As we reach the quarter pole here in the 2010/11 season, we take a look at some teams that have been surprises. Can those clubs keep it up all year? Are teams near the top of the standings Cup contenders?
Playoff Contender or Pretender? - Columbus Blue Jackets: Contender I don’t know of anyone who considered the Jackets a playoff team in the pre-season. Scott Arniel has done a masterful job in his first two months as bench boss. A healthy blueline has helped considerably, while the offense has under-the-radar talent. If Steve Mason and Mathieu Garon can keep playing solid in the crease, Columbus can keep up this success. Will the Jackets make the playoffs? I don’t know. But can they compete for a spot? The early signs point to yes. - Tampa Bay Lightning: Contender Although it is to others, the early-season success in Tampa Bay is no surprise to me. Steven Stamkos has emerged as a near-unstoppable point machine and leads the league with 20 goals (and 35 points) in 21 games. Martin St. Louis has also been a force with 27 points thus far. They have a lot of other offensive weapons, while the depth is stepping up when needed. As long as the back end can play well enough for the Bolts to win games, they will definitely be a playoff team come April.
- Dallas Stars: Pretender You can say this about a handful of Western Conference teams, but the Stars would be pretty good in the East. However, they simply don’t have the horses to be a playoff team in the West in my opinion. Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson can only do so much up front, while the defense is average at best. Kari Lehtonen is going to have to consistently play like he did in the first couple weeks for me to believe they are a postseason contender.
Cup Contender or Pretender? - Montreal Canadiens: Pretender We all know what they did in last year’s playoffs; behind Jaroslav Halak and great defensive play, the Habs surprisingly advanced to the third round. With Carey Price playing well to start the year, would they be able to go just as far with him in net? Possibly. But I believe GM Pierre Gauthier would still need to acquire a top-six forward to make them a real threat to go all the way. With or without Andrei Markov, they have the pieces in place already, but may have to get a boost of some sort offensively.
- St. Louis Blues: Pretender Davis Payne’s bunch surprised everyone by beginning the season 9-1-2 with a seven-game win streak mixed in. Halak has been dynamite in net despite a recent rough patch, while the offense is getting contributions from all around. The issue with the Blues this season has been their play away from home. At Scottrade Center, they are 8-0-1 this year; but just 3-5-2 on the road. This Blues team has a bright future, and could contend for the division. They lack the firepower and/or experience that others in the conference possess to be considered a true Cup contender.
- Boston Bruins: Contender Boston is absolutely a Cup contender. Between Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, they easily have a top goaltending duo. On defense, Zdeno Chara leads a solid core that plays well as a unit. Offensively, they have the necessary tools to win any kind of game – especially if a productive/healthy Marc Savard returns. The special teams are stellar (as always) and they are a great third period team. I’ve liked the make-up of this team from the get-go; so far the B’s have resembled the team they had two years ago.
*Tomorrow, we’ll have our official ‘Quarter-Pole Report’ with three stars for every team and current awards picks, among other things.
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.