It’s hard to believe that as we celebrate Thanksgiving this week, the NHL season is now about one-quarter done and playoff implications are already shaping up. There have been many surprises and some not-so surprises so far entering the third month of the season. The next bellwether in the NHL season arrives in exactly one month as the Christmas season marks a critical point in divisional and conference standings for teams trying to either make the playoffs or reverse their downtrodden fortunes. The late December point in the season marks a do-or-die time period where teams can see a path to the Stanley Cup playoffs or realize that their season is in peril.
Early season surprises include the turnaround of the New Jersey Devils who are riding a 13 game win streak and the solid play of such teams as the Boston Bruins, Vegas Golden Knights and Los Angeles Kings. Other positive story lines include the improvement of such teams as the Seattle Kraken in their sophomore campaign and the resurgence of the Winnipeg Jets under erstwhile head coach Rick Bowness.
Other teams such as the Buffalo Sabres and St. Louis Blues started out this season on a hot streak and recently fell victims to their early success; the Blues, however, seem to have found their “groove” again and are riding on a wild seven game win streak and are poised to move up the Central Division standings. Teams either need to stay hot to stave off the competition or find a way to light a fire under their skates to get moving in the right direction or their seasons will be essentially over for all intents and purposes by the first of January. The Central Division race is tightening up and with intense competition, the netminding talents of each team are either keeping their respective clubs in the hunt for the postseason or a symptom of greater problems plaguing their franchise.
How are the Central Division goaltending tandems doing so far?
(All statistics courtesy of NHL.com)
1. Dallas Stars – Jake Oettinger and Scott Wedgewood (11-5-3 record, 1st place): “Otter” is making a name for himself within the NHL goaltending ranks and his 7-2-2 record with a 2.18 goals-against average and a .929 save percentage already puts him on an early list for Vezina Trophy consideration. The Stars are leading the Central Division and with backup goalie Scott Wedgewood holding his own with a 4-3-1 record (3.23 goals-against average and .904 save percentage) the Stars look to build on their early season success.
2. Colorado Avalanche – Alexander Georgiev and Pavel Francouz (11-5-1 record, 2nd place): The Avalanche sit comfortably in second place and new Avs goaltender Alexander Georgiev looks like he found a perfect new home in Denver. Georgiev has a solid 9-2-1 record with a 2.40 goals-against average and a solid .929 save percentage as well. The Avs drop off just a bit with backup goaltender Pavel Francouz who has a 2-3-0 record but who’s steady between the pipes with a 2.42 goals-against percentage and a .925 save rate. Fans should expect the Avs do make another deep run in the Stanley Cup playoffs come next spring.
3. Winnipeg Jets -Connor Hellebuyck and David Rittich (11-5-1 record, third place): The Jets have been reborn from last season’s disappointment and new head coach Rick Bowness has returned in full form with his old team where he played and coached years ago. Goalie Connor Hellebuyck has responded well to the new environment up there on the plains of Manitoba with an 8-4-1 record but a division-leading 2.07 goals-against average and and even stronger .935 save percentage. Backup netminder David Rittich provides solid relief service as well with a 3-1-0 record. Every early indication is that the Jets are heading to the postseason this year as long as they keep up their solid play from the past two months.
4. St. Louis Blues -Jordan Binnington and Thomas Greiss (10-8-0 record, fourth place): The Blues are in the process of a major overhaul this season thanks in great part to the outstanding play of goalie Jordan Binnington. The Blues started the season at 3-0-0 record then dropped a franchise-record eight games in a row. Well, the Blues aren’t singing the Blues right now and riding a newfound seven game winning streak. Binnington has a 9-5-0 record with a decent 2.76 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. Newcomer Thomas Greiss finally found his first win with the Blues last week in a shootout and looks to keep improving as a solid backup to Binnington.
5. Nashville Predators -Juuse Saros and Kevin Lankinen (9-8-2 record, fifth place): The Finnish duo in Nashville has done what they can to keep the Predators alive in the overly-competitive Central Division. Saros has a 7-6-2 record which seems a bit off for him early on this year and his goals-against average is slightly high at 3.06 but with a ,905 save percentage, he still knows how to stop the puck at critical moments. Fellow countryman Kevin Lankinen has an even 2-2-0 record and actually a better 2.60 goals against average and .921 save rate. The Predators play tough but need to find a way to win in order to keep their playoff hopes alive as we enter the critical winter months of the season.
6. Minnestota Wild -Marc-Andre Fleury and Filip Gustavson (8-8-2 record, sixth place: The Wild are always a tough team to play and recent injuries to stating goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury have put more pressure on Gustavson to step up more. The veteran Fleury still has a solid 6-4-1 record with a 2.80 goals against average and a .906 save percentage while Gustavson is 2-4-1 in relief. The Wild are another team that needs to make a move quickly to salvage their season and are within striking distance of moving up the divisional standings – if Fleury can stay healthy.
7. Chciago Blackhawks -Alex Stalock, Arvid Soderblum and Petr Mrazek (6-9-3 record, seventh place): The Blackhawks started out the season with a lot of promise and then reality hit. Chicago has used no less than three netminders so far this season as Mrazek was on inured reserve due to a groin pull and Stalock was place on the IR after a major concussion during a game with the New York Islanders. The Blackhawks have been defending the pipes by committee and the results show this. Mrazek is now healthy and if he can get back to his usual form, the goaltending situation in Chicago should work itself out. However, the Blackhawks find themselves in familiar territory by sitting near the bottom of the Central Division.
8. Arizona Coyotes -Karel Vemeljka and Connor Ingram (6-9-2 record, eighth place): There are now surprises here as the Coyotes are just looking to achieve some sort of relevancy in the Central Division this season. Between Vemeljka and Ingram they average 3.23 and 4.00 goals-against per game. On a positive note, the Coyotes are not the worst team in the NHL this season so far.