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Kings, Penguins among 15 top stories in second half

by Dan Rosen / NHL.com

COLUMBUS -- The 2015 NHL All-Star Weekend in Columbus was fun, intriguing, exciting and entertaining, but it's over now. It's time to get back to work.

Teams are back at practice Monday and the games start up again Tuesday. Here are 15 storylines to follow as the 2014-15 NHL season hits its stretch drive:

1. Champs on the ropes

The Los Angeles Kings are on the outside of the Stanley Cup Playoff race coming out of the All-Star break with 52 points, one fewer and in the same number of games played (47) as the Calgary Flames, who currently occupy the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

All possession metrics suggest the Kings should be just fine. They lead the NHL in even-strength Corsi-for (54.5 percent) and they're third in even-strength Fenwick-for (53.8 percent), according to War-on-ice.com. However, they've lost four in a row (0-2-2) and nine of their past 11 games (2-4-5). They're averaging two goals per game in their past five games and goalie Jonathan Quick has a .868 save percentage in his past 10 games.

2. Penguins' health

Sidney Crosby
Center - PIT
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 36 | PTS: 51
SOG: 134 | +/-: 7
The Pittsburgh Penguins have sustained 205 man-games lost to injury this season, and yet they are second in the Metropolitan Division with 60 points, three behind the first-place New York Islanders and two more than the third-place New York Rangers.

However, the Penguins' injury issues are hardly going away.

Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby had to miss the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game because of injuries. Kris Letang missed the final game before the break with an injury. Patric Hornqvist, Blake Comeau and Simon Despres have also been out of the lineup. Pascal Dupuis and Olli Maatta are done for the season.

The injuries might finally be getting to the Penguins. They have lost four in a row (0-2-2) and are 4-6-4 in their past 14 games. The Rangers and Washington Capitals are nipping at their heels and the Islanders are threatening to pull away.

The good news is Crosby should return this week; Malkin and Despres might as well. Letang's status is still unknown. Comeau and Hornqvist could be back by early-to-mid February. Dupuis hopes to play in the playoffs, but that's hardly a certainly. Maatta won't play until next season.

3. Nashville going for first

Not only do the Nashville Predators hold a three-point lead on the St. Louis Blues and Chicago Blackhawks for first in the Central Division, they also have two games in hand on Chicago and one on St. Louis. The Predators lead with 65 points in 45 games.

Nashville also appears to have the easiest schedule of the top four teams in the division, including the Winnipeg Jets. The Predators have one more game left against St. Louis and two more against Winnipeg; they do not play Chicago again this season. They have 18 games remaining against teams that currently are not in a playoff spot.

St. Louis and Chicago are tied with 62 points, but the Blues have a game in hand. The Jets have 60 points, but they've played the most games of all four teams (48).

There are a combined nine games remaining between St. Louis, Chicago and Winnipeg. The Blues and Blackhawks play three more times, including twice in April. The Blues and Jets play four more times. The Jets and Blackhawks play two more times.

Chicago has a six-game road trip coming out of the break before it plays eight in a row at United Center.

4. Islanders going for top spot

Pittsburgh's injury situation has helped in terms of slight separation, but the New York Islanders have been consistent from the start of the season and are in line to finish first in their division for the first time since 1988. They could finish first in the conference for the first time since 1983-84, when they tied with the Boston Bruins for the Wales Conference lead with 104 points.

The Islanders basically have  done everything right this season. They're winning at home (16-4-0) and they've been dominant in overtime and shootout games (11-1). New York is second in the League in goals per game (3.15), shots on goal per game (33.1), and shots-against per game (27.0).

About the only blemish on the Islanders is their penalty kill, which is 28th at 74.4 percent. It hasn't hurt them yet.

They also learned Monday that top-line forward Kyle Okposo would miss six to eight weeks because of an upper-body injury. Okposo was second on the Islanders with 44 points and third with 14 goals.

5. Presidential Ducks

The Anaheim Ducks lead the NHL with 68 points because they have been spectacular in one-goal games. If they keep it up and maybe get some separation in games for necessary breathing room, they will win the Presidents' Trophy for the first time.

