The NHL schedule has breezed by the quarter pole and with Christmas soon coming, a few teams put some cheer into their own stockings with good results in November.
The Vegas Golden Knights continue to confound the experts, maintaining a share of the Pacific Division lead with the Los Angeles Kings. They have been near unbeatable at home, sporting the second best record there at 9-2-0.
On the other side of the ledger, the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins had a better month and now hold the second wild card position in the East. Connor McDavid and the Oilers made marginal improvements from a horrid October, but still aren’t good enough to crack the power rankings.
We were looking forward to seeing guys like McDavid improve on his Hart and Art Ross winning 2016-17 season and he’s not even close yet. Ditto Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns, who has but one goal and is -6. Only Calder winner Auston Matthews has played to his level, as has Vezina recipient Sergei Bobrovsky.
Here is the second update to the inaugural monthly NHL rankings, with a twist, in that it will only be who we think are the top 16 squads (i.e. 16 teams make the playoffs). Here they are, in ascending order.
16. Boston Bruins – October Rank: N/A
The Bruins were good last year, just not good enough. After missing the playoffs in two straight seasons, the B’s made it back to the big spring dance, only to lose in six to the Ottawa Senators in the first round. There wasn’t a wholesale changing of the guard in the off-season, as they shed some veterans in Dominic Moore, Drew Stafford, Jimmy Hayes and John-Michael Liles to make room for youngsters. Among the new faces in the line-up are D Charlie McAvoy, who debuted in the playoffs, as well as C Danton Heinen (116th overall pick in 2014), LW Jake DeBrusk (14th overall in 2015), LW Anders Bjork (146th overall, 2014), C Sean Kuraly (133rd overall to San Jose in 2011) and D Matt Grzelcyk (85th overall, 2012). Tuukka Rask still mans the pipes as the no. 1, while very capable back-up Anton Khudobin bides his time.
November Results: The Bruins so-so October start (4-3-3) didn’t get them into the October rankings. But, after a slow start to November, the team has gelled, winning five of their last six to finish the month 7-5-1. They capped it with a huge victory over NHL leading Tampa Bay on Wednesday night, 3-2. The Bruins built a 3-0 lead and held on against Steve Stamkos and Co. to head into December on a high note. Leading scorer David Pastrnak had six of his 12 goals and four of his nine assists in 13 games. Back-up netminder Anton Khudobin was hot in November, going 4-0-1 (he hasn’t lost in regulation this season), with just 10 goals against on 160 shots.
A look ahead: December is a mixed bag for Boston, as they play six on the road and eight at home. They have a tough three-game home stand in the middle of the month with Washington, the Rangers and Columbus all invading TD Garden.
15. San Jose Sharks – October Rank: N/A
A 99-point campaign in 2016-17 was good, but a first round playoff exit — after making the Stanley Cup finals in 2016 — could not have sat well with players or management. Long-time veteran Patrick Marleau headed to free agency and signed with Toronto, and stay-at-home D David Shlemko was picked up by Vegas and then dealt to Montreal. Even with Marleau gone, the core is still fairly old, with Joe Thornton (38), Joe Pavelski (33), Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns (32) and D Marc-Edouard Vlasic (30). Much more will be expected from youngsters Tomas Hertl, Joonas Donskoi, Kevin Labanc and Chris Tierney, if the Sharks are going to stay in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt. Goaltenders Martin Jones and Aaron Dell are one of the best one-two tandems in the league.
November Results: The Sharks are in the rankings for the first time this season, based on a fairly solid 7-3-2 mark in November after going 6-5 in October. They finished the month strong with a 2-0-1 mark on the road and a big 4-0 win over powerful Winnipeg at home on Saturday. Martin Jones, who has the NHL’s second best goals against average at 2.05, stopped 38 shots in the victory. Leading scorer Logan Couture (13 goals, 8 assists), also ended the month on a high note with three goals and two assists in four games.
A look ahead: The Sharks hit the road for three games in the East in a tough start to the month of December. They start in Florida, then go to Tampa and Washington, before returning home to host Carolina, Ottawa and Minnesota. That is followed by three road and three home games all against Western Conference opponents (Calgary and Vancouver twice each).
