SUN Hockey Pool

Panthers purring at quarter-pole

Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen (back R) looks on from behind the bench during the third...

Florida Panthers head coach Kevin Dineen (back R) looks on from behind the bench during the third period of their NHL hockey game against the New York Rangers in Sunrise, Florida November 23, 2011. REUTERS/Hans Deryk

Chris Stevenson, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 12:42 PM ET

Like Dustin Brown of the Los Angeles Kings, we're always trying to figure which end is up here at NHL Saturday HQ.

(If you don't know what I'm talking about, just google "Dustin Brown water bottle." Had to love his tweet after: "Heading to the rink early today have to help the trainers mark all the water bottles with arrows. #funnymomentscaughtincamera).

What we have figured out is that it has been an interesting first quarter of the NHL season -- and we're not just talking about teams signing 51-year-old backup goalies or the Toronto Maple Leafs being for sale or not being for sale (depends what day it is) or Sidney Crosby's stupid-good return from his concussion.

Two revivals in the first quarter of the season stand out:

- The Florida Panthers. They haven't made the playoffs since we worried about Y2K, but general manager Dale Tallon remade the team during the off-season with new coach Kevin Dineen and signing or acquiring 11 new players. Forward Kris Versteeg (picked up for a couple of draft picks) has been a poolie's dream, but there are two keys for me: One is getting defenceman Brian Campbell out of Chicago. Campbell was buried behind Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook in the Windy City and has thrived being the frontman in south Florida. The other is adding Craig Ramsay as an assistant coach. He has been a great complement to Dineen. The man has one of the sharpest minds in the game and all he does is help players improve.

- The Minnesota Wild. The knee-jerk response would be to say the keys were the blockbuster deal that sent stud defenceman Brent Burns to San Jose for Devon Setaguchi and acquiring Dany Heatley from the Sharks for Martin Havlat. But it has been the defence that has carried the Wild to the top of the NHL. Minnesota is the only team giving up fewer than two goals a game on average going into Friday. Coach Mike Yeo should be getting consideration for coach of the year, given he hasn't had defencemen Marek Zidlicky, Greg Zanon, Mike Lundin and Marco Scandella. Yeo's system dominates the middle of the ice and concentrates on chipping pucks behind defencemen to wear them down (not a lot different from a few teams, but he has the Wild executing).

Patience has been paying off. In seven of the past 11 games going into Friday, the Wild had scored in the third period to win the game or force overtime.

HEAR AND THERE: Speaking of interesting developments in the first quarter of the season, Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin hadn't scored a goal at home yet going into Friday's games. "You know, I almost forget how it feels to score goals in our building," Ovechkin said. A lot of people can't remember Ovechkin as a dominating player ... Goaltender Martin Brodeur and tough guy Cam Janssens of the New Jersey Devils have a bet on who will have more points this season and in their careers. Brodeur has 39 career points (one goal and 38 assists). Janssens has just 10. I'm thinking bad bet by Janssens unless he gets traded to Pittsburgh and rides shotgun for Crosby like Dave Semenko did for Wayne Gretzky at times. "It's pretty easy (for Brodeur) to get an assist whenever you're on the ice with Kovy (Ilya Kovalchuk)," Janssens said. "Make a save and it goes in the corner. (Kovalchuk) picks it up and goes end to end. I have to start shooting the puck more. It will be nice to beat him and rub it in his face a little bit."

THE BUZZ: Now that the Columbus Blue Jackets have snapped their road losing streak in Nashville (it was 17 games), the longest losing string in an opponent's rink belongs to the Edmonton Oilers, who had lost 17 in a row in Minnesota going into Friday's game ... One of the things coaches can do to be successful is keep things fresh. Dineen had a shootout competition for his Panthers in which, after each miss, a player had to remove a piece of equipment. By the time he finally scored, Shawn Matthias was without his gloves, sweater and pants ... Curtis Sanford had stopped 103 of 109 shots in the Blue Jackets net to help them go 2-0-2 entering Friday. He earned his first NHL win since Dec. 28, 2008.

JUST SAYING: The latest former first-round pick who could be on his way out of Columbus -- Derick Brassard has been a healthy scratch for five of six games. He was taken sixth overall in 2006 and could be ready to join Nikita Filitov (sixth overall in 2008) as an ex-Jacket if they can find a taker ... San Jose's Ryan Clowe was fined $2,500 for slashing Stephane Robidas of the Dallas Stars. Robidas was hassling Joe Thornton of the Sharks at the time. Don't forget Robidas slashed Thornton late last season, breaking Thornton's left pinky (he needed surgery to fix it in the off-season after it affected his ability taking faceoffs in the playoffs). Hockey players have long memories.

JUST WONDERING: How good can the Pittsburgh Penguins be now that Sidney Crosby is back? You would think really good, but the challenge for coach Dan Bylsma now is finding enough ice time to keep everybody happy. A good problem to have, I suppose. "We have a lot of depth," Crosby said. "That's the one thing that is pretty apparent. That's a big part of winning. But I think we have to continue to improve to make sure we prove that. There's an opportunity there, but I think there are a lot of other teams that have that same opportunity. We'll see how things go, but, yes, on paper we have a great team."

THE LAST WORD: "I get to get on the plane." -- Carolina Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, whose feet have been put to the fire, after his team beat the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Top five most improved teams in the standings year over year

As we pass the quarter-point of the NHL schedule, here's a look at the five teams that have improved the most in the conference standings, year over year (standings on Nov. 24 each season).

1. Florida Panthers, +11 spots. After a summer spending spree, the Panthers have jumped into second place in the Eastern Conference, thanks to a nine-point improvement.

