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Rocky start for NHL's elite

By Dan Di Sciullo
NHL Editor


Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Every year there seems to be an NHL team that follows up a deep postseason run in the spring with a rough start in the fall.

This season, however, the final four teams remaining in the 2011 playoffs have all stumbled out of the gate. Boston, Tampa Bay, Vancouver and San Jose all reached the conference finals last postseason, but those clubs are a combined 6-13-3 to begin the 2011-12 campaign.

It's always interesting, and a little bit confounding, when elite teams struggle to begin a season. So, let's take a closer look at each of these clubs and find out what's been going wrong in the early going, and whether or not there is a cure for what's ailing them.

BOSTON (2-4-0)

Before winning its first Stanley Cup title since 1972 last spring, the Bruins first had to prove they could score enough goals to be a serious contender.

With Tim Thomas in net and Zdeno Chara leading the way on the blue line, Boston has been one of the better defensive teams in the NHL over the last several years. The fact that the Bruins were able to hold onto their defensive prowess while vastly improving their scoring last season was the biggest reason Boston won it all.

Boston's offense has notched just 10 goals over its first six games of the year.
After finishing dead last in offense in 2009-10, Boston ranked fifth in the NHL in scoring during last year's regular season. The Bruins averaged 2.98 goals per game over 82 games a year ago and improved upon that number in the playoffs, scoring 3.24 GPG.

Thomas and the defense certainly hasn't been the problem for Boston this season. The two-time Vezina Trophy winner is once again posting amazing numbers with a 1.98 goals-against average and a .932 save percentage, but he only has a 2-2-0 record to show for it. Meanwhile, Boston's offense has notched just 10 goals over its first six games of the year and half of those markers have come from two players (Rich Peverly and Brad Marchand).

An injury to top centerman David Krejci has not helped, as Boston's leading scorer from last year has already sat out three games. It's still uncertain when Krejci can return from his abdominal injury, but the B's need to find a way to score without him.

In addition to Peverly and Marchand, another bright spot for Boston's offense has been the production of sophomore sensation Tyler Seguin. The second overall pick of the 2010 draft already has five points on one goal and four assists after recording just 22 points in 74 games as a rookie last year.

The Bruins have plenty of time to regain their scoring touch, but GM Peter Chiarelli will have to add offense through a trade if it doesn't. It would be more troubling if Boston's current struggles were related to defense and goaltending, but it's comforting to know that stopping the opposition is still a strength for the B's.

VANCOUVER (2-3-1)

There is even less reason for the Canucks to panic, considering the club's start this year is similar to last season's and that didn't stop Vancouver from smashing club records for points (117) and wins (54) in 2010-11. In the end, Vancouver came just one win away from claiming the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup and the slow start was a distant memory.

Fast forward to the present and the Canucks are 2-3-1 through six games after going 2-3-2 to begin last season. In both years, Vancouver's biggest problem has appeared to lie with the poor play of goaltender Roberto Luongo.

Luongo lost five of his first six starts last year and is suffering through another slow start. He is 1-2-1 in four games this season and is sporting a dreadful 3.70 GAA to go with a pitiful .856 save percentage.

Of course, Luongo's rough start has resulted in him being booed relentlessly by the hometown fans. If those catcalls are designed to get head coach Alain Vigneault and GM Mike Gillis to replace Luongo with backup Cory Schneider on a regular basis, it would be better if the Vancouver faithful just saved their collective breath.

While Schneider is a former first-round pick with great potential, Luongo is entrenched as the No. 1 in Vancouver. His bad start would have to last months before the Canucks actually considered supplanting Luongo in net. After all, the team and the goaltender made a big commitment to each other with the signing of a 12-year, $64 million contract prior to the 2009-10 season. In case you were wondering, Luongo's deal gives him the right to refuse a trade.

Schneider has been terrific in two starts this year, stopping 58-of-62 shots overall, but he is still not much more than potential trade bait in Vancouver's eyes.

