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Central: Datsyuk, Mason, Versteeg are first half stars

by Dan Rosen
The Red Wings have fought through any Stanley Cup hangover they might have had to stake themselves a significant lead in the Central Division. The Windy City has embraced the Blackhawks like the they did in the old days. The Blue Jackets, the League's lone team to have never played in the playoffs, are right in the mix.

The Predators welcomed back a familiar face in Steve Sullivan and have enjoyed the development of defenseman Shea Weber, but are still struggling to find some steady offense. The Blues have been a disappointment due to a rash of injuries.

There has been plenty of good and some bad in the Central Division this season. Let's take a look.

Player of the First Half: Pavel Datsyuk, Detroit -- It's hard to nominate anyone else in this category. Datsyuk has been simply marvelous for the Red Wings.

The defensive wizard has again been an offensive nightmare for the opposition. He had 18 goals and 29 assists for 47 points and a plus-15 rating at the 41-game mark. Datsyuk has since added a goal, 4 assists and a plus-5 rating to give him 52 points and a plus-20 rating heading into the weekend.

He's once again the clubhouse favorite for the Selke Trophy, which he won for the first time last season, with a League-best 56 takeaways entering Friday night. With all of his points and only 12 penalty minutes, he's also an odds-on favorite to win his fourth straight Lady Byng Trophy.

"I don't see how anybody cannot think that he's the best player in the League right now," Johan Franzen recently told the Detroit Free-Press.

Coach of the First Half: Joel Quenneville, Chicago -- Four games into the season, the Blackhawks didn't like the direction they were going, so they gave Denis Savard his walking papers and brought on the veteran coach to run the ship.

It's safe to say Chicago got what it wanted. Under Quenneville, the Hawks have gone from resurgent team to Stanley Cup contender in just 38 games.

They entered Friday night's game at home against the New York Rangers with 24 wins and 55 points, good for second place in the division and fourth in the Western Conference. The Hawks were third in the League in goals for with 3.54 per game and fourth in goals against with 2.42 per game. They had the sixth best power play and the sixth best penalty kill.

Chicago is one of only six NHL teams with at least nine players who have 20 or more points. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Brian Campbell are all starting in next weekend's NHL All-Star Game. Duncan Keith and Patrick Sharp could have been in Montreal as well if they didn't get caught in a numbers game. Martin Havlat is healthy and having a solid season. Rookie Kris Versteeg has been a surprisingly good addition to the lineup. Andrew Ladd and Dave Bolland have been productive third-line players.

"Joel is a great guy, and he's a hell of a coach," Kane told "He really knows what he's doing behind there. He lets the boys be boys. He's not so involved with the players. You have to show up and do whatever you have to do to be ready to play."

Rookie of the First Half: Steve Mason, Columbus -- The field of candidates in this division is probably better than any of the other five divisions. Versteeg would have been a fine choice. Blues forward Patrik Berglund is having a solid rookie season. Before he was hurt and lost for the season with a dislocated shoulder, Columbus center Derick Brassard was leading the rookie class in points. Even Jakub Voracek has been a solid contributor to Columbus' surge.

Mason, though, has been at the head of the class since being called up Nov. 4. He's not only the leading Calder Trophy candidate after being named NHL Rookie of the Month for November and December, but his name is being mentioned in the Vezina Trophy discussion.

He entered Friday's game against New Jersey leading the League with six shutouts and a 1.80 goals-against average. His .936 save percentage trailed Boston's Tim Thomas by .001. In 26 appearances, he was 16-9-1, vaulting the Jackets into playoff contention. He has given the Jackets a chance to win every night, which is something they have never had before.

"One thing I notice with him is he's unbelievable at playing the puck," Columbus captain Rick Nash said. "Just knowing that he's so solid back there, he's so confident in his game, he's so calm, it makes everyone around him play the same way."

Surprise of the First Half: Kris Versteeg, Chicago -- Everyone expected Kane, Toews, Campbell, Keith, Sharp and even Havlat, provided he could stay healthy, to pace the Blackhawks offense this season. No one figured Versteeg would be much of a factor.

Oh, but he is, and how.

Versteeg was fourth on the Hawks with 35 points on 13 goals and 22 assists through the first 41 games. He had one more point than Toews and six more than Campbell. Moreover, the 22-year-old rookie from Lethbridge, Alberta, was a plus-16.

Versteeg was thought to be a fringe player at best heading into this season. He was too small and too inconsistent. He has instead played bigger than his 5-foot-10, 180-pound body. His speed has surprised and he has kept up his level of consistency.

"Kris has gotten off to a tremendous start and consistency is what he has shown," Quenneville said. "That's the challenge. If he is consistent in his overall game I fully expect him to continue to produce. It's something we are going to keep our eye on this season. He's not a big guy but he certainly enhanced his strength and the size of himself over the summer. We are going to give him every opportunity to succeed."

Around the Central -- Jason Williams, acquired by Columbus from Atlanta on Wednesday in exchange for Clay Wilson and a sixth-round pick, skated with his new team for the first time Thursday and was expected to play Friday against New Jersey. Williams is quite familiar with the Central Division. Before this season, he had spent his entire career in it. He played 233 games with the Red Wings from 2000-07 until he was traded to Chicago, where he played 66 games over a season-plus before signing a one-year contract with Atlanta this past summer. He had 18 points in 41 games with the Thrashers. ... Nashville forward Steve Sullivan posted his first point in his second game back. He had an assist in Tuesday's 2-0 win at Toronto. Sullivan played a season-high 18:19 Thursday at Montreal. ... In other news out of Nashville, defenseman Alexander Sulzer made his NHL debut Thursday night, playing 11:49. That was the good news. The bad news concerns captain Jason Arnott and All-Star defenseman Shea Weber. Both sat out Thursday's game in Montreal with injuries. Weber, whose reportedly nicked with a foot injury, could return tonight against Atlanta. The Tennessean reports that Arnott, who has missed three straight games, remains questionable. ... Chicago defenseman Duncan Keith got popped hard by Buffalo's Drew Stafford midway through Wednesday night's game at the United Center. He needed help off the ice and did not return or speak with the media afterward. He was re-evaluated Thursday and was listed as day-to-day with a mild concussion. He was not expected to play in Friday night's game against the Rangers. ... The Hawks announced that passes for the second annual Chicago Blackhawks Convention go on sale this morning at 10 a.m. The Convention will take place July 17-19 at the Hilton Chicago on S. Michigan Ave. They are $55 and can be purchased on the team's Web site, through Ticketmaster or at the Blackhawks Store on N. Michigan Ave. Last year's convention sold out in two weeks. ... Blues All-Star forward Keith Tkachuk suffered an upper-body injury Tuesday night when he bumped heads with Flames defenseman Robyn Regehr early in the second period. He did not play in Thursday's 5-2 win against Colorado. Tkachuk told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he did not suffer a concussion.

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