Monday, February 8, 2016

Weekend report: Things are getting back to normal

Faceoff: Getting back to normal

"It's still early."

That's the mantra of the wise hockey fan over the first few months of the season. We all go into the season with certain expectations locked in place, that comfortable set of assumptions that can start to feel like sure things if you repeat them often enough. Then the opening weeks of the season happen, and it all goes straight to hell.

Let's think back to what the league looked like on the first day of December. My preseason Cup pick had been the Lightning over the Ducks, but both teams were stuck in 11th in their respective conferences, with Tampa Bay spinning its wheels and Anaheim unable to score and on the verge of firing its coach. The defending champion Blackhawks were already nine points back in their division. Sidney Crosby had been the odds-on favorite to win the Hart and Art Ross, but he'd just barely cracked the top 100 in scoring. Inevitable Calder Trophy winner Connor McDavid was already hurt, and established goalies like Tuukka Rask and Semyon Varlamov had looked awful.

It was chaos. Small children wept openly. Nothing made sense.

Now that we're well into February, we can look back at those days and see that, well, it really was still early. The NHL has spent the last few months gradually morphing back into what we'd thought it would be all along. The Lightning and Blackhawks have looked unstoppable, and the Ducks aren't far behind. McDavid is healthy again and lighting it up, and Rask and Varlamov have settled back into their usual selves.

As for Crosby, he's been on fire, posting 18 points over a ten-game scoring streak and reclaimed a spot in the league's top ten. Barring injury, he's not going to catch Patrick Kane, who's running away with the Art Ross. But at the rate he's going, just about everyone else is in his sights.

That's not to say that everything looks like we expected. The Panthers weren't on too many preseason lists of division winners, consensus lottery teams like the Devils, Hurricanes and Coyotes are still stubbornly hanging around the playoff picture, and the Penguins and Wild still look like less of a threat than expected. And, of course, as the Canadiens have demonstrated, sometimes that whole course correction pendulum can swing all the way to the other extreme.

As we approach the two-thirds mark of the regular season, there's sure to be a few twists and turns left in store. But for the most part, the league is slowly but surely starting to resemble the one we'd expected to see. That's not great news if you love surprises, but it's comforting to know that we weren't all completely out to lunch on opening night.

And as for the fans, we've all no doubt learned a valuable lesson about not overreacting to early-season trends—one we're sure to have forgotten completely by next December.

Race to the Cup

The five teams with the best shot at winning the Stanley Cup.

5. Tampa Bay Lightning (29-18-4, +19 true goals differential)Yes, I'm nudging the Lighting ahead of the Panthers for a spot on our list. Too soon? Maybe, but I know who I'd pick in a playoff series between the two teams. Here's hoping we get to see one this year.

4. Dallas Stars (33-15-5, +28)—You never want to overreact to one game, but watching the Stars get stomped at home by the Blackhawks on Saturday had to be disconcerting for those of us still riding the Dallas bandwagon.

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