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Fourteen second-half storylines that bear watching

by Adam Kimelman /

With the first half of the 2013-14 season complete, looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.

There's 96 days left until the start of the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 16 and an infinite number of storylines that could come to fruition between now and then.

The first half of the season saw all sorts of interesting and entertaining moments, capped by the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic and the unveiling of the rosters for the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

What will the second half of the season have in store for us? Here are 14 storylines for the 2014 portion of the schedule that all hockey fans should be watching.

Taking it outside -- The Coors Light NHL Stadium Series starts at the end of January, beginning with a game Jan. 25 at Dodger Stadium between the Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings.

The first outdoor NHL game played on the West Coast will have the most unique setting of any game in League history, with views of palm trees and the San Gabriel mountains framing the rink the teams will play on.

"Dodger Stadium is the place to be," Kings president of business operations Luc Robitaille said in September. "It's an iconic stadium. It's special. If we were going to do this, it had to be here."

After the Dodger Stadium event, the Stadium Series moves east to another iconic venue, Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, for a pair of games featuring the New York Rangers. The Rangers will play the New Jersey Devils on Jan. 26 and the New York Islanders on Jan. 29.

The Stadium Series will conclude after the Olympic break when the Chicago Blackhawks host the Pittsburgh Penguins at Soldier Field in Chicago on March 1. The next day the Vancouver Canucks will host the Ottawa Senators in the Tim Hortons Heritage Classic at BC Place in Vancouver.

Road to Sochi -- With the intrigue behind who would make up the rosters for the teams going to the 2014 Sochi Olympics, now comes the predictions for which team will win the gold.

Can Canada repeat its golden triumph of four years ago? Or can the United States go one step past where its 2010 dreams ended in an overtime loss to Canada in the gold-medal game?

The most pressure will be on the host Russian team, led by Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin. He said he's trying to ignore the pressure, but said playing in the Olympics at home is a dream come true.

"Since I was a little kid and since everyone [on the roster] was a little kid their dream was to play in the Olympic Games," Ovechkin said on a conference call the day the Russian roster was unveiled. "Especially we have the chance to represent the country in Sochi, it's unbelievable. … I don't think somebody is going to just say their mission is done just to be in the Olympic Games. Our mission is to win the gold medal and play our best hockey."

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 23
SOG: 60 | +/-: 11
Return of Stamkos -- When Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos crashed into the goal post in Boston on Nov. 11 and broke his right leg, there was fear that one of the brightest lights in the game would be dimmed until next season. But two months later Stamkos is skating, he's been named to Canada's Olympic team and is considering return dates.

Stamkos said he'd like to play for the Lightning prior to going to Sochi; Tampa plays four times in the final week before the Olympic break, capped by home games Feb. 6 against the Toronto Maple Leafs and Feb. 8 against the Detroit Red Wings.

"It's all about not having a setback right now," Stamkos said earlier this week. "Could I go out and there and push myself and be able to do some things? Probably, but I don't want that setback. You want to push yourself, you want to go out there, but at the same time you have to be smart."

That means weighing his Olympic aspirations against the best time for him to play a game again, whether that's in Tampa, Sochi or anywhere else. But what really matters is one of the best players in the League will be able to showcase his talents again this season.

Can Harding keep going? -- Arguably the best story of the first half of the season was Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding. Stuck in a backup role for most of his career and now battling multiple sclerosis, all Harding has done is have possibly the best first half of any goaltender in the League. He leads the League with a 1.65 goals-against average and is second with a .933 save percentage.

Can Harding keep it up? He's played two games since Dec. 17 due mostly to needed adjustments to his MS medication.

When he was healthy he didn't look like he had any weaknesses in his game. If Harding can return from his long layoff and play the second half of the season like he did in the first half, the Wild will remain in the playoff chase right to the end.

Shopping season opens 24 hours a day -- There are 54 days left until March 5, the NHL Trade Deadline. We've seen only a handful of trades so far this season, but that number will rise dramatically over the next 7 1/2 weeks, as will the number of trade rumors.

What will the Buffalo Sabres and their new general manager do with big-name impending unrestricted free agents such as goaltender Ryan Miller and forwards Matt Moulson and Steve Ott? Will the Islanders deal Thomas Vanek? Florida Panthers general manager Dale Tallon has said he wants to be active in rebuilding his roster; could forward Brad Boyes or defenseman Dmitry Kulikov, a restricted free agent, be finding new addresses?

All of those names and more certainly will be discussed between now and March 5. And with so many teams feeling like they're a short win streak away -- more on that in the next item -- some teams could wait until the final hours of deadline day to make their moves.

Who's on the bubble? -- The change in the postseason format has given teams two different ways to get into the playoff battle. It's also given more teams hope that they can find a way into the top eight in each conference.

As we reach the halfway point, the playoff races are starting to get tighter and tighter. In the Eastern Conference the Washington Capitals are one point ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Rangers for third place in the Metropolitan Division. The Detroit Red Wings (48 points) and Hurricanes (47) hold the wild-card berths, but the Rangers (47), Toronto Maple Leafs (47), Ottawa Senators (46) and New Jersey Devils (45) are on their heels.

In the Western Conference the Wild are two points ahead of the Phoenix Coyotes for the second wild-card spot; the Dallas Stars are six points behind Minnesota.

How quickly can things change? On Nov. 21, the quarter-point of the season, the Philadelphia Flyers had 18 points, three behind the Devils for third place in the Metropolitan Division and six behind the Montreal Canadiens for the second wild-card spot. At the halfway point, the Flyers' 50 points puts them second in the Metropolitan, five points ahead of New Jersey.

Shooting for 60 -- Since the 1995-96 season only twice has a player scored 60 goals in a season; there's a chance that number grows by one this season.

