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Bruins, Sharks dominate first-half storylines

by John McGourty
Only a clairvoyant could have accurately predicted what has transpired in the first half of the 2008-09 NHL season.

Few, if any experts, saw the Boston Bruins contending for the Presidents' Trophy or the rookie-coached San Jose Sharks sitting in the catbird seat in the Western Conference.

Yet, that is precisely what has played out since the puck first dropped in October.

At the midway point of the 2008-09 NHL season, the Northeast Division-leading Bruins held a seven-point Eastern Conference lead on the Southeast Division-leading Washington Capitals, 64-57. The Pacific Division-leading Sharks held a four-point Western Conference lead on the Central Division-leading Detroit Red Wings, the defending Stanley Cup champions, 67-63.

While the Red Wings have continued to do well, their Stanley Cup opponent last June, the Pittsburgh Penguins, have struggled and their woes have worsened in recent weeks. After 41 games, Sidney Crosby's team was 21-17-4 for 44 points and sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins had a five-game loss streak recently and were 3-7-0 in their last 10 games before the midway point.

In the West, the story has been about Sharks rookie coach Todd McLellan, who worked the past three years as Mike Babcock's assistant coach in Detroit before getting the San Jose job this summer.

Detroit is its usual consistent self, showing few signs of a Stanley Cup hangover. The Red Wings have benefited greatly from the strong play of backup goalie Ty Conklin, who was with the Penguins last season.

The top three leading scorers as we enter the second half of the season are no surprise.

Pittsburgh Penguins center Evgeni Malkin leads the NHL with 63 points. He also leads the NHL with 48 assists. Washington Capitals right wing Alexander Ovechkin is bidding for his second straight Rocket Richard Trophy. Ovechkin is tied with Philadelphia Flyers center Jeff Carter and Buffalo Sabres left wing Thomas Vanek with 27 goals. Boston right wing Phil Kessel has 24.

The Bruins goaltending tandem of Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas ranked second and fourth, respectively, in goals-against average but they're trailing a rookie, the Columbus Blue Jackets' Steve Mason, for the lead.

Mason has a 13-9-1 record in 23 games and leads the NHL with a 1.82 GAA. Fernandez is 13-3-1 with a 1.96 GAA while Thomas is 16-4-3 with a 2.13 GAA. Anaheim Ducks rookie goalie Jonas Hiller is 10-6-1 with a 2.06 GAA.

Calgary Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff leads all NHL goalies with 38 games played and 24 victories. Mason leads with a .933 save percentage.

Speaking of goalies, the New Jersey Devils and the Vancouver Canucks have done surprisingly well despite the long-term injuries suffered by their goalies, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo. Luongo could be back by the All-Star break, but Brodeur will be out until February, at the earliest.

Injuries have devastated other teams, though.

The Penguins have not fared well during the absence of defenseman Sergei Gonchar, nor have the Buffalo Sabres been as effective without defenseman and captain Craig Rivet, who missed half their games. Buffalo has also missed center Tim Connolly, limited to six games by rib and back problems. Pittsburgh's Ryan Whitney missed 33 games after foot surgery before returning recently. Anaheim Ducks defenseman Francois Beauchemin suffered a season-ending knee injury Nov. 14.

Other prominent players whose injuries have impacted their teams this season include Anaheim's Teemu Selanne; Minnesota's Marian Gaborik; Boston's Patrice Bergeron and Marco Sturm; Calgary's Rhett Warrener, Jim Vandermeer and Wayne Primeau; Colorado's Joe Sakic, Adam Foote and Paul Stastny; Rick DiPietro of the Islanders; Atlanta's Kari Lehtonen; Columbus' Derick Brassard, Raffi Torres and Rostislav Klesla; Brenden Morrow and Sergei Zubov of Dallas; Jack Johnson of the Los Angeles Kings; Montreal's Chris Higgins and Alex Tanguay; Carolina's Frankie Kaberle and Justin Williams; Philadelphia's Danny Briere; San Jose's Jeremy Roenick; Eric Brewer, Paul Kariya and Erik Johnson in St. Louis; and Washington's Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin, Tom Poti and Brian Pothier.

Boston held a 10-point lead on the Montreal Canadiens in the Northeast while Washington was up 10 points on the runner-up Carolina Hurricanes. San Jose leads the Anaheim Ducks by 16 points in the Pacific Division. Detroit was eight points ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Division after sweeping a home-and-home series that included New Year's Day's Winter Classic.

The Northwest Division-leading Calgary Flames hold the third-best record in the Western Conference and were three points ahead of the Vancouver Canucks in the division race.

The best division race is in the Eastern Conference's Atlantic Division where the Philadelphia Flyers recently caught the New York Rangers, who led the division for most of this season due to a great record in shootouts. The New Jersey Devils have overcome the injury to Brodeur to also contest the race. The Flyers and Rangers, tied for the top spot in points, held a two-point lead on the Devils.

The Rangers lead the NHL with eight shootout wins. Colorado has seven, Montreal has six and Detroit owns five.

The Rangers' fast start and subsequent troubles are one of the top stories this half-season. New York started 10-2-1 but then went 13-11-2. They have given up a League-leading 18 shorthanded goals and they rank 26th in power-play efficiency. Just behind them are the Canadiens, who led the NHL in power-play efficiency last season.

The Red Wings lead the NHL with a 28.2 percent success rate on the power play while the Wild's 88.1 percent penalty-kill rate is tops.

Ovechkin is second to Malkin with 53 points while Penguins' center Sidney Crosby, the NHL's leading scorer in 2007, is third with 51 points. Ovechkin, the 2006 Calder Memorial Trophy winner as rookie of the year, had a troubled start to the season. His grandfather was dying and Ovechkin flew back to Russia to be with him and missed two games at the end of October. At that point, Ovechkin had only 2 goals and 3 assists in eight games.

Ovechkin had three assists in his second game back from Russia. He then had a five-game run in which he had 6 goals and 8 assists. He's been the hottest player in the NHL since Dec. 10, notching 13 goals and adding 5 assists.

Briere, a top-line center for the Flyers, has played only nine games this season, but his team is in first place. Washington's Alexander Semin raced to the early scoring lead but then got hurt and missed 18 games. His team is also in first place. Montreal's Mike Komisarek missed 16 games and Higgins missed 17, a big factor in the team's inconsistency and weak power-play performance. Yet, they are the second-best team, by winning percentage, in the East.

Some non-game related news also made headlines in the first half of the 2008-09 season.

Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery was suspended for six games for offensive comments made Dec. 2. The Stars cut Avery, who entered a League-approved anger-management program, while honoring his contract.

Three coaches have been fired this season. Blackhawks coach Denis Savard was replaced after only four games by Joel Quenneville. Rick Tocchet replaced Barry Melrose in Tampa Bay after 16 games. Paul Maurice returned to coach Carolina, replacing Peter Laviolette.

Finally, Anaheim Ducks General Manager Brian Burke was hired Nov. 29 as the Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, replacing Cliff Fletcher, the interim general manager. The Ducks promoted Assistant General Manager Bob Murray to executive vice president and general manager.
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