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Storylines swirl as NHL season reaches midpoint

Friday, 01.07.2011 / 2:13 PM / NHL Insider

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Storylines swirl as NHL season reaches midpoint
NEW YORK -- Dramatic team turnarounds, stellar individual performances, remarkable hot streaks and its hallmark competitive balance have lit up the 2010-11 NHL regular season, which reaches the midway point on Saturday. They all set the table for a thrilling stretch run of a season in which every game matters, every point counts.

Competitive First Half Sets Stage For Wild Finish

* Presidents' Trophy: Top seven clubs separated by five points
* Eastern Conference: One-point lead in each of the three divisions; top four point-earners separated by four points
* Western Conference: Five points separate the 10 teams occupying 4th through 13th place
* Back in the playoffs? Five teams who didn't make the playoffs last season are currently 'above the line', including the Southeast Division-leading Tampa Bay Lightning and Pacific Divisionleading Dallas Stars. They are joined by the Atlanta Thrashers, New York Rangers and St. Louis Blues. Four other non-playoff clubs in 2009-10, the Anaheim Ducks, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, are within five points of a post-season berth.

How Close Is The West? Loss Drops Kings From 4th To 11th

The Los Angeles Kings led the Nashville Predators 2-0 early in the second period of their game Thursday night at STAPLES Center. Combined with results from earlier games and the game in progress up the road in San Jose, where the Sharks trailed Buffalo, the Kings were positioned to end the evening in fourth place in the Western Conference with a regulation victory. The Predators, however, rebounded to tally five unanswered goals in a 5-2 win, dropping the Kings to 11th place in the conference standings.

Crosby, Stamkos Staging Another Classic Goals Duel

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos, who competed in a thrilling race for the Maurice Richard Trophy as the NHL goal-scoring leader last season, seem headed for a similar finish in 2010-11. Crosby and Stamkos lead the pack with 32 and 31 goals, respectively, a pace to exceed the career-high 51 they tallied last season.

Stamkos, Duchene, Tavares Leading The Next Wave

Following in the footsteps of Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and Patrick Kane in recent years as top prospects who become impact players early in their NHL careers, a trio of young stars aged 20 or under lead their respective teams in scoring. Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene, who turns 20 on Jan. 16, has 40 points (16 goals, 24 assists) in 41 games, Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, 20, has 56 points (31 goals, 25 assists) in 41 games and New York Islanders center John Tavares, 20, has 27 points (13 goals, 14 assists) in 35 games.

Double Trouble

The list of the NHL's top 10 scorers features three pairs of linemates -- Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Henrik and Daniel Sedin of the Vancouver Canucks plus Brad Richards and Loui Eriksson of the Dallas Stars. Other top duos among the top 20 include Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings (7th and 16th) and Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf of the Anaheim Ducks (8th and 19th, respectively).

Canucks Knocking At The Door Again

Led by the consistent Daniel and Henrik Sedin (both with 50 points and a +14 rating), a career year for Ryan Kesler (20-16--36, club-leading +15) and the goaltending of Roberto Luongo, the NHL's Second Star for December, the Vancouver Canucks are the NHL's topranked club and headed for their sixth 100-point season in the past eight years. The Canucks have been virtually unbeatable lately, posting a 16-1-2 record since Nov. 24. Eliminated from the Stanley Cup Playoffs prior to the Western Conference Final in recent years, is this year's team ready for a deep playoff run?

Best Flyers Team In Years?

The momentum generated from the run to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final has spilled over into the 2010-11 regular season for the Philadelphia Flyers (25-10-5), on track to post their best record since back-to-back 53-win seasons in 1984-85 and 1985-86. Defenseman Andrej Meszaros, acquired in July from Tampa Bay for a 2011 second-round draft pick, leads the NHL in plusminus (+26). Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, 22, was the NHL's Rookie of the Month for November and boasts a 15-6-3 record with a 2.57 goals-against average. Right wing Claude Giroux, also 22, has followed his 2010 playoff performance with valuable two-way play: he ranks second on the club in scoring (16-19--35) and shares the League lead in shorthanded goals (three).

