It seems like just yesterday that this NHL season may have been canceled, but cooler heads prevailed, and it was salvaged – although it’s an abbreviated 48-game season. Now, every team is past the halfway point, and like always with 24 games left, the playoff picture is rounding out, story lines have emerged, and surprises have appeared. Let’s check out the midseason recap with the top story lines in the league at the midway point.
Top 10 Storylines:
10. The Toronto Maple Leafs – In hockey’s Mecca, there is reason for hope. The Leafs have not made the playoffs since the 2003-04 season and currently hold the longest playoff drought of any NHL franchise. I’m sure the Toronto fanbase is not ready to declare their team a playoff team and are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, but the team has put itself in a good position. While they are still having some growing pains, the Leafs show up to play every night and are pretty well coached. They are getting the goaltending right now, and after 26 games, they sit at 31 points, five points ahead of ninth-place Winnipeg. With Phil Kessel slowly starting to round back into form after a slow start and Joffrey Lupul working his way back from injury, there is reason to be a beLEAFer.
9. Steven Stamkos – As expected, Steven Stamkos has picked up right where he left off before the lockout. He’s potting goals at a torrid pace again, and after 25 games, he leads the league with 19 goals, and trails only Sidney Crosby (45) in points with 37. The downside for Stamkos is that his team is flirting with last place in the East, as he and Martin St. Louis seem to be the only two who truly bring it offensively each game. Now that may seem like a bold statement seeing as the Bolts rank in the top-three in total offense, but after starting out strong, they now sit in 13th place, leading last-place Florida by only one point. Stamkos will garner some consideration for the Hart Trophy, but if his team isn’t competitive, he has no shot to win. The good news however; Tampa plays in the wide open Southeast, and only trails division leading Carolina (which just lost its star goalie) by eight points.
8. Edmonton Oilers – It’s time to crap or get off the pot for the Oilers. It takes time to develop players in this league, but the Oilers are clearly progressing slowly. Their lineup is LOADED with players who are “oozing with potential,” yet after 25 games, they sit in second-to-last place in the Western Conference and are just one point ahead of rival Calgary for last in the West. Edmonton is currently fifth-worst in the league in points, placing them in position for ANOTHER lottery pick. The trio of first-overall picks that the Oilers ice every night ─ Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov have combined for 44 points on the year. That is one less point than Sidney Crosby has In addition to the trio, the team sports impressive rookie free agent Justin Schultz on the blueline along with veteran Ryan Whitney. Young forward talents Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagner have been producing, but the wins are not there. The Oilers are 3-5-2 in their last 10 games and are showing no signs of coming on. Perhaps it is time to move some pieces to get a bonafide NHL starting goalie, some skilled grit in the top six or a top-four defenseman. What they have ain’t working.
7. Lindy Ruff – After 16 seasons as bench boss of the Buffalo Sabres, Lindy Ruff was fired on February 20, following Buffalo’s severe stumble at the start of the season. . While shocking to the players, it couldn’t have been that surprising, seeing as the Sabres players were getting outworked nightly. Even dating back to last season, Buffalo has not come close to meeting the lofty expectations set following new owner Terry Pegula’s purchase of the team in February 2011. During the 2011 offseason he showed the Buffalo fanbase that there was a new sheriff in town who was willing to pay for free agents to make Buffalo competitive. The only problem with that is that he overpaid for players like Ville Leino and Christan Ehrhoff, only to see them underachieve and become unmovable due to their contracts. This year Tyler Myers is the second-highest paid defenseman in the league, and he has shown few signs of earning it. After a fantastic rookie year, Myers has been average at best, and Ryan Miller hasn’t been able to carry the team on his back. After 26 games, Buffalo has 21 points… yikes.
6. The Philadelphia Flyers – After a pretty good season last year that saw the Flyers knock out archrival Pittsburgh from the playoffs in a classic series that threw all logic of both teams out the window, the Flyers have struggled to find themselves early. While Ilya Bryzgalov has not been bad for them, he has not been able to consistently steal points for the Fly Guys which is what they NEED him to do. After trading a rising star in forward James van Riemsdyk for “shutdown” defenseman Luke Schenn, the Flyers appear to have lost that trade. The resurgent Jaromir Jagr has moved on to Dallas and top forward Scott Hartnell has missed a ton of time due to an injury. Newly appointed Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux has not lived up to the superstar potential he is capable of, and Max Talbot has a mere 7 points in 27 games after posting 34 in 81 games last season. Wayne Simmonds has been a bright spot, bringing it every night, and GM Paul Holmgren brought back veteran Simon Gagne from Los Angeles to help bolster the scoring. The Flyers are trailing the eighth-place New York Rangers by three points, but the Broadway Blueshirts still have three games in hand. The Flyers are not out of it yet, but they’re flirting with disaster, and coach Peter Laviolette’s chair just may be getting warm.
