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First-quarter report cards: Eastern Conference

by | Staff Writer

Some might call it parity, others would describe it as mediocrity, and either term could serve as a good general description of play in the Eastern Conference through its first quarter.

Of course some teams stood out, for good reasons and bad, because of the expectations surrounding them. With that in mind, a graded look at Eastern teams from top to bottom as the schedule passes the quarter pole:

A teams

Philadelphia Flyers: Philadelphia needed the first month to get things in gear and has been nearly unstoppable since. The Flyers are deeper up front and along the blue line than anyone in the East, and they've had the goaltending to go with it. Good thing, too, because they still take too many penalties. But rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been a great find, and he's getting a lot of help from a team that is getting offense from several different places. Meanwhile Claude Giroux is having a breakout season. Grade: A+

Carey Price is a big reason the Canadiens boast an 'A.' (AP)  
Carey Price is a big reason the Canadiens boast an 'A.' (AP)  
Montreal Canadiens: The next time Carey Price tells people to chill out, no one will argue. Price has silenced his critics -- no easy task in Montreal -- by playing goal the way everyone thought he could and triggering Montreal's fast start. Jaroslav Halak has become a faded memory while Price has been the story of the season for a team that seems determined to prove its surprising playoff run last spring was not the fluke many believe. Grade: A

Washington Capitals: No one has been better at home than the Capitals, which isn't surprising since they were the league's best home team last season. And it's no surprise for the Caps to be scoring goals in bunches, even if Alex Ovechkin not leading the league in scoring is. What has been a surprise has been the stellar work in goal from a trio of youngsters, mainly rookie Michal Neuvirth. But the Caps didn't answer all the questions about team defense in the first quarter, and they still have to. Grade: A

B teams

Pittsburgh Penguins: They've kind of been lurking under the radar with the spotlight focusing on several other teams, but the Penguins can't be overlooked. Pittsburgh had some issues early on with goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but backup Brent Johnson stepped up brilliantly and carried the team through the rough patch. Meanwhile Sidney Crosby is on pace for the best season of his career, even if his doesn't have the optimum wingers, and Evgeni Malkin is starting to score more. Newcomers Paul Martin and Zybynek Michalek are settling in on the blue line, and Jordan Staal will be back at some point. Grade: B+

Tampa Bay Lightning: There is no better offensive tandem in the NHL right now than scoring leader Steven Stamkos and his wing man, Martin St. Louis. They serve as triggers in an aggressive attack designed by rookie coach Guy Boucher, a system that has helped turned Stamkos' one-timers in a lasting image of this season. Tampa Bay has been very good at home, too, while goaltenders Dan Ellis and Mike Smith have done a good job pushing each other. There are still some question marks along the blue line, but role players get chances to contribute under Boucher, and that has helped win games. Grade: B+

More on first quarter

Boston Bruins: Tim Thomas has been proof that the best deals are sometimes the ones you don't make. Boston had sophomore Tuukka Rask penciled in as the No. 1 goalie and tried hard to move the veteran last summer. But Thomas' age, injury problems last season and (mostly) his heavy contract made that impossible, so he had to stick around and is now the biggest reason Boston has come flying out of the gate. The Bruins are playing the kind of tight defense coach Claude Julien favors, which is good, because they tend to start games slowly. The offense meanwhile, has been uneven, although the line of David Krejci, Nathan Horton and Milan Lucic has generally been effective. But the Bruins are among the East leaders because Thomas has been spectacular. Grade: B

C teams

Atlanta Thrashers: The new era in Atlanta has a Chicago flavor to it -- former Blackhawks Andrew Ladd and Dustin Byfuglien have been the team's top scorers -- and it has made for a credible start for the Thrashers. The roster makeover was deep, but it has come together enough early on under new coach Craig Ramsey to keep the team in the playoff picture. That in itself would be a big step forward for the franchise. Grade: C+

New York Rangers: They missed Marian Gaborik, Vinny Prospal and Chris Drury for most -- or in Prospal's case, all -- of the first quarter, and Henrik Lundqvist was not the brick wall he was expected to be. The Rangers have also made life easy for teams coming into Madison Square Garden, but they're getting breakout seasons from linemates Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan and a nice effort from Brian Boyle and are seeing their young defensemen mature nicely. Grade: C

The Ilya Kovalchuk experiment hasn't worked out so far for the Devils, who flunk the first quarter. (Getty Images)  
The Ilya Kovalchuk experiment hasn't worked out so far for the Devils, who flunk the first quarter. (Getty Images)  
Carolina Hurricanes: They haven't been easy to read, but in the first full season of a major transition, the Hurricanes are managing to keep their heads above water. Eric Staal is quietly having a pretty good year, and rookie Jeff Skinner is a leading Calder candidate, but goalie Cam Ward has had some consistency issues. So have the 'Canes, for that matter, especially when it comes to high-scoring games. Carolina has been on both ends of several, often in the same week. Grade: C-

D teams

Florida Panthers: If they could ever score on a power play, the Panthers would probably be in the playoff picture. No one has been worse than Florida with the man advantage, although the Panthers are getting just enough offense at even strength to stay around the .500 mark. That tells you how well goalie Tomas Vokoun has played, but that only takes this team so far. Grade: D+

Ottawa Senators: The Senators thought they might have gotten things in sync with a four-game winning streak at the beginning of November, but they've only won a couple of times since and are looking less like a factor in the East with each passing week. The goaltending has been generally weak, and the offense non-existent more often than not. Daniel Alfredsson is still putting up numbers, but the addition of Sergei Gonchar hasn't really had the impact Ottawa hoped for. Grade: D+

Buffalo Sabres: To get an idea of how things have gone for the Sabres, consider that it took them nearly as long as the Buffalo Bills to get a win at home. Ryan Miller has had some nagging injury issues and hasn't been as dominant in goal as he was last season, and their most dangerous offensive threat, Thomas Vanek, has run hot and cold. Derek Roy has put up good numbers, but after an early playoff exit, the Sabres looked stagnant in the first quarter. Grade: D

Toronto Maple Leafs: No doubt there were some visions of a Stanley Cup parade when the Maple Leafs won their first four games, but reality set in pretty quickly, and Toronto dropped like a stone. Whatever offense the Leafs had -- hello, Mr. Kessel -- disappeared for too long in the first quarter, and the grit and toughness that was supposed to be Toronto's identity was nowhere to be found. Injuries to Colby Armstrong and Dion Phaneuf didn't help, but there were other parts to the problem. Grade: D

F teams

New Jersey Devils: The Devils season has been the biggest disaster in recent memory, with the Ilya Kovalchuk experiment blowing up, key injuries hitting hard and a cap situation that makes fixing things all but impossible. Grade: F

New York Islanders: Things never do seem to get better on Long Island, do they? It didn't help that key players Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo went down for the count in training camp, but the other highly touted young players New York has assembled in recent years haven't stepped up either. It cost coach Scott Gordon his job a few weeks ago, but the Isles ended their winless skid at 14 games. Grade: F


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