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Six biggest surprises from season's first half

by Adam Kimelman

With the first half of the 2014-15 season complete, looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.

At the beginning of each season NHL fans will make predictions on what the ensuing season will look like, from where their favorite team will finish in the standings to who will lead the League in scoring to which team will win the Stanley Cup.

Some predictions are easy to make; saying the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks would be among the NHL's top teams really isn't much of a stretch.

But some things have happened during the first half of the 2014-15 season that no one could have seen coming.

Here are six of the biggest surprises of the first half:

Some predictions are easy to make, but some things have happened during the first half of the 2014-15 season that no one could have seen coming. (Photo: Scott Audette/NHLI, Norm Hall/NHLI, Bill Wippert/NHLI)

1. One team, multiple coaches

When the Toronto Maple Leafs fired coach Randy Carlyle on Jan. 6, general manager Dave Nonis said assistant coaches Steve Spott and Peter Horachek would be co-coaches.

A day later Horachek was named interim coach. While going with one coach is generally the path teams take, it hasn't been the standard this season. Two teams have gone with multiple coaches after making a change this season.

When the Edmonton Oilers fired Dallas Eakins on Dec. 15, general manager Craig MacTavish took over as coach with Todd Nelson named interim coach. MacTavish spent five games on the bench while Nelson adjusted to his move from Oklahoma City of the American Hockey League to the NHL.

The New Jersey Devils fired coach Peter DeBoer on Dec. 26; the next day Adam Oates and Scott Stevens were named co-coaches, with general manager Lou Lamoriello joining them behind the bench in a supervisory role.

"I know it's unique," Lamoriello said in announcing the set-up. "I know it's different."

But has it worked? The Devils are 3-4-1 in eight games with their three-man coaching staff. The Oilers went 0-3-2 with MacTavish and Nelson running things, but in Nelson's first game calling the shots by himself the Oilers defeated the Kings 3-2 in a shootout Dec. 30.

2. New entry at the top of the charts

The top of the NHL scoring race features a number of familiar names, from the Pittsburgh Penguins' Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to the Anaheim Ducks' Ryan Getzlaf and the Blackhawks' Patrick Kane.

But with more points than all of them is Philadelphia Flyers forward Jakub Voracek.

In his first five NHL seasons Voracek cracked 50 points once; last season he set a career high with 62. But this season he has 50 points in 42 games, putting him on pace for 97. Voracek could become the first player in Flyers history to win the Art Ross Trophy (in 1994-95 the Flyers' Eric Lindros tied Jaromir Jagr for the League scoring lead, but Jagr had more goals for the tiebreaker).

Voracek told it's luck he has more points than anyone else. Playing on a line with Claude Giroux certainly helps; so does reaching full maturity at age 25 and with seven seasons of experience.

"There's not many players like him in the League that are as fast, as powerful, protect the puck and have the vision that he does," said goalie Steve Mason, a teammate with the Columbus Blue Jackets and Flyers. "The talent and ability was always there; he's just realizing it now. He's going to get better too, which is a nice thing for us and a scary thing for the rest of the League."

Voracek entered the season 10 pounds lighter, which he said has helped him produce late in games.

"I always felt good at the end of games, I never had a real problem, but it's true that I feel better and more explosive at the end of games," he said.

If Voracek can feel as good in April as he feels now, he could have some extra hardware for his trophy case.

3. Central-leading Predators

After years of being known as a defense-first team under coach Barry Trotz, the Nashville Predators shifted gears in hope of finding more offense. In the offseason general manager David Poile traded for forward James Neal, signed free agents Olli Jokinen and Mike Ribeiro, and hired offensive-minded coach Peter Laviolette.

The moves have worked. The Predators are averaging 2.95 goals per game, up from the 2.61 they averaged last season. They're on pace for 242 goals, which would be the third-most Nashville has scored, behind the 272 they scored in 2006-07 and 259 in 2005-06.

There's a new brand of hockey in Nashville, and new coach Peter Laviolette is responsible. The high-scoring Predators are leading the Western Conference. (Photo: John Russell/NHLI)

Rookie Filip Forsberg leads the Predators in goals (14) and points (38), and Ribeiro has had a huge bounce-back season with 36 points in 41 games.

