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12 stories to watch in the second half of the season

by Dan Rosen
The 2011-12 season reaches its mid-point upon the completion of Monday night's game between the Washington Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings. But is going to take all week to look at the significant stories as the League makes the turn and heads toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We'll look at the races for the League's individual awards, while profiling some of the most surprising players and teams as we look ahead to the final three months of the season.

The first half is finished, in the books. The second half is under way and prepared to bring us trade-deadline hype, down-to-the-wire playoff races, individual trophy chases, and so much more.

These are the 12 storylines has identified as the ones to watch in the second half of the 2011-12 season:

Cap space to burn

There is a lot of cap space left out there and plenty of teams that likely have the desire to use some of it. Most notable among them are Boston, Detroit and Chicago, but don't underestimate what New Jersey, Minnesota, St. Louis, Florida and even Dallas could be capable of doing with some money to spend.

According to, the Red Wings have nearly $5.1 million left in cap space, while the Blackhawks have close to $4.8 million and the Bruins more than $2.9 million. It's conceivable that all three could add a star player by the deadline to bolster their playoff push.

The Panthers and Blues have put themselves in position to be a contender in the second half, and each has more than $9.1 million in cap space. If the Wild snap out of their funk, they can look at their nearly $8.5 million and decide to do something with it.

The Devils are looking to re-sign Zach Parise, who can be an unrestricted free agent July 1, but they have $3.1 million to work with this season and could look for a UFA-to-be at the deadline.

Dallas has more than $14 million remaining under the cap. The Stars are right in the thick of the race and they are backed by quality goaltending, so some success heading toward deadline day could convince new owner Tom Gagliardi to allow GM Joe Nieuwendyk the freedom to work some deals.

Speaking of cap space ...

Bobby Ryan
Right Wing - ANA
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 10 | PTS: 25
SOG: 95 | +/-: -5
With the NHL's trade deadline looming at 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 27, the rumor mill should start churning shortly, if it hasn't already. And there could be some very interesting names that come up.

Just last week the Los Angeles Times had some juicy comments from Anaheim GM Bob Murray, who told the newspaper that everyone on the Ducks is in play except for Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu. Of course, that would mean Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan are open for discussion in trades, and there may not be three bigger names on the market.

That is, unless Columbus captain Rick Nash was serious when he answered a hypothetical question posed to him by the Columbus Dispatch. Nash said, hypothetically, if he was asked him to waive his no-trade clause, he'd consider it if doing so meant the Blue Jackets would be able to get back pieces to help them build a new foundation for future success.

If Nash, Getzlaf, Perry and Ryan all are in play come February, this NHL trading season will be as juicy as it has been in quite some time.

It's also worth watching to see if Calgary captain Jarome Iginla becomes available if the Flames fade from the race. He has one year and $7 million left on his deal.

Rangers push past Classic

With a two-week trip through Europe, their No. 1 defenseman on the shelf due to concussion symptoms, HBO's cameras coming into their lives, and all the hype around the 2012 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, the first half of the 2011-12 season could have broken the New York Rangers.

It most definitely did not.

The Rangers, who have won their two games since the Winter Classic, entered Monday leading the NHL with 56 points. They've won four in a row and nine of their last 10 games.

With the story now turning to the second half, the big question surrounding the Rangers is can they keep their momentum without any noticeable mental or physical hurdles to clear?

There now is a sense of normalcy around the Rangers, with the outside elements that could have been distractions eliminated and Marc Staal back in the lineup. But is that good for a team that has thrived through so much adversity already this season? Do they know any other way?

If the Rangers have proven anything in the first half, it's that they don't care about style points, just two points. Maybe that helps them get through the dog days of the season before putting their focus on attaining a top-three seed in the playoffs.

Crosby's saga and the Penguins' injuries

Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby is still experiencing concussion-like symptoms. (Photo: Getty Images)
While the story about Sidney Crosby and his recurrence of concussion symptoms only will intensify as the playoffs near, the Penguins' entire injury situation bears watching because it may be too much for them to overcome. In addition to Crosby, defenseman Kris Letang is out indefinitely with a concussion, Jordan Staal is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury and James Neal is out for at least several weeks with a broken foot.

The Penguins finally may have met their match on the injury front, as they entered Monday riding a four-game losing streak that has dropped them into eighth-place in the Eastern Conference with 46 points, one more than the ninth-place Jets.

With Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury still healthy, it's certainly possible that the Penguins pick up enough points in the next month to survive and stay in the race while waiting for Staal and Neal to return. It's also possible that Crosby and Letang start feeling better, get back on the ice for practice and return to game action.

However, the Penguins could also continue to struggle and fall out of the playoff race, leaving GM Ray Shero with an interesting dilemma come trade deadline time -- make desperation moves to salvage the season, or leave well enough alone and think about next season?

The Penguins, always a team to watch in the NHL, most definitely will have the eyes of the hockey world on them for the rest of the season.

Bruin up another Cup run

It's not even mid-January yet and it's not out of line to start talking about the Bruins' chances at a repeat. They entered Monday second in the Eastern Conference with 53 points.

But there are two pertinent questions that need to be answered before the playoffs arrive: 1) Where are the areas the Bruins need to upgrade? 2) Do they even need to upgrade?

A year ago they went out and grabbed Tomas Kaberle from Toronto, thinking he would help with their anemic power play. He didn't, but that was no matter because the Bruins still won the Stanley Cup.

Entering Monday, Boston led the NHL in goals per game (3.63), goals-against per game (1.90), and faceoff percentage (55.9 percent). Its power play is ranked 11th (18.7 percent) and the penalty kill was seventh (85.9 percent). Goaltending is the least of the Bruins' concerns as Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask are on pace to win the William Jennings Trophy.

GM Peter Chiarelli has some cap space to work with, but he might not feel compelled to do anything with it.

Wild: Contenders or Pretenders?

Minnesota has only 2 more home games before the All-Star break. (Photo: Getty Images)
They were looking so good, and then it all turned so bad, leaving many to wonder if the Minnesota Wild were just a flash in the pan. They'll let us know in the second half, but they've given no indication that they can gather themselves and start playing like the team that won 20 of its first 30 games this season.

The Wild were first in the Western Conference and a win away from sweeping a five-game road trip roughly one month ago, but they've gone 1-8-3 ever since and are in danger of falling out of the top eight altogether. They entered Monday seventh in the West with 48 points. Colorado was 10th with 47 points.

The Wild have only two more home games before the All-Star break and just one after that before finally coming back to Xcel Energy Center for a four-game homestand in mid-February. They have a four-game road trip starting Thursday that will take them to Chicago, St. Louis, Philadelphia and Toronto -- all four teams are in playoff positions right now.

The Wild at least finish March with eight home games in a span of three weeks, but they'll have to play well enough between now and then to make those games matter.

Howard's run for a record

If Detroit goalie Jimmy Howard keeps up his current pace, he would tie Martin Brodeur's NHL single-season record for wins in a season.

Howard has 24 wins in 35 starts, putting him on pace for 70 starts and 48 wins. Brodeur won 48 games in 2006-07, but he played in 78 games and picked up 10 of his wins by way of the shootout. Howard only has one shootout victory this season.

The question is will Red Wings coach Mike Babcock let Howard go after the record.

Detroit appears destined for the playoffs yet again, and home-ice advantage would be key, especially when you consider the travel they've had to endure the last two years. They need Howard to continue to play well in order to ensure home-ice advantage and potentially a top-three seed. However, there always is concern that playing a goalie too much in the second half could cause him to not have enough left come playoff time.

It's a fine line that Babcock and the Wings have to ride with Howard, who never has played more than 63 games in a season. Ty Conklin is the veteran backup, but so far he has made just six starts and only has two wins and an .897 save percentage.

Capital gains

Alex Ovechkin
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 16 | PTS: 33
SOG: 149 | +/-: -7
Washington still trails the Florida Panthers by four points in the Southeast Division, but entered Monday with two games in hand. The Capitals also had won four straight before losing at San Jose on Saturday. The Panthers have won only twice in their last eight games.

What does it all mean? Well, Capitals GM George McPhee set this team up over the summer to be a contender, and it's possible they're finally turning into one. However, the challenge facing the Capitals in the second half is to get their depth and talent to mesh together on a consistent basis. They still need a lot to go right.

Captain Alex Ovechkin has to continue to surge. Mike Green has to get healthy and stay healthy. Alexander Semin has to start playing better or risk being the player McPhee does look to trade come deadline day. Goaltenders Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth must be good. Dale Hunter has to learn how to coach under the microscope due to expectations.

Toronto's playoff push

If Santa Claus brought Ron Wilson his contract extension, then maybe the Easter Bunny will bring the Toronto Maple Leafs a ticket to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Entering Monday, the Leafs were seventh in the Eastern Conference with 47 points. They were in sixth place exactly one month ago.