It should be noted that Vancouver's problems this season are not all related to Luongo, although that would be difficult to tell with the way the netminder has been turned into a scapegoat. The Canucks have also struggled at putting the puck in the net, posting just 14 goals over six games. The recent return of second-line centerman Ryan Kesler from injury should help the sagging offense get on track.

Vancouver was down this road just last year, so there is no reason to panic. Come April, the Canucks will in all likelihood have claimed another Northwest Division title and be gearing up for a playoff run.

TAMPA BAY (1-3-2)

The Lightning shocked just about everybody with their deep run to the Eastern Conference finals last spring. Now, with the element of surprise gone, Tampa Bay has lost five out of six games (1-3-2) to begin 2011-12.

Scoring hasn't been an issue for the Bolts, who have averaged three goals per game, but the play of its defense and aging goaltender are a whole other story.

Dwayne Roloson, who recently celebrated his 42nd birthday, was the missing piece for Tampa last year. Coming over from the New York Islanders in a trade on New Year's Day, Roloson went 18-12-4 with a 2.56 GAA over 34 regular-season games with the Bolts and he only got better in the playoffs, registering a 10-6 record and .924 save percentage in 17 postseason contests.

While Roloson was a big reason Tampa came within one win of a trip to the Cup Finals last spring, he has been anything but an asset so far in 2011-12. The journeyman backstop has surrendered an astounding 18 goals in just four games for a pathetic 5.11 goals-against average.

Tampa general manager Steve Yzerman did land a quality backup netminder for his club over the summer with the signing Mathieu Garon and we could be seeing more of him if Roloson continues to play poorly between the pipes.

To be fair to Roloson, the Lightning have not played well in front of him this year either. Head coach Guy Boucher's 1-3-1 formation was the talk of the NHL a year ago, but the revised neutral-zone trap has not been paying dividends in Boucher's second season as an NHL coach. A lot of people in hockey got a good look at Boucher's system last spring and that has no doubt helped coaches prepare for the Lightning this year.

The Lightning still have tremendous offensive weapons at their disposal in players like Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, but that won't mean much if Tampa can't figure out how to stop the opposition from scoring.

SAN JOSE (1-3-0)

The Sharks began this season with a bang, but there has been nothing but whimpers in Silicon Valley since.

San Jose scored six times in trouncing visiting Phoenix to open the year, but the Sharks have since lost three straight games and have tallied a total of four goals since the season-opening triumph.

However, of the final four teams from last year's playoffs, San Jose's slow start has been the most understandable. The club was unable to use its two- best goaltenders in the first three games of the year and winger Martin Havlat, who was acquired this summer in the trade that sent Dany Heatley to Minnesota, has yet to make his Sharks debut.

The good news is No. 1 goaltender Antti Niemi started in San Jose's last game, even if he was on the wrong end of a 3-2 decision against Anaheim. Niemi will likely have a busy workload until regular backup Antero Niittymaki returns from hip surgery. Thomas Greiss, who posted a solid 2.36 GAA in starting the first three games for San Jose, will fill in for Niittymaki until he makes his expected return in late-November or early-December.

The biggest disappointment for San Jose has been the play of top forwards Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who have combined for just three assists in the first four games. With Havlat expected to make his debut on Friday, it will be interesting to see if head coach Todd McLellan keeps Thornton, Marleau and Joe Pavelski (2 goals) together or if he replaces Pavelski with Havlat on the top line.

Although four games into the season is hardly the time to panic, San Jose does play in the most difficult division of the four teams mentioned above, giving the Sharks the smallest margin of error for making the postseason. Four of the Pacific Division's five teams made the playoffs last year and Dallas, Anaheim and Los Angeles are already a combined 12-3-1 this season.

San Jose has averaged 110 points a season over the last five years, but the Sharks were down to 105 points in 2010-11. If McLellan's club loses 10 more points in the standings this year, it could be the difference between making the playoffs again or missing out on the postseason for the first time since 2003.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.

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