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Blackhawks, Devils emerge as best of first half

by Dan Rosen
We're about halfway there. Heck, some teams have already sped past the midpoint of the 2009-10 NHL season. In fact, the Montreal Canadiens lead the League with 45 games played.

But now that we're out of the fog created by the simply fantastic 2010 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, it's time for to look back at the first half of the season before we jet off to the Olympics. So, here we go, in Top 5 form.

Top 5: Teams

1. Chicago --
The Blackhawks have the firepower and they're using it. Entering Tuesday's game against Minnesota they had the best goal differential in the League (+47). Cristobal Huet has also answered the call in net.

2. New Jersey -- Jacques Lemaire is mixing and matching lines nearly every game and no matter what formula he uses, it works. Martin Brodeur has been fantastic and the Devils are getting contributions from everyone despite a slew of injuries.

3. San Jose -- Dany Heatley has been a welcome addition and Patrick Marleau's game has only gone to greater heights. Joe Thornton has been one of the best players in the League. The Sharks still give up their share of goals, but are No. 2 in goals per game.

4. Washington -- Eight games without Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals went 6-2 and somehow averaged more goals without No. 8 than they score with him. Go figure. They just need to find one goalie to ride. Look for Ovi to have a huge second half.

5. Buffalo -- Talk about a team that has the goalie and is riding him. If Ryan Miller isn't the Vezina Trophy winner for the first half, who is? The American has been the difference for the Sabres, who have gained a huge edge by going 7-0-0 against the Western Conference.

Top 5: Offseason moves that worked

1. Lamoriello brings back Lemaire --
Devils GM Lou Lamoriello hit one out of the park when he went back to the well and hired Lemaire, who led the Devils to their first Cup in 1995. Lemaire has pulled all the right strings for a team that has been riddled with injuries.

2. Mr. Smyth goes to Hollywood -- Save for missing 15 games with an injury, veteran left wing Ryan Smyth has been exactly what the surging L.A. Kings needed. He's helped turn Anze Kopitar into a household name and his presence around the net has helped the Kings score roughly a half a goal more per game.

3. Heatley sinks teeth into Shark Tank -- He wanted out of Ottawa and got his wish, even if it came after a public flogging. Dany Heatley has flourished in San Jose, playing mostly with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton. We won't know how big of a factor he really can be until playoff time, but right now that trade is working out on both sides.

4. Gabby takes Manhattan -- The Rangers may still be starving for some secondary scoring, but Marian Gaborik has been everything and more as a top flight right wing. Gaborik was tied for the League-lead with 27 goals. The Rangers are 12-7-3 when he scores and 8-10-2 when he doesn't.

5. Wings stick with Howard -- He could have looked outside the organization, but Ken Holland trusted that finally Jimmy Howard could stand up to NHL shooters and, of course, the four-time Cup-winning GM was right. Howard has become the Red Wings' No. 1 goalie. He entered Tuesday 14-8-2 with a 2.20 GAA and .923 save percentage.

Top 5: Surprises

1. Coyotes are for real --
Forty-three games is a strong enough sampling. So, yes, without hesitation we are saying the Phoenix Coyotes are the real deal. With plenty of veterans and Ilya Bryzgalov playing lights out in net, the Coyotes should wind up in the playoffs.

2. Myers for the Calder? -- He won't turn 20 until Feb. 1, but Sabres rookie Tyler Myers is already the team's No. 1 defenseman. He's playing 23 minutes a night and has 22 points and a plus-8 rating halfway through the season. John Tavares may lead the talk for the Calder Trophy, but let's not forget about Myers.

3. Colorado's hot start -- Only the Lightning and Islanders finished last season with fewer points than the Avalanche, but backed by Craig Anderson's sterling start and Joe Sacco's fresh outlook, Colorado went 9-2-2 in October and hasn't looked back. The Avs have come back to the pack, but entering Tuesday still led the Northwest Division.

4. Red Wings still in hunt -- Is it possible that Mike Babcock is doing his best coaching job ever and his team is ninth in the West? Considering what the Wings have dealt with in the injury department, you can make the argument. Heck, most of Team Sweden has missed time this season in Detroit to say nothing of the slew of other injuries.

5. Devils among of League's best -- We can't stress enough what is happening in New Jersey. The Devils were supposed to be fighting tooth and nail for a playoff berth, but are instead leading the Eastern Conference despite a laundry list of injuries that includes not having Paul Martin, their best defenseman, for the last 32 games.

Top 5: Disappointments

1. Flyers flailing --
A four-game winning streak was a great way to end 2009, but it didn't erase what was a dismal start. John Stevens lost his job because the Flyers weren't winning and Peter Laviolette is still trying to get his grip on this team. Ray Emery's injury didn't help, but it has nothing to do with Jeff Carter's drop off in production.

2. They've got the Blues --A frantic second half led to an improbable playoff for the Blues, who then opened 2009-10 in Stockholm with a pair of wins over the Red Wings. Ever since they have been the League's worst home team and it cost Andy Murray his job. The Davis Payne era started with a 6-3 home loss to Chicago. Maybe it's good that they play 10 of their next 15 games on the road.

3. Steve Mason -- It's hard to pick on just one player when it comes to the Blue Jackets, but Mason won the Calder Trophy last season and he's gone backward. His sophomore slump is a major reason why the Jackets haven't been able to build on last season's playoff berth. Now they're struggling to score, too, but that only means more pressure on Mason.

