The first half has come and gone. All-Star weekend is over. It’s time to gaze into the crystal ball and look at what will happen in the upcoming unofficial second half. Here are nine bold predictions for the rest of the season… - Florida and Toronto will end playoff droughts
Florida and Toronto are the only two teams to not participate in the Stanley Cup Playoffs since the lockout. Kevin Dineen’s Panthers have dropped off a bit since a fast start, but that hasn’t killed the optimism in Sunrise. The fact that they are tied for the Southeast Division lead on Jan. 31 should be enough motivation to turn the tides and hunt down the team’s first playoff berth since the Pavel Bure Era (2000).
Meanwhile, Toronto is in the midst of the playoff picture as the second half commences. The Maple Leafs are usually having to claw their way back into the hunt by late February or March – not this year. Led by Phil Kessel, Dion Phaneuf and Joffrey Lupul, this Leafs team is ready to give the fans their first taste of playoff hockey since 2004.
Put simply, the league’s two longest playoff droughts are due to come to an end. Who comes out of the East’s top eight is anyone’s guess.
- Dallas will claim final spot in West’s playoff picture
One team that should have some success down the stretch is the Dallas Stars. They got off to a great start, going 11-3-0 in their first 14 games, but sputtered leading up to the All-Star break due to key injuries (Jamie Benn, Kari Lehtonen, Mike Ribeiro and Sheldon Souray). Sitting in 10th place in the West with games in hand on everyone else in the race, the Stars are in a good position. They are getting healthy bodies back in the lineup, which will be good enough for Dallas to make the playoffs for first time since 2008.
- St. Louis will hit a wall in March
The way Ken Hitchcock turned the Blues’ season around in the blink of an eye is one of the NHL’s best stories of the season. Brian Elliott’s resurgence from unwanted to All-Star is an even better story. Elliott and Jaroslav Halak have combined to be one of the NHL’s top first-half goalie tandems, keeping the Blues in contention for the conference’s top seed.
Here’s the thing, though: Hitchcock’s club has already played 28 home games, which means they will play the majority of their games away from Scottrade Center in the final weeks. The Blues, who boast an 8-10-3 mark on the road, will be tested. In a stretch of 16 games between Feb. 23 and Mar. 25, the Blues will play 13 on the road. Not to mention, Elliott’s great play will eventually gravitate towards earth. At some point in March, St. Louis will hit a wall and lose first-round home-ice advantage.
- Philadelphia will catch fire, win division
Considering the struggles of their prize off-season addition, it’s surprising to see the Flyers just three points out of the Eastern Conference lead. The Flyers weren’t as consistent as they would have liked, but that’s about to change. If (and it’s a big ‘if’) Ilya Bryzgalov can set aside the antics and focus on hockey, he should be able to turn things around. GM Paul Holmgren is in position to upgrade the defense, too, so help is on the way. Will it be enough to surpass the well-rounded Blueshirts for the division title? Yes.
- Nashville will keep Ryan Suter, acquire impact forward
If the Predators are still in Central Division contention later this month – solid playoff contention, for that matter – GM David Poile can’t realistically trade Suter. The feeling in Nashville is that they will hold onto Suter beyond February 27th. The pressure is on Poile to make a splash to (a) convince Suter and Shea Weber to sign long-term and (b) prove that the team is serious about being a Cup contender.
The Preds will be active on the trade front. Carolina’s Tuomo Ruutu and Dallas’ Brenden Morrow have been involved in rumors recently and would be good fits in Nashville. If Poile wants to roll the dice, Columbus’ Jeff Carter, injury prone and under contract through 2022, is available. Whether Poile makes a big or small splash, he will improve the Predators’ lineup this month.
- Vancouver will win Presidents’ Trophy
Though posting a 21-6-3 record in their last 30 games, the Canucks haven’t been as dominant as they were in 2010-11 when they ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy. That said, there is time for the Canucks to find another gear. Their secondary parts are getting healthy, while the schedule sets up for a big run down the stretch. The Central Division quartet will beat each other up, enabling Vancouver to grab the top seed in the West and rest of the NHL.
- Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne will finish 1-2 in Vezina Trophy race
Tim Thomas, Jimmy Howard and Jonathan Quick have been great up to this point and deserve to be in the Vezina Trophy discussion. As far as goaltenders go, though, the second half is going to belong to Henrik Lundqvist and Pekka Rinne.
Lundqvist, boasting a 1.55 GAA since Dec. 11, is playing the best he’s ever played in his career. Rinne has been equally great for the Preds, winning 19 of his last 21 decisions, posting a 1.60 GAA and 12 wins in his last 13 starts. Both goaltenders have put their respective teams on their back, and they will continue to do so down the stretch. It will be hard for Rinne to leapfrog the aforementioned goalies, but he’ll finish second to Lundqvist in the Vezina voting this season.
- Boston will not repeat as champs
There is no doubt that the Boston Bruins are a contender to repeat as champion. From the start of November to mid-January, going 25-4-1, the Bruins were the league’s best and most dominant team. Did they peak too soon, though? Will the B’s lose some steam down the stretch? The Stanley Cup is the most difficult trophy to win, let alone doing so in back-to-back seasons. Claude Julien and company will find out just how hard it is here in the second half.
- Detroit will win 12th Stanley Cup
If Boston isn’t going to repeat, then we’ll have a different champion come June. That champion will be the Detroit Red Wings. No matter where they end up in the Western Conference standings, the Wings are a formidable foe. This season, Joe Louis Arena has been re-established as the NHL’s toughest place to play, as the Wings are currently on an 18-game win streak at home.
There are two factors that make me believe this could very well be Detroit’s year to claim their 12th Stanley Cup. On top of possessing a great roster, they have a lot of cap room for the deadline. Though the Wings have good balance and are ranked in the top five in offense, an upgrade at forward wouldn’t hurt. Secondly, if this is indeed Nicklas Lidstrom’s last season, what more perfect way to ride into sunset than raising Lord Stanley for a fifth time?
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.