Ovechkin leads the League with 31 goals and is on pace for 60. If Ovechkin can score 60 it would be just the third time someone has accomplished that feat in the past 16 seasons; Ovechkin scored 65 in 2007-08 and Stamkos had 60 in 2011-12.

Ovechkin is averaging 5.5 shots per game (on pace for 443), and scoring on 13.7 percent of his shots. That's not far off his previous 60-goal season when he averaged 5.4 shots per game (446 total) and scored on 14.6 percent of them.

Making history by the day -- Jaromir Jagr's birth certificate lists him at 41 years old, and there's more than a few strands of gray in that famous hair, but there's no way you can look at the Devils' leading scorer and say he's an old man.

Jagr already has passed Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman to move into a tie for eighth on the all-time goals list, and the assist he picked up Tuesday against the Flyers tied him with Lemieux for seventh on the all-time points list. The only question for Jagr is how high can he go this season?

With 694 goals, he's six away from becoming the seventh player with 700. He's on pace for 64 points, which would move him past Yzerman and into sixth on the all-time scoring list with 1,752; if he ups that number a bit, he could catch Marcel Dionne's fifth-place total of 1,771 points.

Who's best in the West? -- There are two days all NHL fans should circle on their calendars. On Jan. 17 the Western Conference-leading Anaheim Ducks will visit the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, and Jan. 18 they'll play at the St. Louis Blues.

The Ducks, thanks in part to their 18-0-2 home record this season, enter the weekend with 71 points, the most points in the League and four points ahead of the Blues and Blackhawks.

Anaheim has beaten the Blackhawks and Blues once this season. On Dec. 6 Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry each had a goal in a 3-2 shootout win in Chicago, and one night later each player scored again in a 5-2 Ducks win in St. Louis.

After their back-to-back games next week, the Ducks will face off against the Blues and Blackhawks once more each. The Blackhawks visit Anaheim Feb. 5 and the Blues come to town Feb. 28..

Top prospects all in one place -- The Scotiabank Saddledome will be packed with fans and NHL scouts Jan. 15 for the CHL/NHL Top Prospects Game. The game will feature 40 of the top players from the Canadian Hockey League eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft in one place, in a high-intensity game. It will be all-star talent, but it won't be your typical all-star game.

Among those expected to be on display are five players coming off solid performances at the 2014 IIHF World Junior Championship. Forward Sam Reinhart of the Kootenay Ice of the Western Hockey League and defenseman Aaron Ekblad of the Barrie Colts of the Ontario Hockey League played for Canada, and could be the first two players picked in June in Philadelphia. Also expected to take part in the game are Russian center Ivan Barbashev of the Moncton Wildcats of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League; defenseman Julius Honka of the Swift Current Broncos of the WHL, who won a gold medal with Finland; and German center Leon Draisaitl of the Prince Albert Raiders of the WHL.

Who's in charge here (Part I)? -- After months of searching, the Buffalo Sabres filled their general manager post Thursday by hiring Ottawa Senators assistant GM Tim Murray. That leaves the GM job with the Calgary Flames open.

Some of the same names that were considered for the Buffalo job could be under consideration in Calgary, among them Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning and Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton. Other candidates could include former Stars GM (and Flames star) Joe Nieuwendyk and Maple Leafs vice president of hockey operations Dave Poulin.

Though the Stanley Cup Playoffs don't look like real possibilities this season in Buffalo and Calgary, it will bear watching how Murray and whoever is hired in Calgary go about putting their personal stamps on their new teams.

Who's in charge here (Part II)? -- One of Murray's chief decisions will be determining the future of interim coach Ted Nolan. When Sabres president of hockey operations Pat LaFontaine hired Nolan on Nov. 13, he said the only assurance he gave Nolan was that he would finish the season as coach; beyond that, his future would be up to the next GM.

The Sabres have been better under Nolan, going 8-11-4 after a 4-15-1 start under Ron Rolston. But Nolan's future depends on the relationship he builds with Murray through the remainder of the season.

Panthers GM Dale Tallon has to reach a similar decision regarding his team's interim coach, Peter Horachek. Like the Sabres, the Panthers have improved since Horachek replaced Kevin Dineen on Nov. 8, going 14-12-2, including a five-game win streak in December.

Tallon doesn't seem to be in much of a rush to pull the interim tag from Horachek, but so far he has to be happy with the results.

Martin Brodeur
Goalie - NJD
RECORD: 12-9-4
GAA: 2.39 | SVP: 0.902
Brodeur's last hurrah? -- Possibly the only person to make more saves with a mask on than Martin Brodeur was the Lone Ranger. And like the fictional hero, Brodeur soon could ride off into the sunset.

He's 41, has won three Stanley Cups, four Vezina trophies, two Olympic gold medals and owns every significant NHL goaltending record. He even got to experience every father's dream in training camp when he got to dress and practice with his son, Anthony, a 2013 seventh-round draft pick (No. 208) by the Devils.

Brodeur also will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the Devils already have his replacement in Cory Schneider.

Brodeur hasn't talked much about what his plans are beyond this season, but it's doubtful anyone, him included, can envision Brodeur wearing another team's jersey. If this is the end, his next stop will be in Toronto in three years for his Hockey Hall of Fame enshrinement.

Teemu Selanne's farewell tour -- One player who we know won't be back after this season is the Anaheim Ducks' legend.

At 43, Selanne came back for what he has said is the final time. He hasn't contributed offensively like he has in the past and he's sat out the back end of back-to-back games to keep himself healthy for the playoffs.

Selanne ranks 15th on the all-time list with 1,444 points and 11th in goals with 680. More than the numbers, though, any chance to see Selanne in action in his final season is something not to be missed.


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