With the compressed 48-game regular season due to the lockout, the consequences of a slow break from the gate are magnified...there simply isn't going to be time to make up a significant deficit in the standings and get into a playoff position if a team falls too far off of the pace in the early going.
Feeling that sort of "squeeze" in the early going have been Los Angeles, St. Louis, and Washington, one the defending Stanley Cup winner, one an expected contender, and the other a much-fancied entry featuring star Alex Ovechkin. All three, however, are digging themselves holes from which they might not recover until next season.
The Kings' plight is well-documented, their popgun offense barely scoring 2 goals per game; LA's 2.27 gpg rate is 25th in the league. Which, if GK Jonathan Quick was in the form he was last spring when he and the Kings both caught fire in the playoffs, might not have been too big of a deal. But Quick, returning from offseason back surgery, has not dominated. And the Kings are at the moment buried in 13th place in the West standings, with just four wins in eleven games before facing Columbus on Friday.
True, L.A. also barely made it into the playoffs as the West's 8th seed last season before catching fire, but the Kings have some other concerns at the moment revolving around injured defenders Matt Greene (back) and Willie Mitchell (knee), key contributors in the Cup run, but both out indefinitely. Moreover, star defender Drew Doughty, perhaps trying to carry too much of a burden, has been ineffective, with a league-worst -10 rating and zero goals.
The Kings are still able to dominate time of possession most nights, and regularly outshoot the opposition. Thus, many expect Darryl Sutter's side to hit stride soon. But the fine line the Kings found last season is going to be a lot more difficult to straddle without those key defenders in the mix...especially since they just don't score many goals.
As for the Blues, it's readily apparent what is wrong; they're conceding too many goals. In fact, 29 of them over the past six games thru Feb. 14, a far cry from last season when HC Ken Hitchcock could count upon either of his netminders, Jaroslav Halak or Brian Elliott, to stonewall the opposition every night, when the Blues might not allow 29 goals over a 15 or 16-game stretch. Indeed, conceding only 1.89 goals pg a year ago, St. Louis had the league's top scoring defense.
All of this after a quick start in which St. Louis won its opener by a 6-0 count over Detroit, and Halak had recorded a pair of shutouts within the first week. But a subsequent groin strain knocked Halak out of action, and Elliott hasn't been able to stop a beach ball in recent games. Hitchcock's team, which could absorb pressure and play effectively on the counter last season, has been hamstrung. A losing streak reached five games earlier in the week before an OT win over the Red Wings temporarily stopped the bleeding.
The Blues are still in a playoff spot (7th) as we write, and their 34% conversion with the man advantage is the league's best, but the shenanigans in goal over the past two weeks threaten to undermine the entire operation and turn Hitchcok's hair another shade of gray. The penalty kill (only 77%) has also been poor. The return of Halak and the usual two-goalie rotation can't come soon enough at Scottrade Center.
Finally, there are the Capitals, who have underachieved to the extent that D.C.-area fans are putting away their Ovechkin jerseys early and scurrying for their Bryce Harper Nationals shirts instead. Perhaps this was easy to identify in advance, considering the new system being implemented by first-year HC Adam Oates, who stressed an uptempo style predicated on forcing turnovers between the blue lines.
What sounded good in theory, however, has not worked in practice; the Caps are buried at the bottom of the Eastern table on just nine points, looking up at even the Islanders and Jets above them.
The problem is that the team can't defend as Oates would like, nullifying his main premise based upon creating turnovers. Goaltending has been shaky at best; Braden Holtby, last spring's rookie sensation in the playoffs, has appeared shellshocked as his awful 4.04 GAA would indicate, and Michael Neuvirth (3.05 GAA) hasn't been much better. Both are sub-90% on their save percentage.
As for the marvelous Ovechkin, after a slow start in which he was shifted from the left to the right wing by Oates, he's finally started to resemble his usual self and has seven points in Washington's last five games. Still, when was the last time we saw Ovechkin ranked 58th in scoring?
The Caps might already be finished this season. Maybe it is time to start talking about the Nats while chowing down a chili half-smoke (Bill Cosby and President Obama's favorite) at Ben's Chile Bowl on U Street. After all, pitchers and catchers are reporting in Viera this week; Redskins camp is only five months away.
Following is a quick personnel/injury "Ticker" update from around the NHL...
ANAHEIM: A key component to the Ducks' surprisingly quick start to the campaign has been 30-year-old rookie GK Victor Fasth (pronounced "Fahst"), who seems on the verge of unseating Jonas Hiller as Bruce Boudreau's number one option in the nets. Fasth, a decorated goalie in the Swedish league before making his NHL debut a few weeks ago with the Ducks, is 6-0-0 in his starts with a superb 1.74 GAA. Meanwhile, Hiller is laboring with a 3.69 GAA, and his recent lower-body injury (while not considered serious) has really opened the door for Fasth to take over the number one duties.