14. Calgary Flames – October Rank: N/A
If in fact ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr does suit up for Calgary — his first ever Canadian team — he definitely won’t hurt them. As it stands, this is a pretty darned good team. Their top two lines are loaded with young talent, including first liners Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Michael Ferland, along with second liners Matthew Tkachuk and Mikael Backlund. The addition of Travis Hamonic to the defence was an off-season coup and gives the Flames a frighteningly good top four with Hamonic, Mark Giordano, Dougie Hamilton and T.J. Brodie. The biggest concern for the Flames is how their goaltending will fare. Gone are Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson, replaced by veteran Mike Smith and journeyman Eddie Lack. Smith, 35, was decent in 55 games with the woeful Coyotes last year, winning 19 games with a .914 save percentage, 2.92 goals against and three shutouts. Lack, late of Carolina, has played in 135 NHL games and has a career goals against of 2.56, with nine shutouts.
November Results: The Flames are back in the rankings after going 7-4-1 in November (with one game left Thursday night against Arizona) and holding a share of the last wild card playoff spot in a tightly packed Western Conference. Johnny Gaudreau, who is third overall in the NHL with 34 points, was on fire in November with eight goals and 11 assists. Ditto fifth-year man Sean Monahan, who had eight of his 14 goals (4th best in the league) in November.
A look ahead: A 14-game month will take the Flames almost to the mid-way point of the season and give us a clearer picture of their playoff hopes. It’s not a grueling month, with just six on the road (only two in the East). However, they do have a tough finish, with visits to San Jose and Anaheim, followed by a visit from Chicago on New Year’s Eve.
13. Pittsburgh Penguins – October Rank: 8
Until proven otherwise, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins are still the class of the NHL. Sidney Crosby and the gang may have dropped a few pieces to a second consecutive title (Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley), but on paper they are still scary good. As it is, none of the departed were in their top six in scoring and most are long past their prime. So instead of big name free agents joining the Pens for a possible three-peat, the team welcomed some bottom six depth in guys like Greg McKegg and Ryan Reaves, along with defenceman Matt Hunwick. Matt Murray will continue on as undisputed no. 1, with Dallas cast-off Antti Niemi riding shotgun (they better hope a change of scenery is the tonic). Do all signs point to another Cup? Don’t count Crosby and the Penguins out.
November Results: The defending champs remain in the Power 16 by the skin of their teeth. The NHL’s second most porous team (90 goals against, -16 differential) had many shootouts in a 5-5-2 November to sit tied with Washington for fourth in the Metropolitan Division as well as one of two wild card spots. They ended the month on a high, high note, beating Tampa Bay 5-2 on Saturday and the clipping rival Philadelphia 5-4 in OT on Monday. Sidney Crosby had three goals and three assists in those two contests, while team leading scorer Phil Kessel chipped in five of his 31 points on the season.
A look ahead: The Pens have a home-heavy December, and not necessarily an easy one. After visiting Buffalo on Friday, they have five straight in Pittsburgh, including tilts against the Rangers, Islanders and Leafs. A three game home stand around Christmas includes two visits from Columbus and the other by Anaheim.
12. Washington Capitals – October Rank: 10
The magic potion to winning a Stanley Cup continued to elude the Capitals in 2016-17. Despite boasting some of the game’s great scorers (Alex Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom), great defence and a yearly Vezina candidate in goalie Braden Holtby, the Caps succumbed to the eventual champion Penguins, yet again. So, this year, instead of fishing about in free agency to try and buy a championship, the Caps stood relatively pat and will go at it with a still very formidable line-up. They lost trade deadline acquisition Kevin Shattenkirk to free agency, which will open up more ice time for the likes of Dmitri Orlov and John Carlson. Up front, Marcus Johansson and his 58 points are gone, which opens the door for former first rounder Jakub Vrana to pick up the slack on the first line with OV and Kuznetzov. The most changes came in the bottom six, with newcomers Alex Chiasson (24 points for Calgary), Tyler Graovac (seven goals and nine points in 52 games with Minnesota) and Devante Smith-Pelly (nine points in 53 games for the Devils), providing checking, grit and a little scoring.
November Results: Don’t look now, but the Caps may be on a bit of run. After a tepid October, they won nine of 13 in November with one remaining Thursday night against Los Angeles. They beat three straight quality opponents in the last three games, including Ottawa (5-2), Tampa Bay (3-1) and Toronto (4-2). After opening the season with seven goals in two games, the streaky Alex Ovechkin added to his league leading total of 18 snipes with five in the last three (including a third hat trick on the season against Toronto).
A look ahead: The schedule maker has been kind to Washington in advance of Christmas. After just five on 14 on the road in November, the Caps have eight at home and six on the road in December. Most are against quality opponents though and a three-game western swing followed directly by one in New York against the Rangers late in the month will be grueling.