But the defensive roots put in place by Trotz remain strong. The Predators have allowed 2.20 goals per game, and their 1.51 5-on-5 goals-for/goals-against ratio is the best in the League. Goaltender Pekka Rinne, finally healthy after missing most of last season with hip issues, leads the League with 28 wins and is in the top five in goals-against average (1.98) and save percentage (.930).

"When you look at our team you see Pekka in net and him coming back and kind of being on a mission from having a tough year last year with injuries," Neal told FOX Sports. "When you look at our defense starting with Shea [Weber] and you go right down the list, all those guys have been playing great. And we've added more of an offensive mentality with guys up front and [Laviolette] coming in as the new coach."

Just getting Rinne healthy likely would have improved the Predators this season. But in the ultra-tough Western Conference, Nashville has moved to the front of the pack.

4. Florida and Winnipeg on the rise

Last season the Florida Panthers missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 12th time in the past 13 seasons. The Winnipeg Jets were playoff bystanders for the third time since moving to Manitoba, extending the franchise's streak to seven seasons out of the playoffs dating to its time as the Atlanta Thrashers.

This season each team has a chance to play into late April. The Jets occupy the first wild-card spot in the Western Conference, and the Panthers have been in and out of a playoff spot most of the season.

In Paul Maurice's first full season as coach, the Jets are allowing about half a goal per game less than last season, 2.40 as opposed to 2.82. And that's come with three of their four top defensemen missing significant time because of injuries.

Offensively, Winnipeg has scored by committee; seven players have at least 20 points, led by captain Andrew Ladd's 34 (15 goals).

The Panthers have climbed the standings in part because of strong play in close games. Of Florida's 39 games, 26 have been decided by one goal, and the Panthers are 14-3-9 in those games.

Having a full season of Roberto Luongo in goal also has helped; the Panthers are allowing 2.51 goals per game this season after allowing 3.20 last season. And a young core has started to gel, led by third-year center Nick Bjugstad, who leads the Panthers with 15 goals and 24 points, and rookie defenseman Aaron Ekblad, who has 23 points.

5. Johnson emerging as Lightning leader

On a team with Steven Stamkos, it's pretty surprising to see an undersized, undrafted forward lead the Tampa Bay Lightning in scoring. But Tyler Johnson, who has played one fewer game than Stamkos, is tied for fifth in the League with 45 points, five more than Stamkos.

"I think [Johnson's] got unbelievable skill and determination and he's a pretty smart player," Stamkos said.

Johnson's improbable journey to the NHL started when he was cut from a United States Hockey League team at age 17 in 2007. He joined the Spokane Chiefs of the Western Hockey League and helped them win the 2008 Memorial Cup; the next two seasons he had 132 points in 126 games with Spokane and played for the United States at two World Junior Championships, but all it got him was a tryout with the Minnesota Wild. In 2010-11 he led the WHL with 53 goals and was second with 115 points; that earned him a contract with the Lightning. After starring for two seasons in the American Hockey League, he became a full-time NHL player last season and now is blossoming into a star.

"I've kind of always been put down just because of my size (5-foot-10, 182 pounds)," Johnson said. "People didn't really think I could play. I never really thought that I was going to be drafted, and I didn't really care. I was having fun, I was playing hockey, I was doing everything I wanted to do. … I had to go a different route and it just kind of worked."

6. Zemgus Girgensons, Latvia's favorite son

Buffalo Sabres center Zemgus Girgensons has 20 points in 43 games this season. That ties him for 161st among NHL players, but he's No. 1 in the heart of NHL fans in Latvia.

Girgensons, who was born in Riga, Latvia, received a League-leading 1,574,896 votes in fan balloting for the 2015 Honda NHL All-Star Game. He's the only player not from the Chicago Blackhawks to be named one of the first six players going to the All-Star Game.

According to the League, 79 percent of Girgensons' votes came from Latvia. That's more than 1.2 million votes from a country of 2 million people.

How big is Girgensons' fan base in Latvia? A Latvian rap group called Olas released a tribute video called "Zemgus Girgensons."

Girgensons has been playing in North America since 2009 but has played for Latvia at a number of international tournaments, including at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

"It's crazy there," Girgensons told of the All-Star Game attention. "It's been the main focus for them for a long time. I never really got into it, didn't look at it, but my family said they were going pretty crazy back home. … We just have crazy hockey fans."


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