CALGARY: The Flames, who started slowly under new HC Bob Hartley when winning only 3 of their first 10 but seeming to find some traction in the last week thanks to a potent power play converting at better than 27%, are nonetheless going to have to go until probably the end of the month minus star GK Miikka Kiprusoff, sidelined for a few weeks by a knee injury. Backup Leland Irving has little experience and has looked shaky at times, but did enough on Wednesday to help the Flames hold off Dallas by a 7-4 count at the Scotiabank Saddledome. A plus for Calgary has also been red-hot C Mike Cammalleri, who has recorded seven of his season's nine points in his last two games prior to Friday vs. the Blues. Hartley has also gotten vet winger Jarome Iginla on track after a slow start. If the Flames can stay within touching distance of a playoff spot until Kipriusoff returns, it could be an interesting spring in south Alberta.
COLORADO: The Avs might be in trouble, as HC Joe Sacco cannot stem the flow on injuries to his roster that have contributed to a 3-game losing streak heading into Thursday's game vs. the Wild in St. Paul. The latest to go down is key defender Erik Johnson, likely done for the season after suffering a head injury in a Feb. 11 game at Pepsi Center vs. Phoenix. The veteran Johnson's presence on the ice has been key in front of young GK Semyon Varmalov. Earlier, Colorado had lost team captain Gabriel Landeskog (head injury), defender Ryan Wilson (ankle), and forward Steve Downie (ACL). With all of the defensive injuries, Sacco could really use the presence of Ryan O'Reilly, last year's leading scorer, who continues to hold out due to a contract dispute.
DALLAS: Keep an eye on the Stars when they're playing the second night of back-to-back situations; they're now an awful 1-14-2 their last 17 in such instances after getting blasted by the Flames, 7-4, on Wednesday night. A problem for coach Glen Gulutzan is likely to arise whenever first-line GK Kari Lehtonen, who has been brilliant this month (1.77 GAA while winning his first five February starts), has to take the occasional night off, as he will likely do in the second of back-to-backs; backup Richard Bachman is prone to getting shelled. The Stars can go a long way with Lehtonen, however, and the positive impact of Jaromir Jagr's presence when paired on the Brendan Morrow line has been encouraging. Dallas, however, could use the goals of vet winger Ray Whitney, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury.
OTTAWA: Bad stuff for the Senators, as the best blue line threat in the league, non pareil defender and last year's Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, is now lost for the season after a fluke injury that severed his Achilles tendon at Pittsburgh last Wednesday. Karlsson's loss is almost incalculable and threatens to undermine an encouraging beginning to the season by Ottawa, which has been getting spectacular work in goal from Craig Anderson, now 7-3-2 and with a 1.58 GAA after Wednesday's loss to the Penguins. We'll see how coach Paul MacLean adjusts to Karlsson's absence.
TORONTO: A surprise package in the early going, the Leafs have really opened some eyes by winning five of their first six on the road, including a recent 6-0 shellacking of rival Montreal at the Bell Centre. Since losing 1-0 to Boston on Feb. 2 and 4-1 to Carolina (7-4-1) two days later, the Maple Leafs (8-5-0) have outscored their opponents 17-6 while matching their longest winning streak since Jan. 3-10, 2012. But Toronto is going to have to proceed for at least the next week without a couple of major cogs in their recent uprising, with GK James Reimer and F Matt Frattin (with 10 points already) both temporarily shelved by knee injuries. In Reimer's absence, HC Randy Carlyle will hold his breath, as Toronto will rely on journeyman Ben Scrivens or recent call-up Jussi Rynnas in the nets after Reimer suffered a strained ligament in the second period of Monday's 5-2 victory over Philadelphia. Picking up the slack for Frattin might have to be winger Phil Kessel, in a rich vein of form lately with seven points over his last five games prior to Thursday's battle at Carolina.
VANCOUVER: The Canucks have announced that C Manny Malhotra, who had been trying to return from a serious eye injury but had yet to play a minute this season, has decided to retire. Malhotra would have been a bonus for the Canucks had he been able to return to his former self, especially with his uncanny knack for winning face-offs. Meanwhile. Coach Alain Vigneault continues to showcase GK Roberto Luongo, with Vancouver getting the extra benefit of Luongo in top form (as his 1.45 GAA would suggest) as the Canucks pile up points and chase high-flying Chicago and surprising Anaheim in the West. Rumors of potential destinations for Luongo include Florida (form whom Luongo was acquired and where he maintains an offseason home in the Miami area), Chicago, Buffalo, and Toronto. For the moment, however, Vigneault has two top-quality keepers in Luongo and Cory Schneider, signed to a long-term contract in the offseason and expected to be the Canucks' top goalie option moving forward.