Hottest teams in the NHL no one is talking about

December’s usually not the best time to go on a hot streak for an NHL team but winning a stretch of games at any time of the year can be beneficial to a team making the playoffs or not. Just ask the Colorado Avalanche last year. Anyway, there’s definitely a lot of teams playing great hockey right now so I thought it would be fun to take a closer look at these teams to see what’s leading to their success. We all know the Pens and Flyers are killing it right now but what about some other teams who are playing well but flying a bit under the radar? Let’s look at them.

Atlanta Thrashers 6-2-2 in December

Atlanta’s one team who is getting hot at the right time because while they are streaking in the right direction, their divisional foes, the Washington Capitals are going in the opposite direction. It’s gotten so drastic that the Thrashers were in first place for a day, which was the first time a team other than Washington was in 1st place in the Southeast in quite some time. Atlanta and Tampa bay are now only within a few points of Washington and if the Thrashers can keep this up, that division will be closer than it usually is. It also helps that Atlanta has beaten Washington three times this year and has earned points in four of their games against the Caps? How in the world are the Thrashers doing this? Great goaltending, scoring by committee and a more defensive approach has gotten the Thrashers back to prominence and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them in the playoffs this Spring.

The standout among this team is goaltender Ondrej Pavelec who is one of the biggest surprises in the league for me. Going into this season, I saw Chris Mason being the number 1 goalie for Atlanta with Pavelec possibly getting 75/25 of the starts but that hasn’t been the case lately. Pavelec stole the starting job from Mason and he’s been absolutely phenomenal with a .944 save percentage. He’s also dealing with a heavy workload every night since Atlanta has been surrendering about 35 shots per night (4th most in the NHL). Hard to believe a goalie who started the season by fainting in his own crease would become a front-runner for the Veznia Trophy. Yes, I said that out loud.

The acquisitions Atlanta made in the off-season weren’t seen as much by the media other than minor upgrades to a sub-par team but they’ve been much more than that. Dustin Byfuglien leads the team with 33 points and is literally the team’s fourth forward. Moving him back to the blue-line was a questionable move by Ramsay since his system places heavy emphasis on blocking shots. Byfuglien doesn’t block shots or kill penalties that well but Ramsay decided to make him a defenseman because he is very big and has a heavy shot from the point, both of which have come in use this year. Ramsay has utilized Big Buff mainly on powerplays and has allowed him to cheat up on plays to create scoring chances, which he’s been doing a great job at. He is rarely used in key defensive situations and isn’t up against the best competition but Byfuglien has been great at doing his job as an offensive defensemen. Oh, and remember how everyone thought his production would go down because he’s not playing with Toews and Kane anymore? His production’s gone up from being on the Thrashers first powerplay unit and it also helps that he’s not facing the opposing team’s “shut down” pair.

Who is tied with Byfuglien for the team lead in goals? Other off-season acquisition Andrew Ladd. Recently named captain, Ladd’s been contributing a lot to the Thrashers team, both on and off the ice. There isn’t a real star on this team but guys like Ladd, Evander Kane, Bryan Little and Rich Peverely have each been making their contributions to the team and are a big reason why the Thrashers are going to be the same pushovers most of the league knows them to be. Getting production from every line is a good thing and when Eric Boulton records a hat trick, you know that you’re getting that. That along with an improved defensive corps and a new system has helped Atlanta a lot. Rick Dudley and Craig Ramsay should be definitely be praised for the job they’ve done with this team so far.

Colorado Avalanche 6-1-2 in December

Currently on a 6-game winning streak, the Avs are straight up killing it. They’re the best offensive team in the league right now with the most goals scored per game (3.61 per game) and are getting offense from well…pretty much everyone. It looked like they were going to go on a slide after their top goal scorer, Chris Stewart broke his hand earlier in the month but the Avs made trades to address these holes and they’ve all worked out pretty well. It’s funny that their winning streak began after they traded defenseman Scott Hannan to Washington for Tomas Fleischmann. Fleischmann has 11 points in 10 games since joining the Avs and recently recorded a hat trick against Chicago. Hannan meanwhile has been brutal in Washington. Trading for Ryan O’Byrne was also a good move since he’s been solid ever since joining the team and seems to be getting put up against tough competition nightly.

Another newcomer who has been contributing is defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk who has 19 points in 22 games and is always eager to jump into the play to make an impact no matter where. It’s hard to tell that he’s a rookie when you watch him play. David Jones is another lesser-known guy who is contributing well with 11 goals this year. The two guys who have really stepped it up are Matt Duchene and Paul Stastny, both of whom lead the team in points. Duchene had a solid rookie season and is continuing to improve on it this year and he’s been on a tear lately with 12 points in 9 games.

John Michael Liles is another good story for this team as he’s quietly becoming one of the league’s top defenseman. He’s been getting top 2 minutes and is contributing both offensive and defensively. Liles is usually paired against the opposing team’s top line and also quarterback’s the Avs powerplay, which has been doing very well as of late. He didn’t have the best season last year but he’s bouncing back nicely and could see himself in Norris Trophy discussion if he keeps this up.

Nashville Predators 8-1-1 in December

Usually whenever the Preds are doing well, it’s because they’re not allowing a lot of goals, which is the case here. 29 goals scored compared to only 19 allowed during December, which is really good considering starter Pekka Rinne has missed a few games and could be out for another couple weeks. Anders Lindback is another one of my surprises this year since I didn’t know a lot about him and thought he would only get a few starts while Rinne handled the bulk of the duty. Lindback has a .924 save percentage and an impressive 9-2-2 record this season, which I didn’t see coming at all.

The Preds blue line is arguably one of the best in the league and is known to be anchored by Team Canada gold medalist Shea Weber. However, he did struggle when his usual partner Ryan Suter was out with an injury. Suter’s usually known for his work on the powerplay rather than his shutdown ability, which is somewhat of the opposite this season. Suter’s been seeing more time on the penalty kill lately and has done a solid job at it and still manages to work the powerplay well. When he’s paired with Weber, the two of them are one of the best defensive tandems in the NHL, no question. I do think that Suter has outplayed Weber a bit this year, though in terms of defensive play and is showing how much value he has to this team. Cody Franson is also building off a strong rookie season and is playing the point very well on the second powerplay unit.

In terms of scoring, the Preds have finally been getting more production from Colin Wilson who had a slow start to the year. The two players who have been surprising me the most on Nashville are Cal O’Riley and Sergei Kostitsyn. This year was supposed to be O’Riley’s last shot on the Preds and he’s responded well with scoring 6 goals and recording 12 assists, as well earning him a spot on the first line. Kostitsyn has always been an enigmatic player being very streaky and going through slumps but lately, he’s been great with 5 goals and 8 assists this year. Martin Erat hasn’t shown his goal scoring abilities lately but he has 8 assists this month and it’s good to see him contributing one way or another.

If the Preds are going to hang around for much longer, they’ll need their bigger names to produce. Steve Sullivan is doing well but eventually JP Dumont, Patric Hornqvist and Martin Erat need to start scoring more because Kostitsyn, O’Riley and Goc can only do so much. It’s good that their defense and goaltending has made up for the offensive slumps but that can only take them so far. I have to think getting Matthew Lombardi back will help a lot, whenever that may be.



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