5. The Washington Capitals – Caps nation has come back down to earth in recent seasons. After a few great regular seasons with disappointing playoff finishes, the Caps are now struggling in the regular season, appearing as team with no identity. At first, the only consistent player they had was Alex Ovechkin, but recently his undisciplined and lackluster play has been of huge concern and has even begun to put his name quietly in the trade rumor mill. Since Ovechkin’s rookie year in 2005-06, he has been compared side-by-side to his fellow rookie that year, Sidney Crosby, for whom Ovechkin beat for the Calder Trophy. Since that, however, Crosby has put to rest the Sid-Ovi debate by leading the Pens to two Stanley Cup Finals, and one win (while knocking Ovechkin’s Caps out of the playoffs en route). Crosby has also led the Pens to more sustained success, despite missing more than a full year with concussion problems. The Caps have had three coaches over the last two seasons, and are currently on the outside of the playoff picture, boasting a mere 21 points after 24 games. The Mike Ribeiro trade statistically looks good, but he fits the EXACT type of player mold that the Caps need to get away from; talented, but a spotty work ethic. He is Alex Semin as a center.
4. Sidney Crosby – Hockey has its best player back and healthy, and playing at an ABSURD level. Since returning to game action for good last March, Crosby has posted more points than the Hall/RNH/Yakupov trio combined, and even more than Ovechkin and Giroux combined. He has 20 points in his last eight games and 140 points in his last 89 games. We all knew that Crosby was capable of these types of numbers, but it’s great for the game that he is officially playing, healthy and back to pre-concussion form. Crosby’s star shines brightest on a squad that has 50 goal-scorer and last season’s MVP in Evgeni Malkin, the NHL’s highest-scoring defenseman in Kris Letang, surprise player of the year and third-highest scorer in Chris Kunitz, and the league-leader in power play goals in James Neal. The Penguins, who are the league’s highest scoring team, lead the Atlantic Division with 36 points in 26 games, trailing Eastern Conference-leading Montreal by two points.
3. The Montreal Canadiens – Speak of the devil. The Canadiens are tearing it up this season under new head coach Michel Therrien. With a tough coach who requires accountability from his players, the Canadiens are perched atop on the Eastern Conference after 26 games, and lead archrival Boston by one point in the Northeast Division. With a newfound gritty, workmanlike mentality under their new coach, the Canadiens are tougher to play against on a daily basis, and free agent signee Brandon Prust has been a big part of that. Although Prust was recently sidelined for 10-14 days with a shoulder injury, the Habs should be OK since they are getting world-class goaltending from Carey Price, and solid two-way play from the rest of the team. They show up every game and try to get to their game early, and the results, so far, have been great. Rookie studs Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk have both been pleasant surprises and have played big roles in the Canadiens’ turnaround from last season’s last place finish in the Eastern Conference.
2. The Anaheim Ducks – If it wasn’t for the absurdity of the Chicago Blackhawks incredible points streak to start the season, the Ducks would be the talk of the league. After putting up only 80 points last season, the Ducks have come out flying (no pun intended…maybe) this year, their first full season under coach Bruce Boudreau. Boudreau was hired around midseason last year after the Ducks let former head coach Randy Carlyle go (now the head coach of the Maple Leafs), and the Ducks finished the year strong, but there was no indication that they would come out of the lockout with the league’s second-best record, posting 39 points in 24 games. WOW! Of a possible 48 points, the Ducks earned 39, thanks in part to the tremendous goaltending tandem of Jonas Hiller and Victor Fasth. Teemu Selanne continues to amaze and the top line of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan is just getting going. Nick Bonino has had a breakout year and veteran defenseman Francois Beauchemin has put together a Norris Trophy-caliber first half of the season. A formerly Disney-owned team has had a storybook season thus far as it trails the mighty Blackhawks by a mere six points (Anaheim has two games in hand), but with the uncertainty surrounding Perry’s future with the team, midnight may be coming soon for the Cinderella Ducks.
1. The Chicago Blackhawks – OH MY GOODNESS! What a run the Chicago Blackhawks put together to open the season. The Hawks earned points in their first 24 games of the year (half of the shortened 48-game schedule) and collected 45 of a possible 48 points. The truly impressive thing is the Hawks did it every way possible. They got world class goaltending from starting netminder Corey Crawford, and when he went down to injury, Ray Emery stepped in and played the best hockey of his career. Marian Hossa returned to play fully healthy after suffering a nasty concussion in last year’s playoffs and has been fantastic. Sophomore Marcus Krueger has improved his game by leaps and bounds, and Viktor Stalberg has been fantastic as well. The D corps has played great in all three zones down to a man all season, and the Hawks have showed up to play EVERY. SINGLE. NIGHT. Their streak came to an end in Colorado last Friday, but that doesn’t take away from the magnificence with which they have displayed in the first half of the year. Patrick Kane has returned to superstar form, and captain Jonathan Toews has made a strong case to be with Stamkos and Crosby in the Hart Trophy discussion. The Hawks could sleepwalk into the playoffs from here on out, but don’t expect them to let up; they have their eyes on the prize and want the Cup, and are off to a near perfect start… watch out!
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