Tie - 2. Minnesota Wild, +9. Thanks to some great defence, the Wild is leading the NHL. Minnesota is seven points better than last Nov. 24.

Tie - 2. San Jose Sharks, +9. The Sharks had a horrible start last season (9-6-4 through 19 games). They went 39-19-5 after that.

4. Dallas Stars, +8. Under rookie coach Glen Gulutzan, the Stars have jumped to fourth from 12th last year.

Tie - 5. Toronto Maple Leafs, +6. Led by the scoring of Phil Kessel, Leafs now a good bet to make the playoffs.

Tie - 5. Edmonton Oilers, +6. Ten-point improvement from same time last year is the biggest in the league.

The team that has experienced the biggest drop in the standings is the Columbus Blue Jackets. Last Nov. 24 the Jackets were in fourth place in the Western Conference with a 13-6-0 record. They've dropped 11 spots in the standings year-over-year.

Hanging in the locker - Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

Crosby's return to the NHL Monday night with two goals and two assists was remarkable, but also interesting was that three of his four points were earned off the backhand. His first goal was a wicked backhander, his first assist was a backhand pass to Pens defenceman Brooks Orpik and his second goal was a backhand from the circle that went in off a New York Islanders defender.

For most players, the backhand is a lost art, although it has experienced a bit of a revival in the shootout as players look to add to their bag of tricks.

Crosby is the NHL's best practitioner of the art and one of the reasons is his stick. He uses a blade that is pretty much straight, the straightest of anybody in the NHL, near as we can figure.

Crosby has used the same blade pattern since he was a kid.

"That's what my dad got me when I was little and I'm sure it's the same with everyone," he said. "I'm sure guys kind of tweak things here and there, but for the most part, it's what you grew up with.

"Same stick, pretty much the same curve. I've always used that, so, yeah, that's probably why I'm comfortable on my backhand. It gives you a little bit more of an opportunity to use (the backhand) because of the straightness of the blade, but that's not why I use a straight blade -- it's just because it's what I'm comfortable with."

Something special - Florida Panthers power play

Power plays: 85

Power play goals: 17

Percentage: 20

Rank: 8

Off the top, you might wonder about what's so great about a team that ranks eighth in the power play. Top 10 is pretty good, but it's fantastic for the Panthers -- like when you put on your winter coat for the first time this year and find a 20-dollar bill. It's fantastic when you consider at this time last year the Panthers power play was ranked dead last in the NHL (5-for-67, 7.5%).

The power play is one of the reasons the Panthers are second in the Eastern Conference. Why has it improved? Mostly because of improved play at the points. Adding mobile defenceman Brian Campbell has helped immensely (he's a one-man breakout) and he leads the Panthers in power-play points with 12. Jason Garrison, who has a bomb from the point, has given them that scoring threat from the blue line. He leads NHL defencemen with four power-play goals (and eight overall). He had seven goals for his career -- in 113 games -- going into this season. Two additions up front have helped, too. Kris Versteeg leads the Panthers with four power-goals and Tomas Fleischmann has three.

The Grocery Stick

Who is headed -- literally or figuratively -- for that comfortable spot on the bench that separates the forwards and the defencemen?

VILLE LEINO, F, BUFFALO SABRES.

One of the Sabres' big off-season signings, along with defenceman Christian Ehrhoff, Leino is on pace for seven goals, 18 points and a minus-23 mark this season. He had just 18 shots and six hits going into Buffalo's game Friday against Columbus. Not exactly what the Sabres were looking for when they signed the 28-year-old to a six-year deal with a cap hit of $4.5 million. Leino still is looking for his first goal on the road.

The good news is one of his two goals turned out to be a game winner. He has gone from top-line centre to fourth line and then over to the wing.

Leino struggled, too, when he first joined the Philadelphia Flyers in a trade from the Detroit Red Wings during the 2009-10 season. He was at his best playing on the wing with Daniel Briere and Scott Hartnell as the Flyers went to the Cup final (21 playoff points). That seems to be the situation Sabres coach Lindy Ruff is now trying to create for Leino. Wednesday against Boston, Leino played on the wing with Derek Roy and Drew Stafford.

Go figure

1 - The number of teams that held a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as of Nov. 24 of last year -- roughly the quarter-point of the season -- and ended up missing the playoffs. That team was the Ottawa Senators, who were eighth on Nov. 24 and finished 13th. The Buffalo Sabres moved up from 12th place to make the playoffs.

3 - The number of teams that held a playoff spot in the Western Conference on Nov. 24 of last year and ended up missing the playoffs. The Colorado Avalanche (third), Columbus Blue Jackets (fourth) and St. Louis Blues (sixth) all tumbled out of the playoff picture. Anaheim (ninth), San Jose (11th) and Nashville (13th) moved up and in.

14 - The number of points Toronto Maple Leafs forward Phil Kessel had through 22 games last season. He had 10 goals and four assists. This season through 22 games, Kessel led the NHL with 16 goals and 14 assists for 30 points going into Friday night's games. Interestingly, Kessel has taken three fewer shots through 22 games this season (77 vs. 80).

27 - Ranking of the Maple Leafs in penalty killing on Nov. 24, 2010. Oddly enough, it's exactly where they ranked on Nov. 24, 2011, one year later at the quarter-pole of the season. Last year, the Leafs penalty-killing percentage at this point was 75.8%. This year, it's 76.6%. Imagine where they'd be with even a middle-of-the-pack performance.

chris.stevenson@sunmedia.ca

twitter.com/CJ_Stevenson


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