Ranking top contenders in NHL's Eastern Conference at quarter point of season

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Ranking top contenders in NHL's Eastern Conference at quarter point of season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

Pretty much every team in the NHL is at the quarter point of its 2022-23 season.

The first month and a half has been full of surprises.

Did anyone predict the Boston Bruins would win 19 of their first 22 games and be undefeated at home entering December? Absolutely no one thought the New Jersey Devils would be tied for the most wins at the end of November.

Hall's resurgence on third line gives Bruins championship-level depth

The Eastern Conference has been extremely competitive to this point. What does the East hierarchy look like at the quarter point of the season? Let's rank the top eight teams entering Wednesday.

1) Boston Bruins

There's no doubt about it. The Bruins are the best team in the NHL. Not only do they own the league's best record at 19-3-0, they've won a record 13 consecutive games at home to begin the season. The B's also have scored the second-most goals (87) and allowed the fewest goals (48).

The Bruins have 20 different goal scorers, four quality lines that contribute offensively, the second-best power play, the second-best penalty kill and perhaps the best goalie tandem in the league.

They are the class of sport right now.

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2) Toronto Maple Leafs

The Leafs had a bit of a slow start and went 4-4-2 over their first 10 games. But Toronto has found its groove of late with a four-game win streak and a 7-1-2 record in its last 10 contests.

One of the primary reasons for the Leafs' turnaround has been the improved play of Matt Murray. The veteran goalie is 5-0-1 with a .938 save percentage and a 2.17 GAA in November.

The Leafs ultimately will be judged on whether they get out of the first round of the playoffs, but you have to give them credit for bouncing back from a sluggish start and entering Wednesday with the third-best record in the East.

3) New Jersey Devils

The Devils have been the surprise team of the season so far with the league's second-best record at 19-4-0.

And it's not like the Devils are getting outplayed and just racking up wins with luck and/or unsustainable goaltending. New Jersey leads the league in shot attempts, shots on net, scoring chances and goals during 5-on-5 play.

Should we expect the Devils to be a prime candidate for the Presidents' Trophy? Probably not, but this is a legit squad with a lot of impressive young talent, including 2019 No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes and his team leading 26 points (12 goals, 14 assists).

4) Tampa Bay Lightning

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The Lightning are off to a decent start this season and occupy third place in the Atlantic. Tampa Bay is no longer a juggernaut, but it's still a team no one will want to play at any point in the playoffs. Steven Stamkos, even in Year 15, remains a top-tier center with 27 points in 22 games. Andrei Vasilevskiy is still one of the best goalies in the league, too.

The Lightning have played a ton of hockey over the last three years. It would be surprising if they put a ton of effort into the regular season. It doesn't really matter what seed the Lightning get as long as they secure a playoff spot.

Unless injuries take a heavy toll on this team, we should expect the Lightning to be in the mix come mid-May.

5) New York Islanders

The Islanders had a very disappointing 2021-22 season after reaching the Eastern Conference Final in back-to-back years. They've righted the ship in 2022-23 so far as the second-place team in the Metropolitan Division.

The key to New York's success has been goaltender Ilya Sorokin. He's 10-5-0 and ranks No. 2 in save percentage (.933) and No. 3 in GAA (2.19). The Islanders also have the fourth-best penalty kill at 82.7 percent.

The Islanders are always a tough team to play against with their aggressive forechecking and physical style. Add in a goalie who currently ranks among the league's best and you have a pretty good recipe for success.

6) Carolina Hurricanes

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The Hurricanes are a hard team to play against, and the Bruins know that better than most.

Carolina ranks No. 1 or No. 2 in several puck possession and shot metrics, but this group has lacked finish around the net. The Hurricanes have scored the fourth-fewest goals in the league and their 7.62 shooting percentage ranks dead last. There's way too much talent on this roster for the 'Canes to be that bad offensively for an entire campaign.

Once again, goaltending will make or break the Hurricanes. Carolina has a .895 save percentage as a team. That must improve for the Hurricanes to be a real threat in the East.

7) Florida Panthers

The Panthers won the Presidents' Trophy last season and haven't been able to match that same success through the first quarter of this campaign. That said, Florida is still going to be a threat in the Eastern Conference with plenty of scoring depth (3.41 goals per game). Matthew Tkachuk is having a stellar first season in Florida with a team-leading 29 points (10 goals, 19 assists) in 21 games.

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The issues for the Panthers are in the defensive zone. They rank 23rd in goals against and penalty killing. Injuries have also had a negative impact on Florida.

The Panthers currently sit just outside the playoff race, but they remain a good bet to get in at the end of the season.

8) Pittsburgh Penguins

The Penguins are in the second wild card spot with a 6-2-2 record in their last 10 games.

This group isn't a top Stanley Cup contender anymore, but any team with a healthy Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang should be feared.

The Penguins will go as far as their goaltending takes them. Tristan Jarry is the X-factor, and he's off to a decent start with an 8-3-3 record and a .914 save percentage. He has to be above average consistently for this team to win a playoff round or more.