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.
According to Coyotes assistant coach Dave King, the players are using the uncertainty as motivation.
"People always talk about our budget and the transition in ownership and all those issues," said King. "We see it the other way around. It gives us something to prove every night, and our guys have rallied around that. The attitude is, 'let's show 'em.' It's a little disappointing not having big crowds, but our guys just play. The puck drops and even if there are not a lot of people there, we just play. They've been a really responsive group, and know how to compete. That's the little edge we have every night."
Around the rinks …
The NHL's lengthy injury lists started to diminish and this week probably not a moment too soon for the Carolina Hurricanes, who welcomed Eric Staal back to the lineup Wednesday following a 10-game absence with an undisclosed upper body injury. Staal had struggled with only five points in his first 13 games prior to getting hurt, but picked up an assist in his return as Carolina lost again on the road, this time in Anaheim. The Hurricanes have only one win away from home all season … Also on the mend: The New York Rangers' Chris Drury, who looked as if he could miss more than just five games as a result of that concussion suffered on a hit to the chin from the Calgary Flames' Curtis Glencross back in early November. Drury, like Staal, had struggled offensively before his injury (six points in 18 games) … Unlike Drury, the Minnesota Wild's Pierre-Marc Bouchard isn't anywhere close to returning for the lineup as a result of his concussion symptoms. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Bouchard sought out a former concussion sufferer, the Boston Bruins' Patrice Bergeron, this past week before the two teams played. Bouchard's theory was that Bergeron - whose career was thought to be in jeopardy at one point because of a concussion suffered in an Oct. 27 game against the Philadelphia Flyers, could give him some advice about how to deal with the slow pace of his recovery. Bergeron advised Bouchard to get a hobby - the Bruins forward took cooking lessons during his lengthy convalescence. "It's not fun and it's very frustrating," said Bouchard, who has played just one game for Minnesota this season … Stat of the week: The Columbus Blue Jackets, a team nominally steeped in the art of defensive hockey, have given up six or more goals in a game six different times this season, a staggering total. The Blue Jackets were a respectable ninth in team defence last year, during Steve Mason's Calder Trophy-winning season in which he recorded 10 shutouts. This year, only the Toronto Maple Leafs have a worse defensive record than Columbus, a weirdly surprising development considering the Blue Jackets were 5-1 out of the gate with a smothering defensive start to the year … Lost in the admiration over that brilliant 58-save performance by the New York Islanders' Dwayne Roloson this past week was the news that Rick DiPietro, the team's injury-plagued starter, was getting closer to a return to active duty. Limited to only five appearances and 256 minutes last year, DiPietro had his first full-on practice with the club this past Tuesday and told New York Newsday afterwards: "It was good, the pace was high, and I faced a lot of shots. You forget how good these guys are until they bear down on you." DiPietro, in the midst of a 15-year contract, reportedly lost 15 pounds from his usual playing weight of 210 to reduce the stress on his hips and said the most difficult part of his rehab was staying patient. "You try to push yourself but, at the same time, not do anything too drastic to cause a setback. It's been a fine line, but thankfully, we've been able to walk it." If DiPietro returns with no complications, the Islanders will dangle a goaltender (Martin Biron) on the trade market … Also from the goaltending file: One-time Toronto Maple Leaf prospect Tuukka Rask made the most of his first real opportunity to carve out an NHL career, starting five consecutive games in place of injured starter Tim Thomas. Rask's strong play helped the Bruins run off four consecutive road wins and put them back in the mix for top spot in the Northeast, which they won with runaway ease last year (23 points ahead of second-place Montreal … In Oil Country, where the slumping Edmonton squad was only one of five NHL teams with more regulation losses than wins, centre Shawn Horcoff has been unable to perform faceoff duties with his customary efficiency. Horcoff took more draws than any other NHLer last year, but because of a sore shoulder hasn't been used for defensive zone faceoffs as much as in the past … Not much is going right in Edmonton these days, although a 4-0 win over the Phoenix Coyotes this week helped brighten the mood. As the team adapts to the new Pat Quinn regime, centre Sam Gagner sagely noted - via the Edmonton Journal - "we talk about process and doing the right things, but at some point, it's not about learning lessons, it's about winning games."