U.S. Thanksgiving passed Thursday with a modest slate of two NHL games, both played in Canada, a place where the turkeys were consumed some six-and-a-half weeks ago, back before the Toronto Maple Leafs had laid their early-season egg and still harboured idyllic playoff thoughts.
Detroit Red Wings' general manager Ken Holland believes that Thanksgiving represents an important annual benchmark in the NHL; that teams settle into their positions at this stage of the season and with few exceptions, move as a pack from here until the end of the year.
If so, what do we make about the first quarter?
Winning percentages tell a more accurate story than actual point totals, largely because of the disparity in games played by the 30 teams. When the San Jose Sharks and Dany Heatley visit the Edmonton Oilers on Friday night, they'll play their 27th game - or roughly a third of their season already. Meanwhile, the Buffalo Sabres and the Atlanta Thrashers didn't even complete their first quarters until Wednesday night - two teams that prefer to play a light early-season schedule so as not to compete against more popular NFL competition.
On a percentage basis, the Chicago Blackhawks moved to the top of the class this week largely on the strength on an eight-game winning streak in which they've clobbered a couple of would-be contenders - the San Jose Sharks and the Calgary Flames.
With a differential of plus-11 in the win/loss category, the Blackhawks were dominating teams even before Marian Hossa made a triumphant debut with two goals in his first appearance for this new team in a 7-2 trouncing of the Sharks, in which they held a 7-0 lead at one point and also scored three shorthanded goals. It was a sobering moment for San Jose, its first regulation loss at home all season and thus a statement game for the Blackhawks, who have now defeated the Sharks twice already this year and may cross paths with them somewhere down the playoff path.
What's most surprising about Chicago's surge is they've done it by paying particular attention to defence. On a team with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane leading the way offensively, most of the questions over their long-term prospects revolve around the goaltending tandem of Cristobal Huet and the unproven Antti Niemi.
Considering how Nikolai Khabibulin's off-season departure as the team's de facto starter left goaltending as the team's perceived Achilles hell, it may be hard for some to believe that Huet and Niemi are the No. 1 duo in the league right now in terms of their overall goals-against average.
Huet was practically booed off the stage in a mid-October 4-3 loss to the Dallas Stars, which came only days after he surrendered three goals on five shots in a home game against the Calgary Flames (one in which his teammates bailed him out with a record six-goal rally).
The perception was that the Blackhawks didn't want to play Huet at home for a time, until his game came around.
"I try not to pay too much attention to what's going on with the crowd," said Huet. "It's still a huge advantage to us, when we play at home. I'll take that any day."
Huet added that he appreciated the support of his teammates during that slow start. "They felt bad for me and they played pretty good hockey. That helped me a lot."
Now, he's returning the favour.
Preds in motion
If not for the Blackhawks, the hottest team in the NHL right now would be the unheralded Nashville Predators, a team that perennially seems to make something out of nothing, or very little except for an accomplished coaching staff, better-than-you think goaltending and a line-up of reliable players.
The Predators had won seven games in a row heading into a Friday date with the St. Louis Blues. The fundamental difference between the Predators of the first two weeks and the Predators of today is how dramatically they've turned around their special teams' play.
It wasn't so long ago that Nashville was bringing up the rear with the man advantage. The Preds are 12-0 when they score at least one power-play goal; and in each of the past three games, they've scored at least two goals with the man advantage. Jason Arnott's done most of the damage with four PP goals; weirdly, J.P. Dumont's goal to open the scoring in a 4-3 win over Colorado the other night was his first of the season with the man advantage.
Nashville's surge comes at a time when Shea Weber isn't scoring with the same frequency as a year ago, but he's logging big minutes (almost 24 per night) and firming up his place in the Canadian Olympic team selection process.
Meanwhile, the Predators' small-market confreres, the Phoenix Coyotes, are fading a little after an unexpectedly strong start, coming back to earth at a time when they can least afford to play mediocre hockey - not when the organization's business plan is tied almost exclusively to reversing its on-ice fortunes.