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Thirteen top storylines from season's first half

Monday, 01.06.2014 / 10:39 AM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

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Thirteen top storylines from season's first half
From scoring surges by Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Steen to Olympic roster debates to a Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic that was, well, a classic, take a look back at the 2013-14 season to this point.

The calendar has flipped to 2014 and the NHL's regular season has moved just past the halfway point, meaning it's time to reflect back on the stories that dominated the headlines in the first three months of the 2013-14 season.

Here are 13 of the best and biggest storylines in the NHL so far this season:

Olympic roster debates

The debate is still raging about whether leaving Bobby Ryan and Keith Yandle off the U.S. Olympic roster will backfire on the Americans. Hockey Canada is prepared to announce its roster Tuesday, and one can only imagine the furor that will come over the players left off that team.

Since the start of the season, nothing has driven fans and media types into more of a divisive frenzy than the Olympic roster debates. Media outlets, including NHL.com, have had their writers and analysts submit and re-submit their selections for the Olympics multiple times. Every time a roster is submitted, it creates a debate on Twitter, in comment sections and even in person.

Canada and the U.S. have been at the center of these skirmishes because of the obvious depth each has. The good news is these debates generate hours of hockey talk; the bad news is nobody participating in the debates has any say in the decisions that are made and the players that are going to Sochi next month.

Subban's candidacy

Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban is the face of these Olympic debates. Before USA Hockey's decision to leave Ryan and Yandle off the team, Subban was arguably the most talked about Olympic candidate in the NHL. He is again now that Canada is a day away from naming its roster.

P.K. Subban
P.K. Subban
Defense - MTL
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 26 | PTS: 33
SOG: 124 | +/-: 13
Either Subban is a must-have for Canada -- because, frankly, how can the Canadians leave arguably their best offensive defenseman home? -- or the reigning Norris Trophy winner belongs nowhere near the Olympics because of his risky play. There doesn't seem to be an in-between.

Subban has handled himself professionally through the entire process and has continued to produce. He was third among defensemen in points (33) entering games Sunday and had a plus-13 rating while averaging more than 25 minutes per game. His coach, Michel Therrien, has put his support behind the 24-year-old star after clearly wavering in his belief early in the season, when he left Subban on the bench late in close games.

No matter what decision Canada executive director Steve Yzerman comes to regarding Subban it will be debated and discussed, especially if the Canadians struggle to score in Sochi. Remember, Canada didn't take one of its top scoring defensemen to the 2010 Olympics either, but still won gold without Mike Green.

Backup goalies

The backup goalie, and in some cases the backup to the backup goalie, has been a story in markets across the NHL this season.

The Los Angeles Kings lost starter Jonathan Quick to a groin injury on Nov. 12 and an entire fan base started to worry when there apparently was nothing to worry about. Ben Scrivens took over and the Kings started to roll, going 6-1-3 as he started 10 straight games and allowed only 15 goals. Martin Jones took over for him and the Kings were even better, winning in his first eight starts largely because he gave up only eight goals.

Antti Raanta was, like Jones, an undrafted minor-leaguer at the start of the season, but he kept the Chicago Blackhawks atop the NHL standings filling in for Corey Crawford and Nikolai Khabibulin. Raanta and Jones were named the NHL's Co-Rookies of the Month for December.

Henrik Lundqvist has had an off year, but Cam Talbot, also in the minors to start the season, has been a solid fill-in to keep the New York Rangers in the race in the Metropolitan Division.

Brian Elliott has been excellent for the St. Louis Blues. Al Montoya has stepped up for the Winnipeg Jets. Eddie Lack of the Vancouver Canucks has filled in admirably for Roberto Luongo.

With Anton Khudobin out for two-and-a-half months and Cam Ward struggling to find his game, Justin Peters stepped up to give the Carolina Hurricanes quality goaltending. Jonas Gustavsson has done the same for Jimmy Howard and the Detroit Red Wings.

Harding succeeding in bid to change his story

Wild goalie Josh Harding has been playing with M.S. (Photo: Michael Martin/NHLI)

It's admirable that Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding doesn't speak publicly about his ongoing battle with multiple sclerosis because he doesn't want to be seen as being different. Harding, of course, is different than everybody else in the NHL because he has M.S., but he's separating himself in another way and changing the conversation around him.

He has been one of the best goalies in the NHL this season. His heartwarming story of carrying on his career in spite of his disease is becoming a heartwarming story about a goalie pushing for the Vezina Trophy who just happens to have M.S.

