With Thanksgiving beckoning and the temperatures plunging across the continent this week, it truly does feel like hockey season. It should; the NHL campaign is already more than a quarter of the way through.
Another way of looking at that is that it means the sample sizes are no longer too small to be considered significant. Some things have become abundantly clear.
Chief among those remains the imbalance in the conferences. Despite the fact the West has two fewer teams it has all the power. The Bruins, who lead the East with 32 points so far, would be sitting eighth in the West, tied with Phoenix in the final playoff position. Dallas, Nashville and Winnipeg are tied in points at the bottom of the Central; in the Metropolitan they would be tied for the third playoff spot. It has been that uneven.
That has extended to the individual divisions, too. The Central and Pacific have both had the makings of monsters while the Atlantic has appeared superior to the woeful Metropolitan Division. But that has stabilized some and after an atrocious start, the Metro with its big American market teams has rebounded. The Rangers and Capitals got out of their early season dumps, the Devils and Flyers are both on big rolls.
Still, it looks like the Metro will be just a three-playoff-team division at this rate. Perhaps that's not all bad, because while nobody will dispute that the best teams call the West home, maybe the best action for the rest of the season will be in the East, and in particular, the Metro. While there will be a fierce battle for positioning out West, the eight playoff teams seem like they will come from a pool of about nine teams. Meanwhile in the Metro, because of its absurd mediocrity, no team is out of the race, not even the Islanders, who have lost eight of 10, nor the Blue Jackets. Both are just five points out of playoff position, leaving all eight teams in the hunt.
How the playoff seedings and divisional races work out will be something to watch all season because this is the first year under this new format. Already some are grumbling about the fact that there could be some odd matchups, particularly in the East were the balance is more askew. As it stands now, the top-seeded Bruins and the Habs, who have the sixth-most points, would battle while the seventh- and eighth-ranked teams, the Caps and Rangers, would also battle, guaranteeing one advances.
It doesn't seem equitable, but a couple of points: There is a lot of season left for perhaps things to work themselves out, and really, is it that much different than before? In the past, division winners were guaranteed a top-3 seed and sometimes it worked out that the teams ranked second and third battled in the 4-5 matchup while the sixth and eighth teams met in the 3-6. Unless you pull right from the top eight and neglect divisions, it will always have the potential to be uneven. The West doesn't seem destined for such imbalance (but maybe that's because there doesn't seem to be much of a gap from 1 to 8).
The conference imbalance hasn't been the only story drawing attention through the first quarter; this season has been marked by some excellent individuals too. Alex Ovechkin has maintained his absurd scoring pace from last season with 20 goals in 22 games, keeping him on track to not just crack 60 but beyond. Alexander Steen has been a big surprise with his 17 goals as well.
Those individuals are scoring goals like they're going out of style ... and in a way they are. The season started with more offense and immediately it was assumed that the new, shorter pads were the reason. Lo and behold now that we have more of a sample size we see that no, it hasn't made a difference. Believe it or not, scoring is once again down from the previous season at 2.71 goals per game. The average save percentage is .915. There are a whopping 10 goaltenders with save percentages greater than .930 this season. So much for the simple fix.
Even with goals trending the wrong way in most people's minds and shootouts trending up, the first quarter has been a great tease for what looks like a great season with a mix of heated playoff races and individual milestone chases all with an Olympic break and outdoor games galore still to come. In the meantime, the West remains best.