Toronto has a Hart Trophy candidate (Phil Kessel), a Rocket Richard candidate (Kessel), two Art Ross Trophy candidates (Kessel and Joffrey Lupul), and a Norris Trophy candidate (Dion Phaneuf), along with one of the NHL's best power plays. However, they also have one of the League's worst penalty kills.

The Maple Leafs have a schedule that would appear favorable, with a five-game homestand before the All-Star break, another four-game homestand at the end of February, and six of their final nine games at home to close the season. They play 20 of their final 41 games against teams that currently are not in a playoff position, including four against Buffalo, four against Montreal, three against the Islanders and two against Edmonton.

As for their cap situation, the Leafs are right up against it, but it's a good bet that if Getzlaf actually is made available that GM Brian Burke will make a strong push for the player he signed to a long-term contract during his tenure as the Ducks' general manager.

Stamkos' drive for 50

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 28 | ASST: 17 | PTS: 45
SOG: 139 | +/-: 6
Steven Stamkos is way ahead of his pace from two seasons ago, when he scored a career-high 51 goals to share the Rocket Richard Trophy with Sidney Crosby. Tampa Bay's fourth-year forward is on pace for 57 goals if he plays in all 82 games, as he's done the last two seasons.

Stamkos has 28 goals through 40 games this season, or seven more goals than he had through 41 games in 2009-10. In 2009-10, he didn't score his 28th goal until his 52nd game.

Playing in Stamkos' favor is the Lightning's schedule, which includes 25 home games in the second half, including seven in a row from March 10-24. Stamkos has scored 16 of his 28 goals at home this season. However, six of Tampa's last eight games are on the road.

Panthers looking to snap drought

The Florida Panthers are on pace for their first playoff berth since 2000; no current team in the NHL has gone longer without getting into the postseason.

Florida entered the week with a four-point lead on Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. The Panthers had played two more games than the Capitals, who were in action Monday in Los Angeles.

If you move past the race in the Southeast, you'll see that the Panthers still are a playoff team regardless right now, but the race in the Eastern Conference is tight and Florida is slipping, with just one win in its last four games and two in its last eight. The Panthers' top trio of Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Stephen Weiss has combined for just 3 points in the last four games. No. 1 goalie Jose Theodore is out with a knee injury.

It was a good first half for the Panthers, much better than any pundit predicted even after GM Dale Tallon's summer of spending, but the pressure will build in the second half because now the expectations have grown.

Hunting for hardware

Henrik Sedin
Center - VAN
GOALS: 11 | ASST: 38 | PTS: 49
SOG: 62 | +/-: 14
The race for the Art Ross Trophy is tight, with five players, led by Henrik Sedin (49 points), within two points of the scoring lead entering play Monday. Stamkos (28 goals) had a four-goal lead over Kessel in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

The rest of the big trophy races are subjective, but also with some quite obvious candidates.

For instance, at this point the Hart Trophy race for the League MVP is full of candidates, including both Sedin twins, Claude Giroux, Kessel, Jonathan Toews, Stamkos and Malkin. Nicklas Lidstrom is in the running for his record-setting eighth Norris Trophy, but Shea Weber, Zdeno Chara, Phaneuf and, if you're looking at points, Erik Karlsson are right there with him.

The Bruins' Thomas has played well enough to win his third Vezina Trophy, but Henrik Lundqvist, Howard and Jonathan Quick also could lay claim to the hardware right now. Patrice Bergeron may be the first-half winner of the Selke Trophy, but perennial candidate Pavel Datsyuk and Wild captain Mikko Koivu can't be forgotten. Staal was in the running, but his current injury could put him out of it.

Edmonton's Ryan Nugent-Hopkins remains the likely favorite for the Calder Trophy, but his injury means New Jersey's Adam Henrique and Philadelphia's Matt Read have an opportunity to jump ahead. And don't sleep on potential second-half pushes from Colorado's Gabriel Landeskog, Vancouver's Cody Hodgson, and perhaps even Florida goalie Jacob Markstrom if he gets enough playing time.

As for the Jack Adams Award, Mike Yeo looked like an early favorite, but the Wild are slumping and the field is wide open. Perhaps the Blues' Ken Hitchcock now is in the driver's seat, with the Rangers' John Tortorella and the Senators' Paul MacLean arguing about who gets to ride shotgun.

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl
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