Last night, the Edmonton Oilers fell to 2-1 on the season with a loss to the Minnesota Wild. They struggled mightily on the penalty kill as the Wild scored all their goals on the powerplay en route to a 4-2 win. Despite the loss, the Oilers sit in 9th place in the entire NHL, and third in the Western Conference. They actually lead the Northwest division. To the pessimist, it means nothing, because they aren’t supposed to be a good team and shouldn’t make the playoffs. But to the optimist, it’s refreshing to see them so high in the standings, considering they finished last overall last year. And the team that finished 2nd last overall? Well they are none other then the Toronto Maple Leafs, who thanks to a 3-0 start lead the entire NHL, and are second only to the Washington Capitals in goals scored. Tampa Bay, a non-playoff team, is second, and the Flyers are in third. In the West, Nashville leads the conference, followed by non-playoff teams Dallas and Edmonton. The defending Stanley Cup champions Chicago Blackhawks are 1-2-1 and have yet to win a game at home. The champions from two years ago, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are 1-3, and also winless at home. Doesn’t exactly fit the predictions of most hockey pundits.
If your favorite team has had a bad start, you might say something like “it’s a long season, anything can happen.” If your team has had a great start, you might say, “the points at the beginning of the season are so important.” And both of those estimations are correct. Two years ago, the Penguins found themselves in 10th place in the conference, and far removed from a playoff birth midway through the season. They changed coach, went on a remarkable run, finished 4th in the conference and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Last season, the Detroit Red Wings also found themselves down and out midway through the season. But led by rookie goalie Jimmy Howard, they jumped up to into the fifth spot in the conference, and made it to the second round of the playoffs. So just how important is a good start? In the simplest of terms, a fast start gives a team a jump on their division. The points earned in the first few games count just as much as the points earned in the last few games. Because the seasons has so many ups and downs, unexpected injuries, trades and player slumps, any points a team can get are valuable. If you happen to be a fan of a team that’s doing well, enjoy it. Don’t let the negative press bother you. Every victory is crucial, no matter what time of the season they come at. If your team is struggling, don’t jump off the ledge just yet. All it takes a small winning streak and they’re right back in it. This isn’t the NFL, where a two game losing streak could mean the end of your season. There are peaks and valleys to every NHL season. The best part about making pre-season predictions is that they are impossible to get right. I would like to find the person who thought that a week into the season the Leafs would be undefeated and lead the NHL in points and shake their hand.
As we learned last year, often the regular season results mean very little when the postseason begins. The Washington Capitals led the NHL in points by a wide margin, yet were ousted by 8th place Montreal, who went on to the Conference finals. The Philadelphia Flyers made it to the Stanley Cup finals despite finishing in 7th place. The Eastern Conference didn’t have one division leader present in the second round. So how important is a good start? Just as important as a good middle, and a good finish. A good start is always a good thing, but the only thing that matters in the NHL is what happens after the final regular season whistle blows.