Montreal Canadiens (18 games, 12-3-3, 27 points): The Canadiens, with plenty of speed throughout their lineup, seem built for the "new" NHL. They've been particularly good on the road, going 6-0-2 in their first eight games away from the Bell Centre. And, they've been tough to beat in close contests, going 10-3 in one-goal games.
The Habs have done well despite some very average goaltending from high-priced stopper Jose Theodore. He'll have to be better in the second quarter of the season because the Canadiens will be without top sniper Alexei Kovalev, who's having right knee surgery on Tuesday. Kovalev, who'd been dealing with pain since training camp, is expected to miss three to four weeks. With or without Kovalev, the Canadiens will be hard pressed to stay with the powerful Senators. In fact, if it weren't for the simple fact that they've played three more games then the Sens, they'd be looking up at them. In time, they will be.
Ottawa Senators (15 games, 13-2-0, 26 points): The Senators have been dominant in their first 15 games, outscoring their opponents 75-31. Just to prove that I can add and subtract, that's a 44-goal differential. Wow! In 5-on-5 situations, Bryan Murray's team has been twice as good as any other team in the league. The club's top line of Jason Spezza, Dany Heatley and Daniel Alfredsson has been almost impossible to stop. At this writing, the three sharpshooters stand among the top six scorers in the league. They currently stand one-two-three among league forwards in plus-minus.
On defense, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Chris Phillips led a very strong unit. They've done a great job making Dominik Hasek's life as simple as possible. The 40-year-old Czech stopper is playing to a 1.89 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. Both numbers would have been impressive in the old NHL, where goalies enjoyed several advantages. Barring serious injury trouble or a meltdown by Hasek, the Senators should be the top seed in the Eastern Conference come playoff time.
Toronto Maple Leafs (18 games, 9-7-2, 20 points): The biggest reason that the Leafs find themselves over .500 through 18 games is their power-play unit. They rank second in the league (behind Detroit), clicking on 24.3 percent of their opportunities. Defenseman Bryan McCabe, who somehow remains underrated despite playing in Toronto, keys the unit with five goals and 10 assists in man-advantage situations. Jeff O'Neill leads the club with seven PPGs.
Coach Pat Quinn was certainly happy to get top center Mats Sundin back in the lineup. He missed 12 games after being hit in the eye with a puck on opening night. After McCabe and Tomas Kaberle, the Leafs are thin on defense. That means 40-year-old goalie Ed Belfour can't afford too many off nights. Belfour has played better than his numbers (3.59 GAA and .886 save percentage) would indicate. Leafs fans should be happy to see rookies Alexander Steen and Kyle Wellwood making solid contributions.
This seems like a transition year for the Leafs. Still, they have an excellent shot at earning a playoff spot in the East.
Boston Bruins (19 games, 7-7-5, 19 points): Bruins management decided to play hardball with No. 1 goalie Andrew Raycroft and top defenseman Nick Boynton. The Bruins were taking advantage of the simple fact that neither player had much negotiating leverage. In the end, the club signed both players and saved a few bucks.
But, there was a cost. Raycroft missed a week of training camp. He has been playing catch up ever since. It didn't help that he suffered a strained hamstring, which cost him some time on the sidelines. Boynton, meanwhile, missed all of training camp and the first few games of the season. He has been working himself back into game shape during games that count. That's not good. So far, in 14 games, Boynton is a minus-8.
The Bruins did spend liberally on the free agent market in August. In the early going, however, newly signed B's Brian Leetch and Alexei Zhamnov have been dealing with injuries. Despite their many early season problems, the Bruins still are a .500 team. If they can get their act together, there's plenty of time to push toward the top of the conference. But, at this point, that seems like a 50-50 proposition.
Buffalo Sabres (17 games, 8-9-0, 16 points): The Sabres enjoyed the first month of the season, going a surprising 7-4 in their first 11 games. Rookie goalie Ryan Miller backstopped their early surge, starting all but one game in October. But the change in the calendar didn't seem to agree with the Sabres. On Nov. 2, at a morning skate before a home game against the Senators, Miller suffered a broken thumb. Miller won't be back until sometime in December. That evening, the Senators shelled the Sabres, 10-4. The drubbing marked the start of a 1-5 slide.
An interesting young team, the Sabres have a bigger problem. As a member of the Northeast Division, their schedule is more difficult then some of their other conference rivals. For that reason, it will be tough for them to find their way to the postseason.