams
- These three playoff teams who looked to be heading in the right direction last year: Dallas Stars, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild. The teams have point totals of 53, 53 and 52 respectively. Last year they finished with 91, 112 and 98, with Minnesota knocking Colorado out in the first round of the playoffs. Dallas came into 2014-15 entering year two of the Jamie Benn-Tyler Seguin era, now featuring Jason Spezza, but while the trio has performed well, goalie Kari Lehtonen has been horrific, going from +10 in goals saved above average last year to -10. Colorado I’ve written about recently; in short, the team gives up way too many shots and their shooting percentage has regressed mightily, especially among last year’s top performers. Goalie Semyon Varlamov was cold out of the gate and then missed substantial time to injury, but looked good once he returned, and that’s the team’s biggest (only?) reason for optimism. Minnesota has probably been the most disappointing of the three because they’re coming off of multiple playoff appearances and have arguably the most depth of the three teams. They play very good defense, but they’re worst of the three in goals-for percentage because of their scuffling forwards and shaky goaltending. Thomas Vanek, brought in to score goals, only has 10, and captain Mikko Koivu has just seven goals and 26 points in 49 games. Jason Pominville only has nine goals as well, though he is tied for the team lead with 38 points. The team’s goaltending has been all over the place because of injuries and general inconsistency from Darcy Kuemper and Nicklas Backstrom. The team is no longer confident in its abilities and it has shown way too often. That being said, all three teams are still alive, though realistically there is only room in the playoffs for one team at most.
- Los Angeles Kings: The defending Cup champion Kings are 21-16-12 with 54 points through 49 games and sit three point behind the Calgary Flames for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. As champions in two of the last three season, the Kings aren’t panicking, and there isn’t much worry about the team in general yet. But it’s getting to a point where maybe there should be. The team is uncharacteristically 25th in penalty-killing percentage at 77.8 percent. Games that go past regulation have been a nightmare, as the team is 1-7 in shootouts and goalie Jonathan Quick has the most overtime/shootout losses in the league with 10. In fact, Quick has underachieved, sitting at 17-13-10 with a 2.47 GAA and .912 SV% for -1.04 goals saved above average. Quick is theoretically supposed to be a top five goalie in the league, and instead he’s been average. The team needs more production across all its units to get back to the postseason; it can’t just bank on inexperienced Calgary or Winnipeg teams to choke down the stretch.
- (Dis)Honorable mention: Columbus Blue Jackets (they were a promising playoff team from last year that have just 45 points through 48 games, but a lot of that is due to injuries. Disappointment in the circumstances surrounding the team more than anything else), and in the lifetime achievement division of this category, Toronto Maple Leafs (48 points in 51 games, one win and three points in their last 13 games, coach Randy Carlyle fired) and Edmonton Oilers (how many number one overall picks will it take to get this team out of the basement? 35 points through 50 games, last in the league again).