The Washington Times Daily - - Sports -

Carolina Hur­ri­canes and the Colum­bus Blue Jack­ets, have spent the first seven weeks of the sea­son founder­ing. Philadel­phia fired coach Peter Lavi­o­lette af­ter just three games.

“When it changed this sum­mer and you’re look­ing at the lineup of the di­vi­sion, it looks like a lot of very good hockey teams,” Caps for­ward Brooks Laich said. “And the starts the teams have got off to aren’t fully what I ex­pected.”

But there were signs of cracks in the off­sea­son.

The Fly­ers, a play­off team five years in a row and a Stan­ley Cup fi­nal­ist in 2010, crashed to earth dur­ing the lock­out-short­ened 2013 sea­son. But they still ex­pected to quickly re­bound even as age and injury crip­pled a once-vaunted blue­line. By Oct. 8, Lavi­o­lette was gone. Star cen­ter Claude Giroux didn’t score his first goal un­til Nov. 9 and Philadel­phia en­tered play Thurs­day in last place.

New Jersey, a Stan­ley Cup fi­nal­ist in 2011, was de­liv­ered a crush­ing blow when star winger Ilya Ko­valchuk de­cided to re­tire from the NHL and re­turn home to play in Rus­sia. The Devils have ac­tu­ally man­aged to hold it to­gether. But the loss of Ko­valchuk fol­lowed the de­par­ture of star winger Zach Parise to free agency the sum­mer be­fore. Few teams can en­dure such per­son­nel losses, even a fran­chise as con­sis­tent as New Jersey.

Mean­while, the Rangers are ad­just­ing to life un­der new coach Alain Vigneault, who isn’t get­ting the of­fen­sive con­sis­tency from his group in his first year tak­ing over for the fiery John Tor­torella. It didn’t help that star winger Rick Nash missed six weeks thanks to con­cus­sion symp­toms.

“You’ve got to be care­ful be­cause I’m sure there’s games we lost that we played good. And I’m sure ev­ery team can say that,” Wash­ing­ton coach Adam Oates said. “It’s a long sea­son. It will turn. The league goes in waves any­way.”

That’s true. But so far only the Caps (12-9-1, 25 points) and Pen­guins (14-8, 28 points) are above .500. Five of the teams in the Metropoli­tan en­tered Thurs­day hav­ing been outscored by nine goals or more.

“All through­out the di­vi­sion, I think there’s strong teams, but when you play each other a lot, some­body’s got to win and some­body’s got to lose,” Caps for­ward Troy Brouwer said. “And so I think that’s what con­trib­utes to the lump of all of us in the same points stand­ings.”

Colum­bus has taken a step back de­spite miss­ing the play­offs by a sin­gle point last spring in the Cen­tral Di­vi­sion, which was eas­ily the NHL’s best di­vi­sion in 2013. The Blue Jack­ets haven’t ad­justed well, how­ever, to a switch to the Eastern Con­fer­ence.

Carolina, mean­while, was in the same boat as Wash­ing­ton mov­ing from the weak South­east Di­vi­sion to the Metropoli­tan. The Hur­ri­canes, too, have yet to gain any trac­tion. But there is time for all of these teams. Wash­ing­ton shook off a rough 1-4 start. Even Philadel­phia was only 10 points back of first-place Pitts­burgh en­ter­ing play Thurs­day.

“Twenty games in isn’t a big enough sam­ple size,” Laich said. “I think usu­ally around the 48-, 50-game mark is where you start to see teams dis­tance them­selves. You see teams that were maybe play­ing above their heads come back to earth. And other teams that maybe weren’t play­ing as well, you start to see that ‘Oh, geez, they are a re­ally good hockey team.’”

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