As we inch towards the midseason mark, it’s time to look at some teams and players that could be primed to have a big second half.
Teams to Watch: - Washington Capitals
Compared to the last couple years, Bruce Boudreau’s Capitals are in unfamiliar territory. The Southeast Division was a laughing stock in both years that Washington won it, but now they have three-or-four legitimate playoff teams. Stars Alex Ovechkin and Mike Green have had their own struggles this year. With that said, we all know what this team is capable of; their 121 points last season were no fluke. They’ve also been playing better defensively, which will obviously bode well come playoff time.
- Chicago Blackhawks
Between the Cup hangover and the numerous new faces the ‘Hawks have had to welcome into the lineup, last year’s champs have been inconsistent this season. However, before the season I said this team would make a run in the second half after a rocky start. Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa have all missed time with injury, but all are healthy now. Watch for Chicago to surge during the stretch run. - Los Angeles Kings
We have seen flashes of brilliance from the Kings this year. The problem has been keeping up that consistency, especially on the road. Off-season acquisitions Willie Mitchell and Alex Ponikarovsky, who have proved their value when healthy, have been in and out of the lineup. They need those two to get back sooner rather than later. Led by Hart candidate Anze Kopitar and Vezina candidate Jonathan Quick, L.A. will be a dangerous foe as the season goes on. - Boston Bruins
Similarly to the Kings, we’ve seen at times what this Bruins team can potentially do. Thanks to Montreal’s recent hiccup, the B’s now lead the division, and I don’t think they’ll relinquish it anytime soon. The biggest bugaboo for Claude Julien’s bunch has been their performance at home; if they can fix that and Tim Thomas continues to dominate on the road, they’ll be one of the top seeds in the East. - Carolina Hurricanes
The schedule-makers did not receive a Christmas card from Paul Maurice over the holidays. The good news for the ‘Canes, though, is that they’ve kept their heads above water while traveling the world in the first half. Now with more home games than road for the rest of the way, a lurking Carolina club could make some noise here in the second half.
Players to Watch: Forwards: - Steven Stamkos
In each of his first two seasons in the league, Stamkos has been better in the second half. In his rookie campaign, he lit it up from February on and fully emerged in the World Championships. Last season, he scored 30 of his 51 goals in the second half. What’s on the horizon this time for Stamkos? - Alex Ovechkin
Washington’s captain is currently on pace for 28 goals and 84 points… that is very un-Ovechkin-like. Ovie has averaged nearly 54 goals and 106 points in his first five NHL seasons. Though he has struggled thus far, I think there’s a lot more to come for Ovechkin here in 2011. - Jordan Staal
Pittsburgh’s do-it-all pivot is back in the lineup, finally, after missing the first 39 games of the season. Staal had a solid outing in Saturday’s Winter Classic, and will only help a Pens penalty kill that ranks second in the NHL. Staal’s presence makes Pittsburgh the mid-season favorite to win the Cup in my opinion. - Ryan Kesler
Since the lockout, Kesler leads all NHLers in the greatest increase in points-per-game average during the second half. Kesler is already one of the hottest players in the league as we speak, racking up 21 points in 17 games since the start of December. - Joe Pavelski
Pavelski made a name for himself in last year’s playoffs, but has struggled to carryover that success into 2010/11. Will the ‘Big Pavelski’ – who has just one goal in the last 14 games – catch fire here in the second half? - David Legwand
Nashville has sustained countless injuries in the first few months, and Legwand was one of the sufferers. Now that he is healthy, and the Preds lineup is absent of top centers Cal O’Reilly and Matthew Lombardi, they need Legwand to step up and chip in offensively more than he is accustomed to.
Defensemen: - Duncan Keith
Like the Blackhawks in general, I think we’re all waiting for Keith to bust out. The reigning Norris winner was the most consistent and best two-way defenseman in the league in 2009/10. A considerable drop-off in points and plus/minus hasn’t helped prove that again this season. Can Keith and the Blackhawks get back on track? - Dustin Byfuglien
With 41 points in 43 games, I’d say Byfuglien’s transition to defense has worked out just fine, wouldn’t you? With that said, I’m sure there are still some doubters out there who feel Byfuglien’s production is a bit of a fluke. ‘Big Buff’ will have to continue to prove those doubters wrong if he wishes to become possibly the most unlikely Norris winner in league history. - Brian Rafalski
The veteran blueliner has 26 points in 29 games, but has yet to register a goal this season. Rafalski has 10 assists in his last 11 games, meaning the production is still coming in consistently. Look for a healthy Rafalski to make more of an impact on the Wings’ back end in the second half. - Kevin Bieksa
Ever since the start of last summer, Bieksa has been the subject of trade rumors. The UFA-to-be was cold throughout the first half, up until recently. Bieksa has been a key contributor from the blueline during Vancouver’s hot stretch, with nine points and a +14 rating in the last 10 games. Will the Canucks decide to hold onto him? - James Wisniewski
The newest Canadien has made a nice first-impression; Wisniewski has five points in his first three games donning the bleu, blanc et rouge. With Andrei Markov out for the season and P.K. Subban having consistency issues, Jacques Martin needs ‘Wiz’ to continue to contribute from the back end.
Goaltenders: - Carey Price
At this current pace, Price will start 74 games for the Canadiens this season. While they may not have any choice given who their backup is, Martin has to consider giving Price more rest in the second half. However, if the team keeps struggling, will they even be able to afford to start Alex Auld more often? It’s a dicey quandary for the Habs. - Tomas Vokoun
Unless the Panthers make a run for a playoff berth, I really believe Vokoun is a goner. You have to think Dale Tallon would try to continue to fill the cupboard with prospects by dangling Vokoun around the trade deadline. Amidst all of the trade talk, Vokoun has been stellar (as always) for Florida, sporting a .924 save percentage and five shutouts. - Ilya Bryzgalov
Like Vokoun, Bryzgalov is set to become a free agent this summer. The Vezina Trophy finalist from a year ago hasn’t quite been playing at the same level, which has affected the Coyotes’ position in the standings. I don’t expect the Desert Dogs to deal him one bit; but knowing he’s in a contract year, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bryzgalov to turn his game up a notch in the second half. - Semyon Varlamov
Has Varlamov emerged as the Capitals number one goaltender? While that question still remains unanswered, Varly has taken advantage of the opportunity given to him by Boudreau. In his last four starts, the Russian has a .969 save percentage while going 3-0-1 in those contests. Can Varly keep this up?
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