11. Dallas Stars – October Rank: 13
We’ll believe it, when we see it. Most pundits predict that the re-vamped Stars have done enough to help erase a lost 2016-17 campaign. They added enigmatic playmaker Alexander Radulov to a top line featuring Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn, as well as veteran pivot Martin Hanzal to the third line to give them more depth. Free agent Marc Methot joins an underachieving blue line, headed by homegrowns Esa Lindell and John Klingberg. The biggest, and most important changes for the Stars come in net and behind the bench. Ben Bishop gives the Stars the goaltending they have lacked for some time, pushing the mediocre Kari Lehtonen to back-up duties (which may suit him better). Bishop was so-so in 2016-17, playing in 39 games and posting a 2.54 GAA and .910 save percentage. With a change of scenery and renewed commitment to defence under Ken Hitchcock (more on him), Bishop may regain the all-star form he had during the 2015-16 campaign. Hitchcock is back for another go-around in Big D, where he won the franchise’s only championship in 1999. He’s a taskmaster who will get more out of the troops than they were capable of last year.
November Results: It was an up-and-down month in Big D, with the Stars winning four of five to end November after dropping five of seven to open it. They still had one game left on Thursday night in Chicago, too. In that late winning streak, the Stars beat Vegas 3-0, Edmonton 6-3 and Calgary 6-4. Which is telling, in that they have proved they can score, but also have trouble keeping it out. Ben Bishop, expected to stabilize the goaltending, has been Jekyll and Hyde. Along with two shutouts and five wins in November, he also had allowed four or more goals four times. He is 11-7 on the season, with a 2.62 goals against average and .912 save percentage.
A look ahead: The Stars ended November and begin December with a back-to-back against Chicago. December sees them hit the road for seven games and host eight in Big D, so not easy. A four-game Eastern swing in the middle of the month will have an impact.
10. New Jersey Devils – October Rank: 5
The Devils won the draft lottery and were able to add no. 1 overall pick Nico Hischier to a changing roster. The team also welcomed, out of training camp, rookies Will Butcher (123rd overall to Colorado in 2013), LW Jesper Bratt (162nd overall, 2016) and Blake Coleman (75th overall, 2011). In a busy off-season the Devils also acquired playmaking winger Marcus Johansson from Washington and veterans Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes from Boston. The Devils have a fairly deep line-up after all that, with Cory Schneider and back-up Keith Kinkaid providing better than adequate goaltending.
November Results: The Devils have been a pleasant surprise this season and have lost just six of 24 games in regulation to start it. With 32 points, they sit second to Columbus in the Metropolitan and tied for third overall with the Islanders. The plucky Devils, led by Taylor Hall’s 26 points, have spread the scoring around nicely. Journeyman center Brian Gibbons is leading the team in goals with 11 and plus-minus at +12. In big news on Thursday, the Devils dealt long-time center Adam Henrique, minor league pivot Joe Blandisi and a 2018 third-rounder for puck-moving Anaheim D Sami Vatanen.
A look ahead: The NHL scheduling gurus cut the Devils some slack, with six on the road and eight at home in December. After five of their first seven away from Jersey, they get a nice long homestand around Christmas, six in all. However, the quality of opponents is striking, with two each against Columbus and the Rangers, as well as tilts with Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas and Colorado.
9. New York Islanders – October Rank: 14
There is quite a bit of uncertainty in Brooklyn, as homegrown superstar John Tavares nears unrestricted free agency. Johnny T led the team in scoring last year with 66 points and will command a big, multi-year contract when the time comes. In the off-season the team swapped Ryan Strome for Edmonton’s Jordan Eberle, giving them a potent right winger for the second line. The emergence of 2015 first round pick Mathew Barzal will be key to the offence, but the loss of D Travis Hamonic could have an adverse effect. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of summer upheaval. Much will depend on how well veteran goalie Jaroslav Halak performs, in tandem with Thomas Greiss. Halak was actually waived an optioned to the minors last year.
November Results: The Islanders ended November absolutely volcano hot, winning seven of eight to push their monthly mark to 8-4. At 15-7-2, John Tavares and crew are comfortably in second in the Metropolitan. The goalie platoon of Thomas Greiss and Jaroslav Halak seems to be working, while the offence has been able to overcome any defensive shortcomings. In those seven wins, the Isles beat St. Louis, Tampa Bay, Philadelphia twice and Vancouver. Tavares paced the offence with nine points in those seven victories.