Harding has been among the League leaders in goals-against average and save percentage all season. He is currently first in the League with a 1.65 goals-against average and fourth with a .933 save percentage. He has 18 wins, including three shutouts.

His M.S. story came back before Christmas, when Harding had to go on injured reserve because he was altering some of his treatment for the disease and needed time to adjust to it. He returned after the break, but he has missed the past two games because he's not "feeling well," Wild coach Mike Yeo told the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Western dominance

The top three teams and six of the top eight in the League standings were from the Western Conference entering play Sunday. Eleven of the bottom 15 teams were from the Eastern Conference.

Western Conference teams were a combined 139-72-31 in games played against Eastern Conference teams before play started Sunday. The only West teams with sub-.500 records against the East teams were the Nashville Predators (8-9-4) and Edmonton Oilers (7-11-2). Ten of the 16 teams in the East were at or below .500 against their West opponents.

Ovechkin's push for 60

Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin scored his 31st goal of the season in Washington's 41st game of the season. He's on pace for his second career 60-goal season.

If he keeps going at this pace, they may just rename the Rocket Richard Trophy for Ovechkin. He's already won it three times since 2007-08.

Ovechkin proved he was "back" last season, when he scored 32 goals in 48 games. This season, he has been as dynamic as he was from 2007-09, when he scored a combined 121 goals, including 38 on the power play, in 159 games.

Ovechkin entered Sunday with a League-best 12 power play goals. The power play is, in fact, the biggest reason why the Capitals are still contending for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. More than 31 percent of Washington's goals have come on the power play, by far the highest proportion of any team in the League.

Jagr's surge up the charts

Jaromir Jagr has come to the New Jersey Devils and found new life in his legs and stick. The 41-year-old right wing is beating back Father Time to lead the Devils in scoring with 34 points in 43 games. Arguably no team has gotten more bang for their buck than New Jersey has with Jagr, who carries a $2 million salary-cap charge.

Jaromir Jagr
Jaromir Jagr
Right Wing - NJD
GOALS: 13 | ASST: 21 | PTS: 34
SOG: 100 | +/-: 11
Jagr is averaging more than 19 minutes of ice time per game, but his pace has recently slowed as he has just one assist in the past six games. However, for most of the season Jagr has looked nothing like the player who couldn't score or play too many significant shifts during the Boston Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup Final last year.

Jagr's remarkable first half also moved him up the NHL's all-time scoring charts.

His four game-winning goals this season lifted him over Gordie Howe and into first place on the NHL's all-time list for most game-winning goals in a career (122). His 13 goals has pushed him into a tie with Mark Messier for seventh place on the NHL's all-time goals list (694) and he has already passed Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman on that list this season. Jagr's next point will tie him with Lemieux for seventh on the NHL's all-time points list (1,723).

Surviving without Stamkos

The Tampa Bay Lightning have stayed neck and neck with the Boston Bruins at the top of the Atlantic Division standings despite losing star center Steven Stamkos to a broken leg on Nov. 11 and regularly dressing 12 or 13 players with fewer than 100 games of NHL experience. They entered play Sunday second in the division with 54 points.

The Lightning have won by changing the way they play without Stamkos. They had to take the risk out of their game and become more defensive, relying heavily on their goaltenders to play at an elite level.

Ben Bishop has done just that this season, and if there was an All-Star Game he'd likely represent the Eastern Conference. He played his way into the discussion for the U.S. Olympic team before eventually being left off the roster.

Captain Martin St. Louis has been the steady, veteran scorer Tampa Bay needs him to be. Valtteri Filppula has given the Lightning offense down the middle in the wake of Stamkos' absence. Alex Killorn, Teddy Purcell and Tyler Johnson have provided secondary scoring.

Radko Gudas and Andrej Sustr have been reliable young blueliners playing alongside veterans such as Eric Brewer, Sami Salo and even Victor Hedman, who is only 23 but is in his fifth NHL season.

If there is a leader for the Jack Adams Award, it may very well be Jon Cooper. He at least should be among the three candidates now.

Classic snow day

The 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic on New Year's Day was already going to be a spectacle unlike any the League has ever put on. The snow that fell throughout the day in Ann Arbor, Mich., added to the imagery and made Jan. 1, 2014 a historic date in NHL history.

