5 storylines to watch in NHL's 2nd half, plus an early Cup prediction
Lightning rolling as NHL season hits the halfway point
The Tampa Bay Lightning's record speaks for itself. Tampa Bay has pushed its way to first overall and one of the Stanley Cup favourites as the NHL hits the halfway mark.
The Lightning and Washington Capitals clearly have been the class of the East, with the Boston Bruins surging on the outside.
The West has been a different story, with the expansion Vegas Golden Knights, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, St. Louis Blues and Los Angeles Kings jockeying for the top spots.
As we enter the stretch drive, here were the top-five, second-quarter records as well as five storylines to watch in the second-half:
- Vegas (15-4-1, 31 points)
- Washington (14-4-2, 30 points)
- Boston (13-3-3, 29 points)*
- Tampa Bay (13-6-1, 27 points)
- Los Angeles/N.Y. Rangers (tied, 12-5-3, 27 points)
*The Bruins will play their 41st game in Montreal on Saturday.
This was not the kind of follow up expected from the seven Canadian-based NHL teams after the Ottawa Senators, Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens, Calgary Flames and Toronto Maple Leafs made the playoffs last season.
The two teams that actually won a post-season series last spring, the Senators and Oilers, have been unable to live up to expectations and appear long shots to earn a playoff spot at this point.
Instead, the Jets and Toronto Maple Leafs are locks to make the playoffs, while the Calgary Flames' fight will go down to the wire.
Unless there is an incredible run in store, the post-season will begin without the Oilers, Senators, Canadiens and Canucks.
The Jets are Canada's best hope. They're riding a three-game win streak, have played well at home with a 16-3-1 record and enjoyed the best 20-game second-quarter of the Canadian contingent.
- Winnipeg (10-6-4, 24 points)
- Calgary (9-8-3, 21 points)
- Montreal/Toronto (tied, 9-9-2, 20 points)
- Edmonton (7-9-4, 18 points)
- Ottawa (6-11-3, 15 points)
- Vancouver (6-11-3, 15 points)
When it comes to the NHL, the saying "what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas," easily could be paraphrased for opponents of the Golden Knights to "when visiting Vegas, the two points up for grabs stay in Vegas."
The Golden Knights have the best home record in the league at 18-2-1 and have been on pace to shatter the mark for the best NHL expansion record set by the 1993-94 Florida Panthers at 33-34-17.
Vegas is already is at 29-10-2 and they've done it with depth. They have a 22-goal scorer in William Karlsson and three others in Jonathan Marchessault (16), James Neal (18) and Erik Haula (15) with 15 or more goals.
They have a stingy defence led by Colin Miller, Nate Schmidt, Deryk Engelland, Shea Theodore, Luca Sbisa and Brayden McNabb and strong goaltending with Marc-Andre Fleury.
There also is the magic touch of head coach Gerard Gallant. The players like playing for this down-to-earth man.
The rest of the league is waiting for Vegas to collapse. But it doesn't appear that will be the case.
Rocky Mountain high
Besides the Golden Knights' stunning season, another big surprise has been the play of the Colorado Avalanche.
The Avalanche finished last overall in 2016-17, a whopping 21 points behind the 29th-place Canucks. But a five-game win streak to finish the first-half pushed the Avalanche to 22 victories, same total Colorado finished with last year.
This team is full to brim with young talent, including Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Barrie, Gabriel Landeskog, Alex Kerfoot and Tyler Jost.
Unloading Matt Duchene in early November yielded young defenceman Samuel Girard and at the recent world junior championship, two of the best defencemen on the gold-medal winning Canadian team were Avalanche draft picks Conor Timmins and Cale Makar.
Post-season without Pens, Hawks?
There still is time for the Pittsburgh Penguins and Chicago Blackhawks to get their acts together. But the teams that combined for six Stanley Cups in the past nine seasons were not very good in the first half.
Chicago has a nine-season playoff streak at stake, while the Penguins have missed the post-season only twice since Sidney Crosby joined the fold in 2005-06.
Although the Penguins captain has seven points in his last two games, he finished the first half at less than a point a game and had a distressing plus-minus rating of minus-12. The good news for the Penguins is they have started the second half with two wins in three games to move back into the playoff picture.
The Blackhawks have been hit with a bevy of injuries this season. They soon will get No. 1 goalie Corey Crawford back to help the cause. Like Pittsburgh, the Blackhawks also started the second half with a convincing win, an 8-2 drubbing of Ottawa on Tuesday.
My Stanley Cup final
As good as the Golden Knights have been in the West, I still like the Predators and Lightning to meet in the final. There hasn't been a Stanley Cup loser to return to the final since Pittsburgh lost in the 2007-08, only to make it back and win the title the following season.
The Predators still have that dominant defensive unit now that Ryan Ellis has returned from knee surgery. But they are better down the middle because they now have a healthy Ryan Johansen and newcomers Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino. Since the Turris trade last November, Nashville has gone an impressive 17-6-4.
Meanwhile, the first-overall Lightning did not make the playoffs last spring but have been consistent this season, going 16-3-2 in the first quarter and 13-6-1 in the second quarter. They have the big four of forwards Nikita Kucherov, Steven Stamkos, defenceman Victor Hedman and goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy as well of the additions of veterans Chris Kunitz and Dan Girardi.