Thrashers Surge in Southeast

The Atlanta Thrashers (22-15-6) are in the thick of the race for the Southeast Division title, thanks in part to an infusion of championship experience from four former Chicago Blackhawks (Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Brent Sopel) and the goaltending of Ondrej Pavelec (15-8-4, 2.14 GAA), who made an inspiring comeback after collapsing to the ice minutes into his opening-night start. What Byfuglien has done is particularly remarkable. Last spring he was among the best Blackhawk forwards and was in the Conn Smythe Trophy conversation by scoring 11 post-season goals, including a League-leading five game-winners. This season -- as a defenseman -- he shares the NHL lead in game-winning goals with six, tops all blueliners in goals (16) and points (41) and averages close to 23 minutes in ice time per game (22:43). Few players in NHL history have achieved that level of excellence at both positions.

Rising Stars

Few predicted that the Dallas Stars (24-13-4) would be within striking distance of first place in the NHL overall standings at the halfway point, but the Pacific Division leaders are indeed in the thick of the Presidents' Trophy race. At his current pace, center Brad Richards (18-29--47) will crack the 90-point barrier for the second consecutive season. Left wing Loui Eriksson (16-28--44) is on pace for a career-best 85-point season, plays more than 20 minutes per game and leads his team in plus-minus (+15), power-play goals (six) and game-winners (four). The Stars also have benefited from the off-season acquisition of veteran goaltenders Kari Lehtonen (17-10-4, 2.64 GAA) and Andrew Raycroft (7-3-0, 2.24 GAA).

The Beat Goes On In Detroit

The Detroit Red Wings (25-10-5) keep rolling. They are on track for their 20th consecutive playoff berth (the longest active streak in pro sports) and their 11th consecutive 100-point season (which would extend their NHL record). D Nicklas Lidstrom continues to amaze at age 41. Lidstrom extended his point-scoring streak to eight games with a pair of assists in the Red Wings' win at Edmonton Tuesday. Lidstrom has registered 39 points in 40 games this season, his highest total at the 40-game mark in any of his 19 seasons in the NHL and currently second among NHL defensemen. Lidstrom's previous high was 37 points through 40 games in both 1991-92 (his rookie year) and 2005-06. Goaltender Jimmy Howard, a finalist for the Calder Trophy as the NHL's top rookie last season, shares the League lead in victories in his sophomore campaign (20-7-3) and is 33-7-5 over his past 45 regular-season starts dating back to last season.

Bruins' Thomas Rejuvenated

Winner of the Vezina Trophy in 2008-09 then slowed by injury and relegated to the bench late in 2009-10, Bruins' 36-year-old goaltender Tim Thomas has enjoyed a spectacular bounceback season after undergoing off-season hip surgery. Thomas won his first eight decisions, which broke a club record set by Tiny Thompson in 1937-38, and won his first nine road games -- becoming the first NHL goaltender to do so since Chicago's Glenn Hall in 1965-66. Thomas is 18-4-5 and leads the NHL in goals-against average (1.80), save percentage (.945) and shutouts (T-five).

Quick Backstopping Kings

Though he set franchise records for wins (39) and games (72) last season, there were questions whether Jonathan Quick would last the season as the Kings' #1 goaltender. As the season nears the halfway point, Quick ranks among NHL goaltending leaders in goals-against average (2nd, 2.09), shutouts (T-4th, four), wins (T-5th, 18) and save percentage (9th, .922).

Tale of Two Goaltenders

One of the NHL's biggest off-season trades featured the Montreal Canadiens sending 2010 playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to the St. Louis Blues, paving the way for Carey Price to assume the #1 goaltender role in Montreal. The results for Price, in his new role, and Halak, with his new team, are positive as the season reaches the halfway point. Price leads all goaltenders in minutes played (2,220), is tied for first place in wins (20) and games (37), tied for fourth in shutouts (four) and ranks eighth in goals-against average (2.32). Halak has appeared in 31 games for the Blues, posting a 15-11-4 record with a 2.51 GAA and .911 save percentage.

