NHL Races to Take an Olympic Break
The NHL is heating up as we get into February, just in time for a three-week break as the stars head to the Olympics in Sochi.
With the new divisions and playoff structure, there will be battles right to the end for playoff position.
The Pittsburgh Penguins lead the Metropolitan Division and the Eastern Conference with 82 points after Wednesday's matches. The Pens need their star players -- led by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Mark- André Fleury -- to return from the Olympics healthy. As the regular season has now become a tune-up due to solidifying their position as a Stanley Cup favorite, they'll be judged by their playoff performance.
Last season, the Boston Bruins swept Pittsburgh in the Eastern finals before losing the Cup to Chicago. This season, they have 75 points and would be seeded second if the playoffs opened tonight. The Bruins are even letting their captain, Slovakian Zdeno Chara, leave early for Sochi so he can carry his country's flag in the opening ceremonies.
Tampa Bay, Toronto, the Rangers, Columbus, Toronto, and Detroit would be the other six teams in the playoffs, but the standings are changing nightly as they're as bunched up as can be. Ottawa, Philadelphia, Carolina, New Jersey, and Washington can all jump back in the playoff picture with a couple of wins while Florida, Buffalo, and the Islanders are already looking towards next season.
Anaheim and Chicago are the top two teams in the West, but the Blackhawks are the champs until someone takes the Cup from them. Chicago, like all teams, is again hoping its players come back healthy and ready to go after the Olympics. St Louis, Colorado, San José, Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Vancouver are in playoff position, but watch out for Phoenix, Dallas, and Winnipeg. The Jets are on a roll since Paul Maurice took over the coaching reigns from Claude Noel and look particularly dangerous as an outsider with a puncher's chance. Calgary, Edmonton, and Nashville seem hopelessly out of it this season.
After Saturday, it's Olympic hockey front and center until late February. And it's on the big ice, where fleet skaters have room to leave their vapor trails. Know they will.
While the NHL teams are off, the break will give the general managers time to ramp up for the trade deadline and point their teams in the right direction for a great Cup run in the spring.