Sunday, December 24, 2006

Christmas Elite

Okay...I want to wish everyone who celebrates a Merry Christmas. Hope ya'll get what your heart's desire and enjoy what's always a very special day along with a great time of year!

That out of the way, I thought it would be a nice idea to do our own Christmas elite lists. In no particular order:

Christmas Elite Top Five Teams:

1.Anaheim- Possessing the league's best record (27-5-6, 60 pts), the Ducks have it all including two future Hall of Famer Norris winners on the blueline in captain Scott Niedermayer and former Blue Chris Pronger. One of the best netminders in J.S. Giguere and a well balanced attack up front which features Hart candidate (not a misprint) Teemu Selanne along with young risers Andy McDonald, Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. Just wait till top prospect Bobby Ryan gets there!

2.Buffalo (25-7-3, 53 pts)- Despite injuries, the 2006 Eastern Conference Finalist Sabres have continue to play well and stay ahead of the pack in an ultracompetitive conference. After dropping two straight for the first time all season, Lindy Ruff's boys sent a message to the rest of the league by dismantling the Predators in Music City 7-2. They can beat you with speed, speed and more speed. Probably the best countering team, the Sabres feature the NHL's most underrated star Daniel Briere along with Maxim Afinogenov, Chris Drury and super soph Thomas Vanek. With Ryan Miller rocksolid in net and Brian Campbell and Henrik Tallinder teaming again on the blueline, this team looks extremely tough.

3.San Jose (25-11-0, 50 pts)- Flying under the radar, the Sharks are playing some good hockey. Featuring rating Hart winner Joe Thornton and emerging leader Patrick Marleau, San Jose can come at you with a lot of speed and skill. If Jonathan Cheechoo gets going, watch out. They also have an underrated blueline which includes Christian Ehrhoff, Scott Hannan and Kyle McLaren which make them tough to score against (77 GA). With Evgeni Nabokov and Vesa Toskala playing lights out in net, Ron Wilson's bunch is a serious contender.

4.Nashville (24-9-3, 51 pts)- Despite the loss of No.1 goalie Tomas Vokoun, Barry Trotz' rising club continues to play well thanks to some solid backstopping from Chris Mason along with a balanced attack up front (Sullivan, Kariya, Erat, Legwand, Arnott) which includes rookie Alexander Radulov. Where this team could be superior is on D where they boast some great talent. Aside from vets Marek Zidlicky and Kimmo Timonen, youngsters such as Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are emerging as threats. If Vokoun returns healthy and they continue to get balanced scoring, this could be the year the Preds break through.

5.Montreal (21-9-5, 47 pts)- They don't score a lot of goals (112 GF) but then again they don't have to because of their goaltending (97 GA). Cristobal Huet is proving last season wasn't a fluke while backup David Aebischer has been okay. While the offense is limited up front (Koivu, Ryder, Kovalev, Samsonov), they are getting support from Sheldon Souray and Andrei Markov on defense which takes some pressure off. Toss in emerging Long Island product Chris Higgins up front along with Alexandre Perezhogin and promising rookies Guillaume Latendresse and Maxim Lapierre (3 goals in 4 games since recall) and things are looking up for Guy Carbonneau's Habs.

Hart Race:

1.Marian Hossa- The second-year Thrasher has always been one of the NHL's best kept secrets. The ex-Senator was always a star but nobody ever put him in the MVP category until now. He's been Atlanta's best player and currently is tied with Alexander Ovechkin for first in goals (24) and ranks only behind Crosby and Jagr in scoring with 48 points. Not just a threat on the power play (13), the dangerous Hossa recently burned the Devils for two shorthanded goals. He's a complete player on a division-leading team that's looking to make the playoffs for the first time.

2.Teemu Selanne- What is it about teal which brings out the best in The Finnish Flash? For the second straight season, he's been brilliant. Clearly the offensive leader of a talented Anaheim club, Selanne leads the team in scoring with 45 points (19-26-45) and is tied among Duck forwards with a +17 rating. While 11 of his 19 goals have come on the PP, a majority have been clutch as his six game-winners pace the league. He's been a real leader on a young rising club.

3.Dominik Hasek- Okay, I know what you're thinking. Why nominate the moody Dominator when he's taken home this award in his illustrious past with Buffalo and dominated the Vezina? The Red Wings' goal differential (99 GF, 77 GA) is a huge factor here. The Wings are not as good as Anaheim, San Jose or Nashville but every night that Hasek plays, he gives them a chance to win. There's a reason they've got 47 points and won 21 games and it's in net with what was supposed to be a washed up 41 year-old goalie. For those who point out that the D is very good, while that is true, Hasek still has to be on his toes and stay focused eerily similar to Brodeur in New Jersey. In a recent win there, Hasek was brilliant. He currently leads the league with five shutouts, a 1.85 GAA and his 18 wins tie him for third with Marty Turco. Not bad for a guy who was on the way out before Ken Holland gave his agent a call.

Coming later today: The Norris, Vezina and Calder races all heat up!

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