Crosby Powers Penguins

It's the Crosby Show in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins captain is halfway through his best season ever. Crosby leads the NHL in goals (32) and points (65), recording at least one point in 35 of the 41 games he has played. He compiled a 25-game point streak from Nov. 5 to Dec.28, the longest in the NHL since Quebec's Mats Sundin had a 30-game streak in 1992-93. He averaged two points per game and better than a goal per contest during the streak (26 goals,24 assists). There are only four players in League history who averaged more than a goal per game during a point streak of 25 games or more -- Wayne Gretzky (61 goals in 51 games), Steve Yzerman (29 goals in 28 games), Brett Hull (31 goals in 25 games) and Bryan Trottier.

Stamkos, St. Louis Make Magic For Lightning

The Lightning's challenge for first place in the Southeast Division has been keyed by highscoring linemates Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis, two supremely talented forwards who complement the other's game perfectly. Stamkos ranks second in the League in goals (31), while St. Louis is tied for second in assists (34). The club's bid for its first post-season berth since 2007 was bolstered by the recent trade acquisition of goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who posted a shutout in his Tampa Bay debut, a 1-0 overtime victory at Washington Tuesday.

Capitals' Strategic Remake Unfolds

The Washington Capitals' effort to adopt a more playoff-conducive style of play has resulted in some statistical differences over the Presidents' Trophy-winning season of 2009-10. Their goals-against is improved over last season (currently eighth in the NHL at 2.54, compared to their #16 ranking last season, 2.77) and their goal production is down significantly (10th, 2.88 this season compared to 1st, 3.82 in 2009-10). A roller-coaster first half saw them go nine games without a regulation loss (8-0-1 from Oct. 30 through Nov. 17), then eight without a win (0-6-2 from Dec. 2 through Dec. 18) and now are 5-0-2 in their past seven games.

Schedule Notes

* The Tampa Bay Lightning open a 12-game homestand when they host the Atlanta Thrashers at St. Pete Times Forum on Sunday, Jan. 23. The homestand matches the longest in NHL history, set by the California Seals from Nov. 26 through Dec. 28, 1975.
* The Lightning, Carolina Hurricanes, Florida Panthers, New York Islanders and Phoenix Coyotes have the most home games remaining on their schedule (24); the Chicago Blackhawks and Washington Capitals have the fewest (18).
* Three 'Original Six' clubs are set for several inter-conference games during the second half of the season. The Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings have played a League-low five interconference games to date, while the Boston Bruins have played six. The Bruins and Red Wings will contest a rare home-and-home series, meeting Feb. 11 in Boston and Feb. 13 in Detroit.
* Pacific Division rivals Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings meet in the 'Freeway Faceoff' four more times, including a home-and-home series to end the season Apr. 8 and 9.
* Central Division rivals Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings meet four more times, including a home-and-home series to end the season Apr. 8 and 10.
* Northeast Division rivals Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens meet four more times, beginning Saturday night at Bell Centre in Montreal.
* Atlantic Division rivals New York Rangers and Philadelphia Flyers meet four more times, including Sunday matinees Feb. 20, Mar. 6 and Apr. 3.
* Classic rematch: The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals face off twice more in the 2010-11 regular season, starting with a Super Sunday matinee on Feb. 6 at Verizon Center in Washington. The clubs' fourth and final meeting will take place at CONSOL Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Monday, Feb. 21.
* Classic reunion: First-year Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman will face his former club for the first time when the Lightning host the Detroit Red Wings Feb. 17. Yzerman won four Stanley Cups with the Red Wings over a legendary 27-year career in Detroit, capturing three as a player (1997, 1998 and 2002) and another as a member of the Red Wings' management team (2008).

What's Ahead?

Monday, Jan. 10: NHL Central Scouting releases its mid-season rankings of top prospects for the 2011 Entry Draft.

Tuesday, Jan. 11: The NHL will name 36 players selected to participate in the 2011 NHL All- Star Game presented by Discover on Jan. 29 at RBC Center in Raleigh, joining the six players previously voted to the game in fan balloting. The NHL also will unveil the 12 rookies selected to participate with the NHL All-Stars in the Honda NHL SuperSkills® on Jan. 28.

