NHL comes in from the cold as lockout ends

Jack Walsh looks at how the lockout has affected the early stages of the NHL seasonA layoff is always going to be a talking point within professional sports. What has been improved, reinvented and transformed by the masters can be withered by injury, distractions and questions in motivation. So it is with the 2012/13 season that has been fragmented by the Lockout. A crisis that has cost the National Hockey League an astonishing 510 regular season games, in essence over 40% of the season.Relief was the buzzword trickling through ice hockey circles, as many of the teams in the six divisions have pressed forward with wild intention, treating each game like it were a playoff one. Pent up frustration due to months of either inactivity or playing in European leagues has clearly motivated the players, no more so than those of the Chicago Blackhawks.Chicago lead the Central division, and are the overall leader by a single point. In their winning encounters, the ‘Hawks have averaged over three goals a game, with Patrick Kane leading  the team in points, goals and assists.While the team haven’t entirely dominated any opponent, they broke the myth of the defending champions, the L.A. Kings, by grinding out a 5-2 win in the season opener. Net-minder Corey Crawford is proving to still be an effective element to the team, stopping 34 of 36 shots against St. Louis.Challengers to Chicago are the aforementioned, and indeed frenetic, St Louis Blues. As the youngest team in the NHL, the Blues have begun to put everything into place and, under the tutelage of the 2012 coach of the year Ken Hitchcock, are almost a carbon copy of the 2008/09 team who reached the playoffs.A perfect example of the Blues’ threat is in their 6-0 demolition of the Detroit Redwings in the season opener. Points have come from unusual places for this baby-faced St. Louis side, with defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and winger Vladimir Tarasenk hitting home. The team’s defence is arguably its strongest quality, with two shutouts recorded in their first seven games.In the Atlantic District, a very interesting New Jersey Devils team are in direct competition with their local rivals, the New York Islanders. The strength of the particular district is shown by the inclusion of a Pittsburgh Penguins team reunited with former player of the year, and current captain, Sidney Crosby, who in himself will prove to be an interesting story to follow.New Jersey are one of the few defence-heavy teams to have found success in these early stages, ranking second in the league with 1.8 goals allowed per game. Their penalty-killing unit has been proficient, killing 87% of the power-play chances of other teams. In terms of offense, the production of Patrick Elias and Ilya Kovalchuk could be the key, should the team advance to the playoffs.Meanwhile, in the Western Conference, San Jose have established themselves as an early force in the Pacific division after crashing out of last year’s playoffs. Yet, when looking at their roster, age has become a primary factor for concern for this team, as this may be the last chance for Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle to win a cup. That being said, San Jose has the most aggressive offense in the league, as they boast three of the top five league leaders in points during a spell in which the Sharks have not lost a game. In their first five encounters, Thomas Greiss and Antti Niemi have combined for a .944 save percentage, showcasing a strong defensive game too.The Sharks are expected to glide through the Pacific region, as they have the past two years out of three. Despite strong performances in the regular season, this San Jose team has sadly never lived up to expectations come playoff time. Perhaps a shorter season will prove to be of an advantage for the Californian outfit.In stark contrast, last year’s Stanley Cup champions, the Los Angeles Kings, are suffering from post-lockout hangover, as they sit in the middle of in the Pacific standings. L.A have showed an improvement after a 0-2 start, with wins coming over the faltering Vancouver Canucks and Phoenix Coyotes.The recovery of Jonathan Quick in goal (surgery on his back meant he would have missed the first three months of the season, had it started on time) has so far proved slow, as the MVP of the Stanley Cup playoffs has looked uneasy and out of depth, leaving many to wonder if he was rushed back prematurely.Back in the east, the Boston Bruins, full of opportunity and talent, have already proved themselves worthy against the New York Rangers and the Carolina Lightning, and are standing atop the Northeast division. Captain Zdeno Chara has two goals and five points, with a plus-three plus/minus rating.The team’s leading centre, David Krejci, has proved himself to be an effective and aggressive playmaker in a team that is guilty of somewhat questionable power-play tactics. Although, the team’s MVP so far would have to be Goalkeeper Tuuka Rask, who has stepped up to the standard of Tim Thomas in making one hundred and seven saves in four games.Months of inactivity have paved the way for the last few weeks, and it has been refreshing to see such a pace delivered by the upper echelons of the sport. The lockout has been prevalent for some, yet most are merely relishing the opportunity to perform in what is promising to be a short and sweet season.