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Sunrise, Sunset
Things could be worse, we could be one of them
1/13/15 - By Ryan Hall -

As the NHL approaches the halfway mark of the season, certain things begin to come into focus. Teams that were supposed to contend begin to fall back, and other surprise squads start to be taken seriously. This season is no exception, as the long campaign has begun to reveal some truths that were buried under the hype and hope of October. It's this process that makes the NHL season so much fun, as, to quote the Roddy Pipper "Just when you think you know the answers, they change the questions!"

Just who are the characters in this high drama?

First off, there are the clubs that have vastly underachieved; at least by preseason expectations.

Toronto Maple Leafs - While most fans outside of the Greater Toronto Area might not have thought much about the Leafs chances going into the 2014-2015 season, those inside of Leaf Nation were firmly convinced that this was a bona fide playoff team. Which is what makes things even more galling! Yes, as of this moment the Leafs sit 4th in the Atlantic Division, but that is more in spite of their play than as a result of it. No further proof is needed than to look at the unbalanced scoring, poor defending, and inconsistent goaltending - leaving it as no surprise that coach Randy Carlyle was shown the door.

Philadelphia Flyers - Last season the Flyers started out ice cold and fired their head coach, before stormed back to make playoffs. While they eventually bowed out in the first round, this seemed to indicate that Philadelphia would be a contending team this year; making their current 25th overall ranking simply baffling. Still, when you dig beneath the surface the problems aren't that hard to find, as aging scorers, injuries, a slow defense corps, lack of team cohesion, and questionable coaching all have played their part. The sad result is that all that promise has completely drained away.

Colorado Avalanche - In 2013-14 the Avalanche lit the league on fire behind their dynamic offense and rookie head coach. Armed youthful talent, the Colorado appeared to have accelerated themselves into the upper echelons of the Western Division; if not the entire league. All of this makes the disasterous season this year all the harder to bear, as of right now the Avs find themselves looking more like a lottery team than a playoffs squad. Suddenly Patrick Roy is finding himself under fire, as fans start to wonder if his passion is truly matched my coaching acumen.

But you know what? For every team that takes a step backwards, another one strides forward! As the teams above have found themselves in the shadows, than those below are using the opportunity to claim their own place in the sun.

New York Islanders - For decades, the storied Islanders have languished in the basement of the NHL, bearing the brunt of snickering fans as their revolving door management made one desperately bad move after another (Rick Dipietro for Roberto Luongo? Signing Alexi Yashin?). However, this year things have changed, as the patience of current GM Garth Snow is beginning to bear fruit! Behind the leadership of long-suffering John Tavares (can he only be 24?!), a supporting caste of good young players have started to emerge led my Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, and Anders Lee.

Seasoning the mix are defencemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, who have helped solidify a young - but improving group. Add in solid goaltending from Jaroslav Halak, and it is no surprise the Isles find themselves in a dead heat with the Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division.

Florida Panthers - Let's be honest: when Roberto Luongo was traded back to Sunrise no one thought it would make much of a difference. Sure, he might help the Panthers grind out a couple extra points, but it didn't really seem like a move that would have a big impact on the league. Fast forward to the start of 2015, and it's now abundantly clear that we all missed the boat on this one. Simply put, Luongo has been sensational for Florida, providing stability in the crease that is making the Panthers one of the biggest stories in the league thus far.

But he hasn't been alone either!

First overall pick Aaron Ekblad has stepped into the line-up seamlessly and is a strong contender for the Calder, while Jimmy Hayes has emerged as a legitimate scoring threat. Perhaps the biggest boost up front though has come from the steadying leadership of veteran D-man Willie Mitchell, and the emergence of Nickolas Bjugstad - a player who has all the making of a future team captain. All told, the results are a Panthers team that sits 3 points out of a wildcard spot, while still having 4 games in hand; and if Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau ever get going the Panthers should be sitting pretty come April.

Nashville Predators - One team's loss is another team's gain, right? When the Flyers cut lose Peter Laviolette last season, many people wondered if he really was the problem. A year later, it's clear that he wasn't, but Nashville sure is glad that he took the fall in Philly, as behind his coaching the Predators have bounced back into contention in a big way. Of course a large amount of the credit falls on having two perennial all-stars on the team in D-man Shea Weber and goaltender Pekka Rinne, but this year's Preds are more than just a rope-a-dope squad playing for a 2-1 win.

The emergence of Filip Forsberg, Colin Wilson, and Craig Smith have made Nashville a much deeper squad offensively, and helped lighten the load of veterans James Neal and Mike Fisher. Additionally, while Mike Ribeiro has also helped light the lamp, the real difference has been in the style of play, with Laviolette giving his players a chance to showcase the offensive skills. So far the results have been spectacular, leading Nashville to the top of the Central division; and ties for 2nd overall in the entire league.

So, what does this all tell us? Basically that is remains impossible to predict how an NHL season is going to play out. Right now, things look good for 3 squads that didn't really appear to be playoff contenders, while 3 other teams are finding themselves either out of the picture all together or barely hanging on. Still, no matter whether you are up, or you are down, the good news is that we've only just reached the midway points, and there is still a lot of puck left to be played.

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