The Ducks are 22-0-6 in one-goal games this season. That means 59.5 percent of their games have been decided by one goal and 73.5 percent of their points have come in those games.

The good news for the Ducks is they haven't been living on the edge as much of late; they have won five in a row with at least a three-goal differential in three of those games.

6. Hot names on the block

The 2015 NHL Trade Deadline is set for 3 p.m. ET on March 2. There is some star power on the trading block this season.

The Arizona Coyotes could trade defenseman Keith Yandle, who has been rumored to be on the block for the past few seasons. Coyotes general manager Don Maloney might be ready to go into a rebuilding mode, and he likely could get several assets in draft picks and/or prospects for Yandle, who has one year left on his contract.

Maloney also could trade Antoine Vermette, who would be the ideal third-line center for a contending team.

Colorado Avalanche forward Ryan O'Reilly could be on the move. He has one year left on his contract that carries a $6 million salary-cap charge.

The Edmonton Oilers are a team to watch as the deadline nears because general manager Craig MacTavish seems open to just about anything. The same holds true for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Could Phil Kessel really be on the block? It's possible.

7. "McEichel" Sweepstakes

The bottom of the standings will be as interesting to watch as the top as the season winds down because of super prospects Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel, the likely top two picks in the 2015 NHL Draft, which takes place June 26-27 at BB&T Center in Sunrise, Fla.

The four teams that appear to be jockeying for position to potentially get one of the top two picks in the draft are the Buffalo Sabres, Oilers, Coyotes and Carolina Hurricanes. The Sabres are last in the League now with 31 points through 47 games. The Oilers have 33 points in 47 games. The Coyotes and Hurricanes each have 37 points through 46 games.

The team that finishes 30th in the standings has a 20-percent chance of winning the NHL Draft Lottery to get the No. 1 pick. The 30th place team is guaranteed no worse than the No. 2 pick. The team that finishes 29th has a 13.5-percent chance of winning the No. 1 pick. The 28th-place team has an 11.5-percent chance and the 27th-place team has a 9.5-percent chance.

8. Under the Northern California sky

The NHL's next venture outdoors will take place Feb. 21 when the San Jose Sharks play a home game at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., against the Los Angeles Kings as part of the 2015 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series. Levi's Stadium is the new home of the San Francisco 49ers.

The Kings and Sharks also will be featured in a four-part reality TV series on EPIX, similar to the series that featured the Washington Capitals and Chicago Blackhawks in the lead-up to the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.

EPIX had a camera crew behind the scenes at the Kings-Sharks game at SAP Center last week. They were in Columbus following Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar of the Kings, and Brent Burns of the Sharks during All-Star Weekend.

The first episode of "EPIX Presents Road to the NHL Stadium Series" will air Feb. 3. A new episode will air every Tuesday through Feb. 24.

9. Voracek going for a surprise trophy

Jakub Voracek
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 39 | PTS: 56
SOG: 138 | +/-: 10
Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek was the leader in the Art Ross Trophy race at the break with 56 points, four more than Dallas Stars center Tyler Seguin.

Voracek is on pace for 95 points. He never has  finished a season with more than 62 points.

A key to Voracek's success is playing with Flyers captain Claude Giroux, who is fifth in scoring with 51 points.

Arguably a bigger key to Voracek's sustained success is the way he feels on the ice. He dropped about 10 pounds in the offseason through a new training method and it has helped him feel quicker, particularly in the corners and in tight areas around the net.

10. Seguin going for a double-dip

Seguin is trying to become the first player since the Washington CapitalsAlex Ovechkin in 2007-08 to win the Rocket Richard Trophy and the Art Ross Trophy in the same season. Seguin has 52 points, four fewer than Voracek, and he's tied with New York Rangers forward Rick Nash for the lead in goals with 28.

Seguin made it a goal of his to shoot more this season. He has accomplished that so far by averaging 4.17 shots on goal per game. He averaged 3.675 shots per game last season, when he had a career-high 294 shots in 80 games. Seguin is on pace for 342 shots.

