We haven’t quite reached the halfway point of the NHL season, which means there’s plenty of hockey to go. We’ve all made assumptions that have gone horribly wrong, and our bet is that some of what you think you know about the NHL pre-holiday break will show to be false as well. As fast as the NHL is on the ice, things can also change in a flash off of it. There are a handful of teams that were left for dead by observers, only to rally and become relevant. Therefore, we will go ahead and rattle off some teams to watch coming out of the holiday break.
Vegas Golden Knights
By now you know the story. The NHL’s newest franchise has easily surpassed even the loftiest of expectations so far this season. After a 4-1 road win in Anaheim last night, the Vegas Golden Knights now sit alone atop the Western Conference standings with 50 points. With games in hand on just about the rest of the conference. On paper, they aren’t the most talented team. What do teams that lack on-paper talent do? They work. The Golden Knights are absolutely relentless and keep coming at you. Gerard Gallant has to be head-and-shoulders above his peers in the Jack Adams race as he has this team playing disciplined hockey. They stick to their systems, they outskate you and they play with fire and passion. They are also the NHL’s best team on home ice. Translation: not a team you want to see in the first round of the playoffs.
The Bruins spent time without star players like David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand at times in the early going, but clearly the B’s have found their stride along with their health. Boston has rattled off five straight wins and are also 15-3-1 over their last 19 games. That is the definition of white hot. The standings are so crowded in the east, but after last night’s 5-1 win over Ottawa, the Bruins now sit in a second place tie with the Maple Leafs in the Atlantic, with two games in hand. The schedule has been favorable, with 21 of their first 35 games coming at the TD Garden in Boston. However, Tuukka Rask has found his game, they have one of the top lines in all of hockey and all the sudden their depth players are productive. A team that was written off fairly early into the season, the Bruins are back with a vengeance.
New York Rangers
Speaking of teams that were written off early, the Rangers are very much relevant now. A 1-0 shootout win over the visiting Capitals last night has them within just three points of a top three spot in a competitive Metropolitan Division. Like the Bruins, the Rangers have had the schedule go their way so far. They have played a whopping 24 games at home and just 13 on the road. Beginning Friday in Detroit, the Rangers will play nine of their next 13 games away from Madison Square Garden. It’s becoming more and more clear that the Metropolitan Division is going to send five teams to the postseason. Considering the Penguins sit in 7th, it’s also clear that finishing in the top five is going to be no easy feat. Regardless, the Rangers are miles better than their October version and warrant a watching post-break.
After all the negative press the Oilers have (deservedly) received this season, don’t write them off yet. They dropped a close 4-3 decision last night in Winnipeg, but that was after rattling off four straight wins. They have five teams to climb, but the Oilers sit just five points shy of a playoff spot as of today. That’s an uphill climb to be sure, but with 45 games remaining and number 97 steering the ship, it’s doable. Overall, the Pacific Division isn’t all that great, so that’s helpful. Also, their next four games come at home. Possessions metrics are a fan as the Oilers’ 53.06% Corsi For% at 5v5 ranks fourth in the league. For us, it’s been very difficult to put a fork in the Oilers’ season for these reasons. Keep an eye on Todd Mclellan’s group over the next few weeks in case their winning ways continue.
You don’t earn the nickname ‘Cardiac Canes’ for no reason. This is a team that gets lost in the shuffle every season, but they always seem to linger. They are lingering once again this season as they sit with 41 points and just three points shy of a Wild Card spot in the east after last night’s 3-1 triumph over the Canadiens. If they win their game in hand on the Rangers and Islanders, that margin falls to one point. Like the Oilers, the Hurricanes are an advanced metric darling. In fact, their 54.36% Corsi For% at 5v5 is tops in the league, by a notable margin. No one gives up less than the 29.3 shots the Hurricanes yield per game. If only they could get some goaltending. Between Scott Darling and Cam Ward, the Hurricanes have received an .899 Sv% from their goaltending, good for a 23rd place tie. That said, beware of teams that hang around, sometimes that lingering turns into a postseason spot.