With the New Year behind us there are still many great events left on the NHL calendar for 2013-14. The Coors Light NHL Stadium Series and 2014 Sochi Olympics are right on the horizon, to say nothing of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but as we look back at the first half of the season there are already many exciting storylines and many great races brewing.
Here are my picks for the NHL's major regular season awards and who I think will be meeting in June for the Stanley Cup.
I think because of the injuries Pittsburgh has had -- many of them to major players like Evgeni Malkin and Brooks Orpik -- as well as games lost by key players to suspensions like James Neal, you simply can't overlook Crosby's production. The Penguins are running away with their division despite facing a ton of injuries. They're still one of the top scoring teams in the League and Crosby, who leads the League in points, is the reason why.
There are a lot of good contenders for the Vezina, but it's hard to single out one or two people who have been above the fray. The real problem is few teams rely on one goalie right now. So many backups have played great and been factors this season. Rask, however, is among the best in the League. He doesn't get a lot of goals scored for him a lot of nights, and most nights he comes out as an MVP-caliber player. I don't think there have been many better goalies in the League this season.
Keith has been great. Obviously Zdeno Chara has been great and there are so many guys playing well, but night after night Keith plays against the other team's best players, he plays fearlessly and he can play any style. I don't think there's been a better defenseman in the League this season.
Art Ross Trophy: Crosby
Obviously Crosby is leading the race now and he's done it without several big pieces around him for most of the season. As those pieces come back, I have to believe he'll keep it up and win the scoring title.
I can't see anyone catching Ovi, especially now that Alexander Steen is hurt. Chris Kunitz might actually be the hottest scorer in the League right now, but I think with Nicklas Backstrom feeding him the puck and the power play the Capitals run, there's no way Ovechkin will go into any prolonged slump that costs him the trophy.
Normally I would have said Tomas Hertl until he got injured. Nathan MacKinnon and Aleksander Barkov were also in the running, but they've slowed down now, and Valeri Nichushkin has also been great at points, but I think I would have to go with Jones. He's playing a ton of minutes and I think it's harder for a defenseman to play as a rookie than a forward. I know he's had his ups and downs, but he's playing a lot of minutes on a team that's fighting for a playoff spot. The forwards all had great starts, but they seem to have come back down to earth while Jones is still plugging along.
I think Jon Cooper is right there with Roy in Tampa Bay. It's basically between those two guys. Cooper is definitely in the discussion because of the Lightning's continued success after Steven Stamkos' injury, but I just think Roy has done a great job changing the culture of Colorado. They've fallen back a bit from their great start, but the Avalanche are still in line to make the playoffs in Roy's first season after struggling for several years, and I think that gives him the edge.
Eastern Conference Champion: Boston Bruins
Pittsburgh has shown so much character and so much skill that I'm tempted to take the Penguins, but Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled so much in the last two postseasons that I just can't buy into him until I see that change. Boston is deep, experienced and has few weaknesses at either end of the ice. When push comes to shove I think the Bruins will be back in the Stanley Cup Final.
Western Conference Champion: Chicago Blackhawks
I know the Anaheim Ducks have been great, I know the Los Angeles Kings have been great, the San Jose Sharks are tough, the Phoenix Coyotes look good and the Vancouver Canucks look good too. But I just watch Chicago play and I see the depth that team has. They're winning without Jonathan Toews being a factor offensively and without Corey Crawford in net. Patrick Kane is great. Keith is playing the best hockey he's ever played in the regular season and Patrick Sharp, who is kind of the forgotten man there, has just been phenomenal. They're bigger, younger and faster than maybe they've ever been. I know it's going to be tougher for the Blackhawks to come out of the West this season, but I just can't see anyone beating them in a seven-game series. I think we'll have a repeat of last year's Final.
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