Wednesday, Jan. 19: The 2011 CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game will take place at Air Canada Centre in Toronto. This year's game marks the 16th annual showcase of the CHL's top-40 NHL draft eligible players featuring talent from the Western Hockey League, Ontario Hockey League, and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. The two-day event also features a skills competition and three-on-three challenge on Tuesday, Jan. 18.

Sunday, Jan. 23: NBC opens its Game of the Week coverage with a rematch of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Philadelphia Flyers at 12:30 p.m., ET. The NHL and NBC will again collaborate on flexible scheduling for NBC's regular-season dates, providing fans the most exciting match-up available. At least 13 days prior to the scheduled date, a game will be selected to broadcast on NBC. All NBC Game of the Week games will be broadcast on Sundays and presented in High Definition.

Friday, Jan. 28: The inaugural NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft powered by Cisco will be conducted at the Raleigh Convention Center. A player draft that will determine the team rosters for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover as well as the Honda NHL SuperSkills®, the event will be televised live on TSN in Canada and VERSUS in the U.S. at 8 p.m., ET. NHL Network also will be on-site, providing pre- and post-draft coverage of the new All-Star format and player draft selections.

Saturday, Jan. 29: The Honda NHL SuperSkills® competition will be held at RBC Center in Raleigh. The NHL All-Stars and Rookies will participate in six events, including the Bridgestone NHL Fastest Skater; the BlackBerry NHL Breakaway Challenge, where NHL All-Stars put their best goal scoring moves and skills to the test; the McDonald's NHL Accuracy Shooting; the XM NHL Hardest Shot; the Discover NHL Elimination Shootout; and the all-new G-Series NHL Challenge Relay, an all-around competition that will showcase the one-timer, passing, puck control, stick-handling and accuracy shooting. The event will be broadcast live by VERSUS in the U.S. and CBC and RDS in Canada at 7 p.m., ET.

Sunday, Jan. 30: The League's mid-season spectacular returns when 42 of the world's most talented players take to the ice at RBC Center in Raleigh for the 2011 NHL All-Star Game presented by Discover. The game will be broadcast live by VERSUS in the U.S. and CBC and RDS in Canada at 4 p.m., ET.

Saturday, Feb. 12: Whitehorse, Yukon, plays host to Scotiabank Hockey Day in Canada on CBC. The 11th edition of this grassroots celebration of hockey features 13 hours of coverage, including a NHL tripleheader featuring all six Canadian-based teams: Ottawa at Edmonton at 2 p.m. ET, Toronto at Montreal at 7 p.m. ET and Calgary at Vancouver at 10 p.m. ET.

Sunday, Feb. 20: The Calgary Flames host the Montreal Canadiens at McMahon Stadium in Calgary in the 2011 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic (6 p.m., ET), marking the first regular-season NHL game contested outdoors in Canada since the Edmonton Oilers hosted the Canadiens at Commonwealth Stadium on Nov. 22, 2003. CBC and RDS will carry the game in Canada and VERSUS will provide coverage in the United States. NHL Radio will have the live action across North American radio. NHL Network will provide on-site pre- and postgame reports and NHL.com will provide extensive digital coverage.

Sunday, Feb. 20: As part of Hockey Weekend Across America in 2011, NBC Sports and the NHL will salute the roots of the sport with Hockey Day in America. Launched by USA Hockey in 2008, Hockey Weekend Across America is a nationwide initiative to celebrate the game and those involved at all levels and to expose hockey to new audiences. NBC Sports will celebrate the day-long event with regional NHL coverage.

Monday, Feb. 28: An event that has created a signature day on the League calendar, the NHL trade deadline is 3 p.m., ET.

Monday, Mar. 14 to Wednesday, Mar. 16: NHL General Managers meeting, Boca Raton, Fla.

Sunday, Apr. 10: The 2010-11 NHL regular season concludes, wrapping what promises to be a photo finish for playoff berths and seedings. The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs open on Wednesday, Apr. 13.



Quote of the Day

When we started our journey we made a commitment to our fans to be relevant and to see the Chicago Blackhawks become the best professional hockey organization. There are not two finer symbols of that than Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. The commitment we have made to these incredible young men is equal to the commitment they have made to our team, our fans, our entire organization and the city of Chicago.

— Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz on signing Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane to contract extensions