With the All-Star weekend in our rear-view mirror, it’s time to look ahead to the season’s final two-plus months. Which teams will get hot? Which players will put their teams on their back? Here are five to watch, for both sides, in the second half. Top 5 teams to watch By Ryan Porth
1. San Jose Sharks
Though Todd McLellan’s Sharks are leading the Pacific Division heading into the second half, they haven’t played consistent hockey over the last two months. The Sharks seem to lose momentum every time it feels like they are about to get on a roll. The special teams, an annual strength for Team Teal, have been hit and miss, while no one has stepped up offensively on a regular basis.
However, the Sharks have always been a second half team, especially since the lockout. Last season they went 27-6-4 in their final 37 games and won the division after a murky outlook in January. In 2007-08, the Sharks’ late-season tear included an 18-2-2 stretch to close out the regular season. The year before, they finished entered the playoffs by going 13-1-3.
Whether GM Doug Wilson makes a deal of some sort or not notwithstanding, look for the Sharks to once again catch fire down the stretch and challenge for the Western Conference’s top seed.
2. Washington Capitals
The Capitals, who were such a disappointment that they made a coaching change in November, haven’t really seen the expected success under Dale Hunter. When Bruce Boudreau was fired, the team was 12-9-1 and reeling. Under the Hunter they are 14-10-2 and have been a classic example of Jekyll and Hyde. Important players are in and out of the lineup, while Alex Ovechkin is on pace for his worst offensive season.
After all of that, there’s nowhere to go but up for the Capitals… right? Well we don’t know because we don’t know which Capitals team is going to show up from a night-to-night basis. They have more games on the road than at home (18 to 16 ratio), and the team has been terrible away from the Verizon Center.
Will the Caps eventually pull away from Florida? Will GM George McPhee make any moves before the deadline? How long can they survive without Nicklas Backstrom? That’s a sample size of the many unanswered questions in Washington’s second half, which will make them an intriguing club to track in the final two months.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
Like San Jose, the Flyers have yet to really hit their stride. If you take out their seven-game win streak in early December, Peter Laviolette’s gang has struggled with consistency. On top of the team play, captain and defensive catalyst Chris Pronger is done for the season, while prized off-season addition Ilya Bryzgalov has been a disappointment. Yet, they are still three points removed from the Atlantic Division lead.
There is still time for the Flyers to take off. With Pronger on the shelf for the long-term future, GM Paul Holmgren will surely look to upgrade the defense. If Bryzgalov shakes off his humongous woes, it will only help the Flyers’ chances of eclipsing the Rangers in the end. (As a Phoenix Coyote in the last two years, most of Bryzgalov’s better play was saved for the second half.) And keep in mind, 20 of the Flyers’ final 34 games will be played at home.
4. Nashville Predators
For an array of reasons, the Predators are also going to be an intriguing team to watch from here on out. Barry Trotz’s club, who a month ago was squarely on the playoff bubble, entered the All-Star break as the NHL’s hottest team by going 12-2-0 in their previous 14 games (thanks to the red-hot Pekka Rinne). After a difficult February where they face one playoff contender after another, we’ll know more about the Predators’ ability to hang with the rest of the Central Division.
At that time we’ll also know a lot more about what Ryan Suter’s future has in store. As of now, the All-Star defenseman is off the market. It is an important time for this franchise and GM David Poile, who is on the hot seat to push the right buttons before the February 27th trade deadline. Will the Preds acquire a scorer and hang onto Suter? If they survive February, could they actually hang their first ever division title banner?
5. Anaheim Ducks
There’s no doubt the Ducks were the first half’s biggest disappointment. There were many reasons for Randy Carlyle’s exit behind the bench, but the Ducks are finally starting to get into a groove with Boudreau now at the helm. Their best players are playing like their best players, as the team is 8-1-1 in the last 10 games.
The chances of Anaheim making the playoffs are, at best, moot. With the goal of reaching 95 points, the Ducks would have to go 24-4-4 in their final 32 games (on top of their recent hot stretch, which would equate to 32-5-5). I’m sorry, but that’s not happening. However, they can gain some solace by turning into last year’s New Jersey Devils, who turned into the league’s top spoiler in the final three months.
If they continue to track in the right direction, GM Bob Murray would be crazy to trade one of the big three.
Top 5 players to watch By Alexander Monaghan
1. Henrik Lundqvist, Rangers
Lundqvist continues to enjoy his best NHL season and is expected to compete for the Vezina Trophy. His save percentage and goals-against average are both much better than his career averages, and career bests for that matter, which means he either will have a monumental season or fall back down the earth.
The Rangers remain in first place for the longest stretch since his rookie season, making his current position of power a new experience for the Swedish starting goalie. All eyes will be on King Henrik this season as he looks to firmly establish himself as the best goalie in all of hockey. He is certainly rested and primed to continue this storybook season.
2. Evgeni Malkin, Penguins
It’s no secret how good Evgeni Malkin can be. With his captain Sidney Crosby out of the lineup, Malkin is widely considered the best player in hockey. Thus far, ‘Geno has done nothing to suggest otherwise as he leads the NHL in scoring through the All-Star break. Furthermore, the Penguins have won seven consecutive games with Malkin posting points in six of those games.
Due to their recent tear the Pens resurrected their chances for home-ice advantage, as they now sit only six points back of the Rangers for the conference lead. Right now, Malkin is the clear-cut best player in hockey and should remain in the spotlight over the upcoming months.
3. Tim Thomas, Bruins
Thomas made waves with his recent political stance and likely continues to hear about the controversial decision. Despite making the All-Star team due to his stellar play his off-ice decisions could cause a rift between his teammates and his fan base. Last season, at age 37, Thomas posted one of the best seasons in the history of the game. This season, the Flint, Mich., native continues to play at an elite level. However, will he be effective through the trade rumors, age concerns and gossip that will probably surround him for the rest of his tenure in Beantown?
4. Jonathan Toews, Blackhawks
Currently listed as day-to-day with an upper-body injury, Toews enters the stretch drive as a question mark. The team’s unquestioned leader is one of the most dangerous players on the ice with 27 goals while playing stellar two-way play. And while there is no question that an offensive core with Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa can hold their own, Toews’ staying in the lineup could be the difference between the Blackhawks winning the Central Division and limping into the postseason as the sixth seed.
As we've argued before, the Central is perhaps the hardest division to play in, which makes Toews’ health a must-watch scenario.
5. David Backes, Blues
Every season a new star is born. This season, that star looks like David Backes. He’s tough, gritty, skilled and really looks like a great leader on the ice. The American-born center leads the Blues in nearly every offensive category, from time on ice to goals, PIM, shots, etc. More importantly, he’s the type of player that Ken Hitchcock can run out in literally all situations – whether it is a defensive-zone draw in the final seconds of the game or the top PP unit when they need a goal.
The Blues’ success has hinged on smart hockey and solid defense, but it clearly would not come together as easily if it weren’t for the big man down the middle. Expect Backes to step up even more down the stretch as the team expects to make the playoffs for the first time in three years.
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.