A look ahead: December will be alternately brutal and kind as the Islanders play 15 total games. After hosting Ottawa Friday, they hit the road for four big tests in Florida, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh and Boston. Then they play seven of eight at home until just after Christmas, highlighted by big contests with Washington, Dallas, Columbus (on the road), L.A., Anaheim and Winnipeg.
8. Los Angeles Kings – October Rank: 1
The Kings, who had a hugely disappointing season in 2016-17, made one significant move thereafter, firing longtime coach Darryl Sutter and replacing him with John Stevens. From there, the team made minor adjustments, including the signing of back-up goalie Darcy Kuemper and bringing back playmaking left winger Mike Cammalleri. They also signed free agent defenceman Oscar Fantenberg out of Sweden and NCAA star Alex Iafallo from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. Much of the team’s offence still revolves around Anze Kopitar and defenceman Drew Doughty. Much of their success, or lack thereof, in 2017-18 will depend on the health of Jonathan Quick, who played just 17 games last season.
November Results: The Kings blazed out of the gate in October with a sterling 9-2-1 record, but came crashing to earth in November, with a 5-6-2 mark and one game to go Thursday night in Washington. Goalies Jonathan Quick and Darcy Kuemper did their level best to keep their teams in it most nights, but goals were hard to come by on too many nights. In their losses, the Kings scored just 14 of their 33 goals. Anze Kopitar was most consistent, notching five goals and nine assists, only failing to score in three of 13 contests.
A look ahead: It’s not a particularly tiring month of December with 13 games in 31 days, however, eight of them are on the road, where the Kings are a pretty darned good 7-3-1. A mid-month four-game swing to face New Jersey, the Rangers, Islanders and Philadelphia might be a tough slog.
7. Vegas Golden Knights – October Rank: 4
The Knights, for a throw together team, plucked a few gems out of the dispersal draft, as well as free agency. GM George McPhee had his work cut out for him but did well with dispersal and entry draft wheeling and dealing to stock the cupboard. Of the more notable names available in the dispersal draft, they got James Neal, Reilly Smith, Nate Schmidt, Jonathan Marchessault and Marc-Andre Fleury. Other reliable veteran acquisitions included David Perron, Luca Sbisa, Cody Eakin, Colin Miller, Oscar Lindberg and Erik Haula. McPhee’s wrangling at the entry draft netted him three first round picks, including Cody Glass (6th overall), Nick Suzuki (13th) and Erik Brannstrom (15th).
November Results: Over the course of a season, previously hot teams level off at times — especially expansion clubs like Vegas. Yet, the Golden Knights bounced back nicely from starting the month 2-3-1 by winning five of their last six, with one game to go in Minnesota Thursday night. Jonathan Marchessault has been huge lately, scoring four goals and seven assists as the Knights won five straight late in November. Goaltending by committee has worked out, so far, with both no. 1 Marc-Andre Fleury and back-up Oscar Dansk sustaining injuries.
A look ahead: A lighter month than a November that saw Vegas hit the road for nine games. They play a lucky 13 in December, with just five on the road. A five-game home stand just before Christmas will see heavyweight Eastern teams like Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Washington visit Sin City.
6. Toronto Maple Leafs – October Rank: 7
Depending on who is talking, the Leafs are either a) primed for a major move toward a Stanley Cup or b) due for a tumble because their young core won’t sneak up on anyone this year. With the load of talent up front and a capable goalie in Fredrik Andersson, the former may be a more realistic outcome than the latter. Auston Matthews leads this team into a season where many expect the team to push a little further than last year. He was a 40-goal man and the Calder winner in 2016-17 and will only get better. The veteran/youngster mix up front is sound and got a boost in leadership when they signed Patrick Marleau. The defensive corps looks a little better, given that Cup-winning veteran Ron Hainsey was added to the mix and will help in the further development of Morgan Rielly. Undrafted Swede Andreas Borgman, a sturdy defenceman who surprised all by making the opening night roster, might be this year’s Nikita Zaitsev.
November Results: An improbable 6-1 start in October turned into a 2-6 slide into early November, but the Leafs righted the ship through the latter part of the month. He won six straight starting on Nov. 6 (4-3 in a shootout over Vegas) and finished out 8-2-1 to run their record to 16-9-1, good for second in the Atlantic Division. Goalie Frederik Andersen has stood on his head many a night, posting back to back shutouts over New Jersey and Montreal. Balanced scoring has been key to Leafs victories, with leading scorer Auston Matthews logging 12 goals, as have Nazem Kadri and James van Riemsdyk.
