NHL's Midpoint: Sorting the Cup Contenders and Pretenders

Published on 19-Jan-2015 by Chips 10

NHL    NHL Daily Review

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NHL's Midpoint: Sorting the Cup Contenders and Pretenders

By the end of tonight, every NHL team but the New York Rangers will have played over 44 games, and the Blueshirts will be caught up with that figure tomorrow.

This means the league is just past the season's mid-point.

Heading into the All Star break, there's the usual assortment of surprises, both good and bad.

The Tampa Bay Lightning are atop of the Atlantic Division, which isn't a total shock, but the New York Islanders setting the pace in the Metropolitan Division is.

Here's the Atlantic's top five:

NHL Atlantic standings 18 Jan 2015

The 'Ning are ahead of teams like Boston, Montréal, and Detroit, and will stay on top as long as goalie Ben Bishop continues to play at a high level. Steven Stamkos continues to score goals in bunches and leads the team in with 26.

Tampa Bay has also gotten steady play from three ex-Rangers who came over in the past year: Ryan Callahan, Brian Boyle, and Anton Stralman.

Turns out that Martin St Louis trade was a great deal.

Among the clubs Tampa Bay has pushed aside are the Boston Bruins. This is a strong division, and while the B's have been hot lately, they'll have to raise their game considerably if they don't want to book early tee times this spring.

Toronto, meanwhile, is Toronto.

The Islanders had big wins over the Rangers and Penguins this past week, and while everyone waits for them to fall out of the top spot, they remain there and continue their steady play. Here are the Metro leaders:

NHL Metropolitan standings 18 Jan 2015

Call it the revenge of Garth Snow, who was scorched on all fronts for making the deals he did and didn't do to mold this team. He came up trumps with goalie Jaroslav Halák, who's been stellar. The Isles can also match up offensively with most teams because of players like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo, and defensively with Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk.

Meanwhile, the Washington Capitals showed signs of turning up the heat after a strong outdoor showing on New Year's Day. Perhaps they should make a deal with the Nationals to book a few more when Gary Bettman isn't looking.

And what to make of Philadelphia? In one of North America's most impatient sports cities, at least they have the NBA Sixers' tank job and the upcoming Phillies' disastrous season to keep them from being the most abused team in western Pennsylvania.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is Eric Staal not wanting to leave cellar-dwelling Carolina. Score one for the home fires.

If the playoffs started today, the Eastern Conference bracket would include Tampa Bay, Montréal, Detroit, the Islanders, Pittsburgh, Washington, the Rangers, and Boston.   

Nashville is the suprising team out West. This is the Central Division's top five:

NHL Central standings 18 Jan 2015

After two non-playoff seasons and a new coach, Peter Laviolette, the Predators are in first place in the Central Division, ahead of favorites St Louis and Chicago. Pekka Rinne has been Nashville's best player ...

... but the All-Star goalie sprained his knee last week and now may be out for a month. The Preds must now rely on stars Filip Forsberg, Mike Riberio, Seth Smith, and Shea Weber to keep them in playoff position.

Minnesota and its bulging payroll is a huge disappointment so far. Of course, it would help if high-ticket acquistion Zach Parise would stay healthy and Ryan Suter would stop trying to redefine awful.

Anaheim is 'way ahead in the Pacific Division, ahead of San José, but both of these teams will be judged by their playoff runs in the spring. Here are the Pacific's leaders to date:

NHL Pacific standings 18 Jan 2015

The Ducks are solid with their core of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and goalie Frederik Anderson, while the Sharks still rely upon Joe Thornton -- C or no C -- Joe Pavelski, and veteran goalie Antti Niemi.

If the playoffs started today, the West bracket would consist of Nashville, St Louis, Chicago, Anaheim, San José, Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Calgary, the late of which is -- trademark pending -- the home of Johnny Hockey.

Two teams not yet in the mix are Colorado, which won the Central Division last season, and Los Angeles, which won their second Stanley Cup in three years.

Inconsistency from the Avalanche -- Gabe Landeskog is the youngest captain in the league and a reflection of the team's age -- may be expected to test Patrick Roy's patience, but the Kings are another story. Their age issue is the exact opposite of Colorado's, and perhaps those long playoff runs are beginning to take a toll.

Trade winds could well be blowing a veteran or two out of Staples Center. It may be the only way to keep the NHL from crowning a new king this spring.

Click on a photo to enlarge.