4. 'Canes early woes -- The Hurricanes went 3-12-5 in the first quarter and may never recover. Erik Cole, Eric Staal and Cam Ward each missed a month with various injuries. Joe Corvo is still out with a lacerated leg and Scott Walker is on the shelf for six weeks following shoulder surgery. It's been a season filled with one yikes moment after another.

5. Bruins' offense -- Imagine if the B's weren't getting good goaltending? They are scoring nearly one goal fewer per game this season than they did last season. Boston hasn't replaced Phil Kessel. Marc Savard and Milan Lucic have played but a handful of games together this season. And, now Patrice Bergeron could be out a month or longer.

Top 5: Guys you forgot about

1. Dustin Penner --
He may be piloting a sinking ship because the Oilers have not been very good, but Penner is having a fine rebound season. Until a recent slump, Penner would get our nod for Comeback Player of the Year. He needs to pick it up again, but he had two more points (39) in the first half this year than he had all of last season (37).

2. Maxim Afinogenov -- He played himself out of Buffalo, but Afinogenov has found new life in Atlanta playing with countrymen Ilya Kovalchuk and Nik Antropov. Through 41 games he had 39 points on 15 goals and 24 assists. By contrast, in 48 games last season he had 20 points. He's a bargain at one-year and $800,000.

3. Tomas Plekanec -- Quick, name the only point-per-game player the Montreal Canadiens have this season? Well, obviously it's Plekanec, who entering Tuesday had 46 points (10 goals, 36 assists) in 44 games. It's a remarkable rebound year for Plekanec, who had only 39 points in 80 games last season. He's a UFA at the end of the season.

4. Vinny Prospal -- Reuniting with the fiery John Tortorella has reignited Prospal's NHL career. Tampa Bay bought out the remaining three years of his contract after last season, leaving Prospal free to make his own decisions. He quietly signed a one-year deal with the Rangers but has been very loud ever since. He's the Rangers' second-leading scorer.

5. Brendan Morrison -- Morrison struggled in Anaheim and was consequently waived. Dallas picked him up, but he didn't do much there either. Washington jumped at the chance to sign Morrison for one year and he's been excellent as the team's second center behind Nicklas Backstrom. He's been a key on the power play as well.

Top 5: Guys that make you ask, "Who?"

1. Matt Moulson -- We're going to bet you either never heard of or didn't know much about Moulson before this season. That's OK, because neither did we. But the former King, who played 29 games over two seasons in L.A., has found a home on Long Island alongside John Tavares. The former Cornell star is on pace for nearly 60 points.

2. Andy Greene -- When Paul Martin went down, Greene stepped up and became the puck-rushing, power-play specialist the Devils needed. For two years he's been mostly a sixth, seventh or even eighth defenseman in Jersey, but someone else will have to leave the lineup when Martin returns. Greene has been too good.

3. Mark Giordano -- Easily one of the most unheralded defenseman, Giordano has quietly been having a solid season in Calgary. He's in their top four along with Jay Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf and Robyn Regehr and is averaging 20 minutes a game while playing on the power play and the PK. He's fourth on the team in hits, second in blocked shots and is on pace with Bouwmeester and Phaneuf in scoring, too.

4. Chris Stewart -- The big-bodied second-year winger is having a solid season with 26 points and a plus-5 rating through 38 games entering Tuesday. Stewart was third on the Avs with 12 goals and tied for first with three game-winners. A former first-round pick in 2006, Stewart may finally be reaching his potential as a power forward.


RECORD: 14-8-2
SV%: .923 | GAA: 2.20 | SO: 1

5. Jimmy Howard -- In Orono, Maine, and Grand Rapids, Mich., Howard is a household name. He starred for the University of Maine and then played four seasons for the Grand Rapids Griffins, the Red Wings' AHL affiliate. Six years after the Red Wings drafted him in the second round, more people are finally figuring out who he is.

Top 5: Crystal ball predictions for second-half storylines

1. Kovalchuk headlines on deadline day (or before) --
The trade rumors are starting to heat up as the plodding contract negotiations continue between Kovalchuk's agent, Jay Grossman, and Atlanta GM Don Waddell. This is looking eerily similar to the Marian Hossa situation from two years ago. Waddell couldn't get Hossa signed and he was traded to Pittsburgh as a rental player. It says here that Kovalchuk, who will command top dollar and a lot of years come July 1, will be headed to a contender as a rental.

2. Flyers figure it out --
Perhaps that four-game winning streak to close 2009 was a sign of things to come in Philadelphia. There is just too much talent in the dressing room and too much pride on the line for the Flyers to stay as inconsistent as they have been. It says here they figure it out and wind up in the playoffs.

3. Healthy Wings start to soar --
Johan Franzen, Henrik Zetterberg, Niklas Kronwall, Dan Cleary, Jonathan Ericsson and Jason Williams will all return by the Olympic break or shortly after, giving the Red Wings the firepower they will need to make a late push in the Western Conference. If they can stay in the hunt, Detroit will be getting enough guys back to make a push for the fourth seed. It says here they do, but wind up fifth or sixth.

4. Coyotes make push as fans fill seats -- As long as the home team wins, a city of avid sports fans can't ignore it. The Coyotes have shown no signs that they will drop off, and provided they stay the course and in the hunt for the playoffs you have to think that more and more fans will start to fill the seats at Arena. It says here that they will have to print extra tickets in the coming months.

5. Canucks survive road trip -- The Canucks have to play 14 straight road games starting Jan. 30, but at least it is broken up by the Olympic break. Eight of their next 10 games are at home and Vancouver has to build enough equity in the upcoming games to survive the trip. It says here that the Canucks not only do that, but they return to GM Place in mid March in decent playoff position. You'd take that, wouldn't you Vancouver?

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