NHL Mid-Point Surprises: Good Time or Long Time Contenders?
The NHL Winter Classic is the unofficial halfway point of the season and the official alarm clock for the casual fan.
It really is hockey season.
The many sub-plots brewing in the playoff race are coming to a boil.
Tampa Bay, Montréal, and Detroit hold the three playoff positions in the Atlantic Division, and while those are good teams that can advance deep into May or June, the Boston Bruins are falling off the pace. In fact, the B's find themselves seven points behind third-place Detroit and even the Toronto Maple Leafs. Boston did lose Zdeno Chara for six weeks with a knee injury, but whether or not he's been available, the Bruins have been inconsistent all year and will have to fight to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs after entering the season as a conference favorites.
This New Year's Eve tilt with Toronto serves as a microcosm for Boston's current fortunes:
In the Metropolitan Division, Pittsburgh -- as usual -- is on top, but right behind are the surprising New York Islanders and Washington Capitals, two teams that weren't supposed to be playoff-ready this season.
The Isles, who won four straight Stanley Cups in the early 1980's -- represented by those hash marks on their sweater sleeves -- are off to their best start ever and are hoping to make a long playoff run as they play their last season in Long Island before moving to Brooklyn next year.
The Caps are coming off a dramatic win over Chicago in the Winter Classic and also look to reclaim a playoff spot. Alex Ovechkin is playing a well-rounded game for new coach Barry Trotz, who says he couldn't be more pleased about the ragin' Russian. The Islanders' rivals, the Rangers, are the defending conference champions and are coming on fast after a slow start. Rick Nash leads New York with 24 goals, and if he stays hot, the Blueshirts will qualify and defend their title.
In the West, Chicago, Nashville, and St Louis are the favorites in the Central Division, and they're the top three right now.
The eyebrow-raiser is Winnipeg, which is playoff-eligible right now. Of course, all that and a frozen cow pie will get you is a game of shinny on the Canadian prairie. Still, the Jets are getting steady play in goal from Michael Hutchinson and Ondřej Pavelec, and his efforts are supported by team scoring leaders Andrew Ladd and Blake Wheeler.
Here's an indicative clip from 27 Dec of the Jets' karma contrasted by Minnesota's:
Anaheim is 'way ahead in the Pacific Division with a resurrected Vancouver second and perennial bridesmaid San José third.
The Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf has had a stellar season up front, while Frederik Anderson -- a rare Dane in the league -- has been great in net with 20 victories.
Another Western stunner to date is Calgary; the Flames are actually ahead of the defending champion Los Angeles Kings. Calgary had been floundering but just won four straight to get their season back on track. The performance of youngsters like Johnny Gaudreau has been a key reason why.
The Kings are still lurking, however, and will always be a factor as long as they're in playoff position. Just ask a couple of nearly-famous Canucks fans:
No wonder they're retiring.
Next milestone: the trading deadline. Then, in a flash, it'll be playoff time. That makes now a virtual crunch time for many of these teams to get their act together.