NHL Races: The Ice Heats Up as Playoff Stretch Nears
Just possibly the most interesting All-Star break in NHL history is now on horizon.
But while most eyes will be on the vox populi Pacific Division captain John Scott, some are already gazing at what this spring's playoff brackets look like.
One of sport's joys is watching unexpected developments arise over the course of a season, and hockey is providing its share.
Jaromír Jágr, at age 43, leads the Panthers with 15 goals and 32 points, while the goaltending duo of Roberto Luongo (19-12-4) and Al Montoya (7-1-1) can keep Florida in the race all season.
Let's compare where they are now with what they were predicted to do before the season started:
Young teams and playoff stretches don't always mesh well, but Panther fans may have more to anticipate this spring than the team's rollout of new uniforms.
The Panthers' in state rival, Tampa Bay, has finally turned it on, winning their seventh straight with Thursday night's 2-1 thriller over the Cup-holding Chicago Blackhawks.
The Lightning and Montréal would only be wildcards if the playoffs started today. Tampa, as usual, has been led by Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucerov, but goalie Ben Bishop has suffered 13 losses. The Canadiens desperately miss goaltender Carey Price, who could be out a total of 10 weeks; they'll need stars Max Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec to pick up the pace.
Washington has shocked no one by leading the Metropolitan Division:
The Caps also lead the league in points and will continue to do so as long as all-purpose neighbor Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Bäckström, and goalie Braden Holtby continue to shine in DC.
Every other team in that division except Columbus has a chance to make the playoffs, but it'd be as a wild card. Washington is just too talented, and 2016 may finally be their year.
Dallas had jumped out to a nice lead in the Central Division but with Chicago recently waking up, the Blackhawks have now overtaken the Stars.
Getting dumped twice in Florida this week didn't exactly help their cause, though, and Dallas now has three games in hand:
Patrick Kane leads the league in goals while rookie Artemi Panarin has contributed 42 points in his first season.
Dallas still has Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, with 56 and 53 points respectively, but have lost six of their past seven games. With the Pacific Division so weak, any team in the Central can make the playoffs, but it looks like Chicago, Dallas, and St Louis will fight for first place.
Games among those clubs already are packed with playoff intensity.
In the 'way too laid-back Pacific, Los Angeles is playing well again, and it shows:
San José finally got hot. Two weeks ago, they were second-to-last. Now, they're creeping closer to the Kings, winning six of their last seven games.
That includes Thursday's game at Arizona, which gave an indication that the entire division's temperature will be rising the rest of the way:
These two play each other four more times. What's more, the Sharks get Vancouver five times between Sun 28 Feb and Thu 31 Mar. That's damn near often enough for them to get in sync with the Sedin twins.
All-Star weekend oughta be fun for the players as well as the fans. After that -- unless the $1million winner-take-all actually did get their attention -- the thrills will come in a rugged race to play for the Cup.