Bruins, Canucks among surprises at NHL's quarter-pole mark
Tim Thomas and Marc Savard are keys to Boston's momentum from last spring
Surging Canucks are built on Roberto Luongo, but have ample grit and scoring
Resurgence of Manny Fernandez (Bruins) and Pavol Demitra (Canucks) are key
This was the time of the season a year ago that Bruce Boudreau took over behind the bench for the Washington Capitals. Their turnaround was as historic as it was surprising in that they went from last in their division that late in a season to winning the Southeast outright. I bring this up as a way of heartening otherwise talented teams that are foundering at the bottom of their respective divisions -- from the Ottawa Senators in the Northeast to the Dallas Stars in the Pacific -- at the quarter pole.
The Capitals now sit atop the Southeast this time around, picking up where they left off last spring. Likewise, the Northeast's Boston Bruins, who have been the feel-good story so far in the Eastern Conference, aren't leaving another playoff appearance to chance. Goaltender Tim Thomas continues to remake himself, adding to his journeyman-to-all-star fable by leading the league with a .944 save percentage. The Bruins have also benefitted from the bounceback play of Manny Fernandez, who missed almost all of last season. In tandem, the duo is giving Boston excellent netminding in a manner that benefits both players, since neither has historically been at his best when asked to exclusively carry the workload.
Last season, the B's made the playoffs by trimming 65 goals-against off the previous season's total. So far this season, the jump is on the other side of the equation, with Boston scoring more goals than any team in the East. Marc Savard, who was named the NHL's first star of the week ending Nov. 23, is playing the best two-way hockey of his career and it shows in the team's performance. Patrice Bergeron is back in the mix after missing all but 10 games last season and the young players who received so much valuable ice time last spring -- Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Phil Kessel -- have all continued to develop and contribute. In other words, everything that you could have projected as going right for the Bruins has done just that.
Out west, the Vancouver Canucks have been a revelation. After a 1-4 skid in October, they now lead the tough Northwest Division and are in the midst of a 7-0-2 run that defies preseason prognostication. They seem determined to be part of the postseason mix with their inspired run. Sure, goaltender Roberto Luongo got hot -- as expected -- with a team record shutout streak of 242 minutes 36 seconds before having to leave the game on Saturday at Pittsburgh with a groin injury. The severity of the injury or likely length of Luongo's absence were not known as of this writing, but they present an immediate challenge for Vancouver and its capable backup, Curtis Sanford.
Luongo is obviously the foundation on which the Canucks base their game -- being the goaltender captain that he is -- yet the team's play goes beyond their defensive stinginess. Theirs is a hard-charging aggressive team game that is invigorating.
The Sedin twins predictably lead the way in scoring (Henrik was second star of the week behind Bergeron), but Pavol Demitra is scoring at more that a point-per-game clip and balance abounds with Ryan Kessler, Alex Burrows, Mason Raymond and rookie Jannik Hansen all chipping in on offense. The blueline is also a complimentary source of scoring with five of the regulars notching at least one goal.
Overall, though, what strikes me about the Canucks is how they get after it every night. They skate furiously and are dedicated on both sides of the puck, things that will stand them in good stead while their captain and cornerstone recuperates.
Both the Bruins and the Canucks are up-and-comers that share that entertaining element of rambunctiousness, and it has them sitting atop their respective divisions where the view is encouraging at the quarter poll. As for the league's disappointing laggards and underachieving bottom-dwellers, yes, a turnaround and playoff position are still viable, but getting untracked as soon as possible is the main order of business as the clock is ticking, and turnarounds on the order of the Capitals, while encouraging, are still relatively rare.