After an exciting All-Star Weekend, the second half of the NHL season commences tomorrow night.
Here are 10 things we’ll have our eyes on as the season progresses:
- Can the Vancouver Canucks be stopped? The Canucks rolled through the first half of the regular season and entered the All-Star break on a 21-3-6 stretch. The Canucks have got it all — they’re third in scoring, third in goals against, third on the power play, and fifth on the penalty kill — and have looked virtually unstoppable thus far. They already lead the Western Conference by five points and could very well lock up the top seed with weeks remaining in the season. The question will be how Vancouver fares in the playoffs. They’ve been ousted by the Chicago Blackhawks in the Semi-finals in each of the last two seasons and don’t have the experience of a deep playoff run.
- Sidney Crosby’s health. Before suffering a concussion that has stopped him from playing in all but one game since the Winter Classic, Crosby was off to possibly the best start of his career. He’d completely ended the Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby debate and seemed like a lock to win the Art Ross and Hart Trophies (awarded to the scoring champion and MVP). Crosby has been cleared to resume skating, but there’s no telling how he’ll respond once he returns or how these head injuries will affect him down the road. There isn’t much that can hold Sid the Kid back, but he understandably seems to be very cautious about concussions. Head injuries have derailed the career of more than one NHL superstar before, so hopefully Crosby’s health does not become a long-term issue.
- Will Alex Ovechkin turn his season around? Physically there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with The Great 8, but his production hasn’t been there this season, and he’s currently on pace for just 31 goals, 15 fewer than his previous career low. Some have suggested that Ovechkin has been instructed to save himself for Washington’s playoff run, but the Capitals have trudged along and are currently the fifth-seed in the Eastern Conference. If Washington thought it could cruise through the regular season with Ovechkin at half-speed, the Capitals were dead wrong.
- Tim Thomas assaults the record books. Thomas’s save percentage is currently a sparkling .945, almost nine percentage points ahead of Dominik Hasek’s record set in 1998-1999. Thomas, 36, continues to get better with age and behind the Zdeno Chara-led Bruins defence, he has a real shot at making history.
- Can the Devils climb into the playoff picture? Age caught up with New Jersey overnight, and the Devils struggled through a shockingly bad first half. But, heading into the break the Devils finally started to play good hockey and have gone 6-1-1 in their last eight games. New Jersey would have to set a record breaking pace to have a shot at making the playoffs, but for a team with plenty of veteran presence and arguably the greatest goalie ever, a climb up the standings is not out of the question.
- What will happen at the trade deadline? The Florida Panthers have reportedly begun contract extension talks with Tomas Vokoun, but if they’re unable to get a deal done soon with their veteran netminder, he could become the most coveted player as we approach the deadline. Right now the trade market seems relatively thin, but there’s a chance the Calgary Flames will decide to deal Captain Jarome Iginla if they drop out of playoff contention, and some have even guessed that the Devils might have to deal Zach Parise because of their salary cap situation. We don’t see either scenario coming to fruition, but be prepared for a rumour bonanza over the next month.
- How will the Western Conference shake out? Right now, 11 teams are separated by just nine points. Vancouver, Detroit, and Dallas look like playoff locks and the Edmonton Oilers are all but eliminated, but the rest of the teams will be scratching and clawing for every point down the stretch. This has the look of one of the better playoff races in memory.
- Steven Stamkos shoots for 60. Stamkos started the season like a house on fire, then went through a mini-slump, and is now scoring at a torrid pace again. Right now, he’s on pace for 61 goals, but if he continues scoring at his recent clip, he could far eclipse that. Before he got hurt, Sidney Crosby looked like a sure-thing for at least 50 goals, and possibly far more, but no one else looks like they’ll approach that milestone.
- Chicago’s title defence. After losing several key pieces from their Stanley Cup Champion squad, the Blackhawks have struggled at times this season. Right now they’re right in the thick of that bunch of Western Conference teams, and are not a sure-thing to even make the postseason. But if they do, Chicago has the make up to go on a deep run.
- How many points will Philadelphia win the Eastern Conference by? Given the Penguins’ recent struggles, there’s no longer much doubt that the Flyers are going to win the Eastern Conference going away. Astounding depth across the ice is the key to the Flyers’ success, and they finally have two viable options in goal that had been missing in recent years. Right now, it’s difficult to imagine anyone other than Vancouver and Philadelphia in the Stanley Cup Finals.
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