Ironically, Ovechkin could ruin Seguin's chance at the Rocket Richard. He has 27 goals, including 11 in his past 11 games. Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, a two-time Rocket Richard winner, has 26 goals.

11. Don't forget about Nash

Nash shared the Rocket Richard Trophy with Jarome Iginla and Ilya Kovalchuk in 2003-04, when they each scored 41 goals. He has hit the 40-goal mark only once since then (2008-09), but Nash is on pace for 52 goals this season if he plays in all 82 games.

Among the biggest reasons for Nash's success this season is how often he is going to the net. He is getting inside the defense on a regular basis and scoring a lot of his goals from around the blue paint. He has established chemistry with linemates Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.

12. Jets trying to break a 19-year drought

Winnipeg comes out of the break as the first wild-card team in the Western Conference with 60 points. They have an eight-point cushion for a playoff berth and are trying to bring postseason hockey to Manitoba for the first time since 1996.

Jets coach Paul Maurice has to be in the discussion for the Jack Adams Award along with Peter Laviolette of the Predators, Jack Capuano of the Islanders, Bob Hartley of the Calgary Flames, Mike Babcock of the Detroit Red Wings and Willie Desjardins of the Vancouver Canucks.

Maurice has made the Jets accountable in the defensive zone to the point where they are fifth in the League in goals-against per game (2.35). Maurice was hoping that the Jets would be able to build their offense off their defense by the middle of the season, and it has happened.

Winnipeg has 29 goals in its past seven games; it is 6-0-1 in those games.

13. Forsberg has competition for the Calder Trophy

Filip Forsberg
Center - NSH
GOALS: 15 | ASST: 25 | PTS: 40
SOG: 143 | +/-: 24
As excellent as Nashville forward Filip Forsberg has been this season with 40 points and a plus-24 rating in 45 games to lead all rookies, he isn't running away with the Calder Trophy.

Florida Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad and Calgary Flames forward Johnny Gaudreau are making their own cases to be the rookie of the year for the 2014-15 season.

It's no surprise that Forsberg, Ekblad and Gaudreau played in the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game on Sunday.

Gaudreau is second in rookie scoring behind Forsberg with 35 points in 46 games. Ekblad is fifth among rookies and tied for 26th among all defenseman with 25 points.

14. Sharks still looking for consistency

The Sharks have 56 points and are second in the Pacific Division, but it seems like they still haven't been able to find any type of groove this season. It's fair to wonder if they will, and if their inconsistent ways will wind up costing them a playoff berth, especially if the Kings get hot and the Flames play like they did through the first 25 games of the season.

San Jose is 6-6-2 in its past 14 games since going 9-1 from Nov. 29-Dec. 20. Prior to that hot streak the Sharks were 10-10-4.

If the Sharks are going to solidify a playoff berth, they'll need to do it by the middle of March. They play 15 of their next 21 games at home; they've won only 12 of 23 home games this season (12-8-3). San Jose finishes the season with 10 of its final 13 games on the road.

15. Climbing clubs

The Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars and Colorado Avalanche were supposed to be better than they have been so far this season. The Florida Panthers have been somewhat of a surprising success story, but they still have some ground to make up in order to make the playoffs.

Can any or all of the Wild, Stars, Avalanche and Panthers climb the standings high enough to extend their season?

Colorado is closest with 50 points, three shy of the Flames for the second wild-card spot, but Dallas would have the best chance in the standings. The Stars are four points behind the Flames for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference, but has a game in hand on the Flames and Kings, and two in hand on the Avalanche.

The Stars, though, have 15 home games remaining; they play 21 road games.

The Wild are in deeper with 46 points and four teams to climb. They too have a game in hand on the Flames and Kings and two on the Avalanche. The Wild and Stars each have played 46 games.

The Panthers are seven points out of the final wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, but they have played a League-low 44 games. They have four games in hand on the Boston Bruins, who currently occupy the final wild-card position. They have two in hand on the Capitals, who are in the first wild-card position but tied with the Bruins in points with 57.

Also playing in the Panthers' favor is their home/road split; they play 21 home games and 17 on the road the rest of the way.

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