A look ahead: The Leafs finish off a three-game Western road trip with games in Edmonton (Thursday night) and then Vancouver on Saturday. It’s a road warrior month for Toronto, with 10 of 13 away from the ACC. The last five-game swing makes the NHL scheduling crew look like sadists as the Leafs pass through Columbus, New York, Arizona, Colorado and Vegas.
5. Nashville Predators – October Rank: 6
Smashville came pretty close to winning it all last year and with the line-up they have now, will beat teams on the scoreboard and in the trenches. On the grit side, the Preds picked up noted banger D Alexei Emelin (1,235 hits in 380 games) as well as bringing back gritty scorer Scott Hartnell, who will man the left side on the second line. Speaking of that second line, the Predators poached the Penguins for center Nick Bonino, who will ably replace Mike Fisher. Roman Josi and P.K. Subban are two of the better offensive defencemen in the league and man the point in a scary good first powerplay unit that also sports Hartnell, Ryan Johansen and Filip Forsberg. Pekka Rinne returns for a 12th season and will mentor up-and-coming countryman Juuse Saros, who looks like the goalie of the future. The Western Conference is tough but the Predators have the horses to go far.
November Results: One of the NHL’s hottest teams has won 10 games in November (10-2-1) with one game remaining Thursday night against Vancouver. Smashville had winning streaks of five and four games this month, with impressive victories over Los Angeles, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Washington, Winnipeg, St. Louis and Chicago. Pekka Rinne is an early Vezina candidate, posting a 14-3-2 record so far, with a 2.29 GAA and .928 save percentage. Forward Filip Forsberg has really come into his own, logging four goals and eight assists this month to run his team-leading total to 12 goals and 13 assists overall.
A look ahead: Just 13 contests in December, but seven on the road, including two three-game jaunts to play Western Conference competition. They hit Western Canada for tilts against Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary between Dec. 13 and 16, then go midwest to face Dallas, St. Louis and Minnesota from Dec. 21 to 27.
4. Winnipeg Jets – October Rank: 12
The Jets are opposite their confreres in Montreal, in that they will score in buckets, but may be nip-tuck to keep the biscuit out of the basket. There was virtually no change to their starting four forward lines, headed by leading point producer Mark Scheifele (82) and followed by top goal scorer Patrik Laine (36 in his rookie campaign) as well as Blake Wheeler (74 points) and Nikolaj Ehlers (64 points, tied with Laine). The Jets also get an offensive boost from a blue line that features heavy hitter Dustin Byfuglien (13 goals, 52 points) and Jacob Trouba (33 points in 60 games). Winnipeg did make one major move in free agency, scooping veteran netminder Steve Mason from Philadelphia. A renaissance year of sorts will be required of Mason, who wasn’t brilliant for the Flyers last year (2.66 GAA, .908 save percentage in 58 games). He forces incumbent starter Connor Hellebuyck to the second banana — nice insurance if Mason flames out.
November Results: The Jets kept pace with Central Division foes Nashville and St. Louis by going 9-3-2 in a month that saw them play eight on the road (winning four of them). Like Pekka Rinne in Nashville, G Connor Hellebuyck has been a Godsend, posting a 13-2-3 record as a starter in place of projected no. 1 Steve Mason. Scoring wise, the line of Mark Scheifele (team leading 29 points), Blake Wheeler (28 points) and Kyle Connor (15 points) have been lights out. If they aren’t going then it’s the unit of Nikolaj Ehlers (10 goals, 19 points), Patrik Laine (11 goals, 17 points) and Bryan Little (14 points).
A look ahead: A 15-game gut check in December as the Jets play eight on the road and seven at home. A tough stretch will see Winnipeg play St. Louis home and home, followed by three straight on the road (Nashville, Boston and the Islanders) between Dec. 16 and 23.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets – October Rank: 16
There will be a few new wrinkles to the Eastern Conference’s fourth most potent attack this season. The Blue Jackets, who scored 249 goals last year, but bowed meekly in five games to Pittsburgh in the first round, weren’t content with status quo and made some changes. First, they traded Brandon Saad back to Chicago for elite playmaker Artemi Panarin. They waived by bye to veterans Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell, which opens up prime spots for young gunners like rookie Sonny Milano (second line left wing), third-year man Oliver Bjorkstrand (second line right wing) and 2016 third overall pick Pierre-Luc Dubois (third line left wing). They will all learn well with veteran centermen Nick Foligno (second line) and Brandon Dubinsky (third line). The defence is as solid and mobile as any, with super sophomore Zach Werenski anchoring a first pair with Seth Jones. And, Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky will nearly always give them a chance to win.