An NHL record crowd of 105,491 frigid fans packed into Michigan Stadium on the campus of the University of Michigan and watched the Toronto Maple Leafs beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2 in a shootout. Fan allegiances were split roughly down the middle with half coloring the bleachers with their blue apparel and the other wearing red.

The game-time temperature was 13 degrees Fahrenheit, but the wind chill made it feel even colder than that. Snow fell throughout the morning and into the afternoon, taxing the ice crew but never intimidating them. NHL Senior Director of Facilities Operations Dan Craig had his crew working like a well-oiled machine as they quickly shoveled the ice at every television timeout to allow the Red Wings and Maple Leafs to play.

There were coaches in fedoras, goalies in retro pads and toques, kids playing a game of shinny on an auxiliary rink that would have resembled a pond if not for the Geico logo at center ice.

Tyler Bozak won the game in the shootout and Jonathan Bernier was the first star with 41 saves.

Rogers goes all in to get the NHL's national TV rights in Canada

Rogers Communications and the NHL announced their record-setting 12-year, $5.232 billion (Canadian) multi-media and broadcast agreement on Nov. 26. It's the largest media rights agreement in NHL history.

The partnership between the NHL and Rogers begins with the 2014-15 season and runs through the 2025-26 season. It was approved by the NHL's Board of Governors on Dec. 9.

The agreement gives Rogers national rights in Canada to all NHL games, including the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Stanley Cup Final, on all of its platforms in all languages. Rogers also has exclusive rights to future NHL All-Star Games and NHL Drafts.

Rogers also agreed to let CBC continue to broadcast Hockey Night in Canada for at least the next four seasons. Rogers will have control over the production and execution, including revenue, editorial content and on-air talent.

TVA is taking over all of the Canadian French-language media rights, including 22 Montreal Canadiens games per season.

Roy making waves again in Denver

Patrick Roy has turned the Colorado Avalanche into a contender just 41 games into his NHL coaching career. He has added accountability and a winning attitude to a franchise that was in desperate need of both after finishing 29th in the NHL last season. Colorado sits third in the Central Division with 56 points.

The Avalanche got off to a torrid start, winning their first six games and 14 of their first 16. Common sense suggested it wasn't always going to be so good in Denver, but the Avalanche have been able to respond each time they've run into some adversity.

They lost three straight in mid-November, but won five of their next six games. They were then blown out by the Edmonton Oilers, 8-2, on Dec. 5, but won the next night at the Calgary Flames. December was their toughest month so far as they went 5-5-4, but the Avalanche have won their first two games in January.

Steen delivers in St. Louis

St. Louis Blues forward Alexander Steen was busy writing arguably the season's second-best story behind Harding before sustaining a concussion late last month. Steen, who had never scored more than 24 goals in any of his previous eight seasons, scored his 24th goal this season in his 34th game. He scored 24 goals in 68 games in 2009-10.

He has missed the past six games, but Steen was still third behind Ovechkin and Patrick Sharp in the goal-scoring race entering Sunday. Steen has always been a reliable, two-way forward, but his offense this season is clearly an added dimension to his game. He signed a three-year, $17.4 million contract extension last month.

If healthy, Steen is a lock to play for Sweden in the Olympics.

Ducks keeping pace with Blackhawks

The Anaheim Ducks have used a dominant home record and balanced scoring to keep pace with the Chicago Blackhawks at the top of the Western Conference standings. They entered their game Sunday against the Vancouver Canucks with 65 points, including a League-best 28 regulation/overtime wins.

The Ducks stayed close to Chicago last season too before fading down the stretch. They have shown no signs of fading so far this season.

Anaheim was the only NHL team without a home regulation loss (16-0-2) entering Sunday. The Ducks' road record (14-8-3) is respectable, especially since they are tied with the Edmonton Oilers for the most road games played so far this season. They went 11-1-1 in December, including a franchise-record 10-game winning streak from Dec. 6-28.

Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry have been outstanding, as expected. Nick Bonino has provided secondary scoring despite playing primarily in a bottom-six role. Jonas Hiller was the NHL's Third Star of the Month in December after going 9-0-1 with a 1.96 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

The Ducks' underrated defense has performed beyond expectations. Rookie Hampus Lindholm has stepped up to become a potential Calder Trophy candidate, Cam Fowler played his way onto the U.S. Olympic team and Francois Beauchemin has been as steady as ever.

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Quote of the Day

Fifty-five? That's shorts weather.

— New Anaheim Ducks forward, and Michigan native, Ryan Kesler on locals in Southern California considering 55 degrees to be cold
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