|Ilya Bryzgalov has been tough to beat this year.
To no one's surprise, the San Jose Sharks were on top of the Pacific Division as the season reached the halfway mark. But the teams chasing them were very much a shock.
While the Dallas Stars were inconsistent and the Anaheim Ducks disappointing, the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings played like solid playoff contenders who are capable of making the Sharks work for their third consecutive division title. Both were in the top eight in the West.
The Stars had their ups and downs and were plagued by an inability to win shootouts -- an area that had been one of their strengths during the first four seasons of the penalty-shot tiebreaker. The Ducks have three of the NHL's top players in forwards Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and defenseman Scott Niedermayer, but have struggled to keep the puck out of their net and are the worst team in the conference on the road (5-11-4 at the 41-game mark).
Here's a look at the good and bad of the first half from the Pacific Five:Player of the First Half: Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix --
No player in the division (and maybe the League) is as responsible for his team's success as Bryzgalov, whose goaltending has the Coyotes in the top four in the West after they finished 14th in the conference last season and spent the summer in bankruptcy court.
Bryzgalov posted an 8-2-3 record with a 1.82 goals against average, a .939 save percentage and two shutouts in December, good enough to be named the NHL's Second Star for the month. He entered the week third in the NHL in GAA (2.03), fourth in save percentage (.927) and first in shutouts (5) -- including one at Pittsburgh and another at San Jose.
"He's played extremely well," Sharks coach Todd McLellan said. "He's got to feel confident about his game. He's as good as there is in the League right now."
Bryzgalov was named to the Russian Olympic Team and will battle McLellan's goaltender, Evgeni Nabokov, for playing time. But in terms of recognition, he's still overshadowed by big names like Martin Brodeur and Ryan Miller.
"If you took him and put him in Toronto, he'd be front and center," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said. "I think Ilya is the way our whole team is, a little understated, but he's a valuable, valuable player."Runner-up: Joe Thornton (San Jose)
Coach of the First Half: Dave Tippett, Phoenix --
The Coyotes' legal problems had an unintended consequence: Wayne Gretzky stepped down as coach during training camp, leaving Phoenix with no bench boss with the season only a couple weeks away.
GM Don Maloney wasted little time bringing in Tippett, who had been let go by Dallas during the summer after the Stars missed the playoffs one year after coming within two victories of making the Stanley Cup Final.
Tippett has brought structure to the Coyotes and has gotten his players to buy into his system. The result has been a team that's been able to combine tight checking, excellent goaltending and opportunistic scoring into the West's fourth-best record.
"Our group has been very good through the first half of the year," Tippett said this week in Edmonton, where the Coyotes played Tuesday night. "They've worked very hard, our goaltending has been good and they've bought into a concept of how we're going to have to play to win and that's a very strong defending game.
"We don't score a ton, but the ratio between scoring and not giving up any has been pretty good, which has allowed us to get ourselves to be where we are, which is in a playoff position."
All the negativity surrounding the club and the struggle for ownership also provided motivation for the new coach and his players.
"I think all those factors are key," Tippett said. "We talked about it at the start of the year. There was a lot of negative energy that was off the ice. We can only control what happens on the ice, and our guys focused on that and that was part of a motivating factor for our group." Runner-up: Todd McLellan (San Jose)
Rookie of the First Half: Jamie Benn, Stars --
There's no clear-cut winner this season -- unlike 2008-09, when Kings' rookie defenseman Drew Doughty
was head-and-shoulders above the field. But Benn, a fifth-round pick by Dallas in 2007, came to training camp and made it impossible for the Stars to get rid of him.
"He wasn't one of the best players in preseason, he was the best player during preseason," Stars coach Marc Crawford said recently. "We weren't sure if he'd be ready right away, but he came in almost Day 1 of training camp and looked so good. When you're generating scoring chances and doing all sorts of things, people take notice. We took notice."
Benn has a good understanding of where he needs to be on the ice. He reads plays well and has impressed the coaching staff with his grasp of the game. He was a big scorer in juniors and reached the midway point with 8 goals and 20 points, both tops among Pacific Division rookies.
"He's a smart player, clever, positions himself well," Crawford said. "He has some subtle characteristics. When he handles the puck he protects it and he can play with good players. A lot of times as a young player, you get so intimidated playing with good players that you can tend to do too much. He hasn't done that."Runner-up: Scott Parse, Los AngelesSurprise of the First Half: Wayne Simmonds, Kings --
When top-line forward Ryan Smyth went down for a month with an injury, Simmonds stepped up and filled in a lot of the missing production until he also went down with a knee injury.
"He's played very well. I go back to the end of the season last year, 10, 12 games. He really started to step up and take more of a role in this hockey club and just continuing to build on it this year," coach Terry Murray said.
Despite missing a couple of weeks with the injury, Simmonds has already exceeded his rookie totals with 10 goals and 24 points in the 39 games he's played in. Showing his defensive responsibility, he was also among the NHL's top 10 in plus-minus at plus-16.
"I'm seeing a hockey player emerge, that's what I'm seeing," Murray said. "It goes to, why do players take it to the next level? How do they become NHL players? Well, you have to have, obviously, some qualifiers to get here, to be given the opportunity. Then it comes down to hard work. ... You have to give him a lot of credit for staying with it and working as hard as he has."Runner-up: Dan Sexton (Anaheim)Around the Pacific --
Los Angeles did a lot of streak-snapping when it routed the Sharks 6-2 at HP Pavilion Monday. The Kings terminated the Sharks' eight-game winning streak, ended their streak of not allowing a first-period goal at nine games and snapped San Jose's string of allowing two or fewer goals in regulation at 10 games. The Kings also improved to 3-0-1 against the Sharks, with two more meetings at the Staples Center this month. ... The loss to the Kings also marked the 500th NHL game for Sharks' forward Jody Shelley -- a terrific accomplishment for a player who wasn't drafted out of junior hockey. "I've had to work at it every day," Shelley said of his game. "The assistant coaches and head coaches always had time for me. If you're not getting better, you're done." ... The NFL's Phoenix Cardinals, who play next door to Jobing.com Arena, forced the Coyotes to push back the Coyotes Carnival, which had been scheduled for Jan. 10, but would have conflicted with the Cardinals' playoff game. The new date is March 7. ... At age 22, Anaheim's Bobby Ryan is one of the youngest U.S. Olympians -- four years ago, he represented his country at the World Juniors. "To get the chance to wear the (U.S.) sweater again is a pretty big deal for me," Ryan said. "It's an incredible achievement, something that I've looked forward to for a long time." ... Dallas reached the midway point of the season with a League-high 11 losses in overtime/shootouts. ... Dallas' Loui Eriksson has shorthanded goals on consecutive New Year's Eves. He had one against New Jersey in Dec. 31, 2008, and got another against Dallas to ring out 2009.Material from team media was used in this report
Contact John Kreiser at email@example.com
Author: John Kreiser | NHL.com Columnist