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Statistical notes as season enters final stretch

by E.J. Hradek / Vancouver Canucks

When the Scotiabank Saddledome horn sounded the end of Tuesday's Maple Leafs-Flames game in Calgary, we'd completed 845 of the NHL's 1,230-game regular-season schedule.

By my count -- and my math can be somewhat shaky -- we're more than two-thirds of the way through the 2011-12 season.
I figure that's a pretty significant sample. It's certainly enough of a sample to pick out some interesting statistical notes, as well as some trends between particular teams. Here are 10 such numbers that stood out to me:

1. While success on special teams truly is helpful, I've always believed that a team's even-strength play is the best indicator of its Cup chances. That's why the 5-on-5 goals for/goals against ratio is my favorite statistical category.

If you're wondering why, just check the top end of the chart. The Red Wings (1.52), Bruins (1.49) and Blues (1.48) stand 1-2-3 in this statistical category. The next three teams are the Rangers (1.33), Sharks (1.27) and Canucks (1.18). Those are six pretty darn good teams.

On the flip side, the Kings (0.88), Panthers (0.87) and Devils (0.87) are the only current playoff teams among the bottom 13 in this category. Simply put, if you want to earn an invite to the postseason party, you'd better be good at even strength.
2. Penguins superstar center Evgeni Malkin appears to be pulling away in the race for the Art Ross and Hart trophies. In 49 games, Malkin has a League-high 69 points -- seven more than current runners-up Steven Stamkos and Claude Giroux. Malkin has played fewer games than any of the League's other top 30 scorers.

Last Saturday, he registered his third five-point game of the season in an 8-5 win against the Jets. According to our friends at the Elias Sports Bureau, Malkin is just the third player since the 1998-99 season to record three five-point games in a single season. Who are the other two? If you guessed Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, you'd be bang-on. Ovechkin did it during the 2007-08 season, while Crosby accomplished the feat in 2009-10.

3. Led by Malkin, the Penguins stand second in the League, averaging 34.3 shots per game (entering Wednesday's action). Only the Sharks, who put 34.5 shots on goal per contest, are getting more rubber to the net of opposing teams.

The Penguins, however, lead the League in shot differential. Through 56 games, the Pens are averaging 7.5 more shots per game than they're giving up. Over the course of an 82-game season, that adds up to 615 more shots on goal than your collective opponents. I don't think you have to be Scotty Bowman to see how that's a good thing for your team.

4. While Toronto's penalty killing ranks 29th in the League entering Wednesday's game in Edmonton, the Leafs are getting better in shorthanded situations. Actually, they're getting much better.

In 19 games since the calendar flipped to 2012, the Leafs have killed 35 of 36 power-play chances. That's a serious improvement, eh?

After several seasons of pitiful penalty killing in Toronto, the Leafs finally might be figuring things out. I have to think better penalty killing would help Phil Kessel and his pals secure the club's first playoff spot since 2004.

5. Not surprisingly, Detroit's special teams have been just that during their current 21-game home winning streak. In that span at Joe Louis Arena, the Wings' power play is clicking at 22.5 percent. That's better than their current overall success rate of 17.8.

Detroit has killed 85.8 percent of opposing power plays during the streak, as opposed to its overall 81.3-percent success rate.

For whatever reason, the Wings have been a little sharper in all areas on home ice. Now, they just need to figure out a way to transfer that game to cities outside of Detroit. While 24-3-1 at home; the Wings are just 15-15-1 on the road. That's not a bad road record, but I'm sure coach Mike Babcock believes it should be better.

6. Dallas, which missed a chance to end Detroit's home-ice winning streak Tuesday, has a more focused streak of its own at American Airlines Center. The Stars have won their last 15 games against the Wild in Dallas. That's the longest such current streak.

The Stars can run their home dominance against Minnesota to 16 games when the Wild make their final regular-season appearance in the Metroplex on Feb. 24. I would imagine Niklas Backstrom and Co. aren't looking forward to that trip.

7. Over the years, San Jose has enjoyed similar success against Washington. The Sharks stopped the Caps 5-3 on Monday at Verizon Center. Since the start of the 1999-00 season, San Jose is a ridiculous 16-1 against Washington.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Sharks' .941 points percentage against the Capitals is the highest by one team against another over the last 12 seasons. I guess we know who the Sharks would love to face in a Cup Final.

8. Coming into Wednesday's game against the Canadiens in Montreal, the defending champion Bruins have played a League-low 54 games (tied with the Sharks). That means the B's will squeeze 28 games into the final 53 days of the season.

The Bruins will work on consecutive nights on six occasions in that stretch. After playing three seven-game series en route to the title last spring, you have to wonder if that busy finishing schedule will impact the Bruins' chances to repeat. We haven't seen a back-to-back Cup winner since the Wings accomplished it in 1997 and '98.

9. There have been several reasons for the Blackhawks' nine-game winless streak (0-8-1). A putrid power play stands among them. In the first seven games of their current nine-game road swing, the Hawks are 0-for-19 with the man-advantage.

Prior to this recent slide, the Hawks' power play hadn't been so bad away from the United Center. Even if you include the most recent numbers, Chicago's road power play still has connected on 17.9 percent of its chances, No. 13 in the League. If the Hawks could get that group back on track, they might be able to finish the long trip with a few wins.

10. Clearly, a good, hearty crease competition can be good for you. It certainly didn't hurt Blues goaltender Jaroslav Halak. After a shaky start opened the door for backup Brian Elliott, Halak has gotten his game back on track.

In his last 11 starts, he has five shutouts, allowing just 14 goals in that span.

Since Dec. 1, Halak has posted a 12-3-3 record with a 1.65 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. I don't know how you get much better than that. St. Louis coach Ken Hitchcock has to be thrilled to know that he can turn to either goaltender and get sparkling results.

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