November Results: The Blue Jackets had a shaky, shaky start to November, losing four of their first five to sink to 9-7-1 early on. But, they shook off the rust and reeled off six straight victories and seven in their last eight to surge into first place in the Metropolitan Division. Sergei Bobrovsky has been their best player on a lot of nights, posting two shutouts and allowing just six goals against during that six-game winning streak. He leads the league in GAA at 1.92, save percentage at .935 and shutouts with three. Good thing he’s been hot, since the leading scorer is Artemi Panarin with 16 points in 25 games.
A look ahead: A thunderous 15 games in December, with eight of them against divisional rivals and seven on the road. A particularly horrid seven-day stretch (Dec. 16-23) awaits before they get a break to open presents at Christmas. They begin it in Carolina, then travel to Boston before hosting Toronto. They then head to Pittsburgh the night after playing the Leafs and finish off the five-game butt-kicker at home to Philadelphia.
2. St. Louis Blues – October Rank: 3
The Blues didn’t do much to tweak a roster that ended up with 99 points last year and ended up going to the second round of the playoffs. Which was either a good thing, or a bad thing, depending on optics. The biggest pick-up was Philadelphia Flyers playmaker Brayden Schenn (55 points in 79 games last year), who slotted in right away on the Blues top line with Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. The team also welcome third line center Oskar Sundsqvist from Pittsburgh and rookie defenceman Vince Dunn (45 points in 72 games for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves in 2016-17). As it was in 2016-17, Jake Allen handles full-time netminding duties (33-20-5, 2.42 GAA in 2016-17), with very capable back-up Carter Hutton ready to spell him.
November Results: The Blues weren’t as prolific in November as they were in October, going 7-5 in a month where they only played four road games (but won three). The Blues have been scoring, a +20 differential (86 for, 66 against) proof of that. Jaden Schwartz is among the league leaders with 32 points, followed closely by Brayden Schenn (10 goals, 30 points) and Vladimir Tarasenko (12 goals, 28 points). The Blues are a point behind Tampa Bay as of Thursday for first overall.
A look ahead: The Blues got the kid gloves treatment in November and December will be hellish with 16 games, including eight on the road. It will be a pivotal month, no doubt, with the majority of games against Western Conference teams. They draw Winnipeg home-and-home on Dec. 16-17, followed by three straight on the road in Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver just before Christmas.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning – October Rank: 2
Like the Stars, the formerly glorious Bolts are due for a climb in the standings after narrowly missing the playoffs last season. With a healthy Steven Stamkos back (he missed all but 17 games last year), the rudderless Lightning have their captain. The Lightning fixed a couple of holes with kids and vets in the off-season. They brought in D Dan Girardi to provide grit on the blue line, then signed former Penguin Chris Kunitz for scoring depth on the left wing. In a bold move, they flipped playmaker Jonathan Drouin to Montreal in return for highly touted young defenceman Mikhail Sergachev, who will be tutored by partner Anton Stralman. The forward lines have great depth, with leading scorer Nikita Kucherov (40 goals) only getting better and the defence is very capably quarterbacked by Victor Hedman. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy gets a second season as starter after a fairly decent 2016-17 season.
November Results: The Bolts were a little more mortal in November, but just a smidge. After opening with a 10-2-1 mark in October, the mighty Lightning went 7-4-1 in November. They won five of their first six in the month, but lost four their last six. The Steven Stamkos-Nikita Kucherov train has kept rolling, with the dynamic duo 1-2 in league scoring with 37 and 36 points, respectively. And Andrei Vasilevskiy has made many people forget about Ben Bishop. He is 16-4-1 so far in 2017-18, with a 2.23 goals against average and .932 save percentage for the first overall Lightning. The Montreal Canadiens might also be regretting the Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin trade, as the rookie Russian D-man has the same number of points as the new Hab at 17.
A look ahead: The Lightning must have been good as the elves in the scheduling department put eight of their 13 games in December at home. However, they do have to jet out west for four straight between Dec. 12 and 19, with stops in St. Louis, Arizona, Colorado and Vegas.