TORONTO — The NHL is halfway home.
When the buzzer sounded on Tampa’s 2-1 win over Ottawa on Saturday night — Game No. 615 of 1,230 on the regular-season schedule — the league officially moved into the second half.
From the collapse of the New Jersey Devils to the rise of the Dallas Stars, there has been no shortage of surprises since the puck was dropped back in early October.
With that in mind, here’s a look ahead at a few things worth tracking before the regular season wraps up on April 10:
It’s setting up as a season unlike any other for the Vancouver Canucks. They are on pace for a franchise-best 120 points and sit atop the NHL standings at the midway point. Expect to see more of backup goalie Cory Schneider (who boasts an impressive 8-0-2 record) in the second half as coach Alain Vigneault tries to keep Roberto Luongo fresh for the playoffs. The Canucks appear likely to battle the Detroit Red Wings for the Presidents’ Trophy — which no Canadian team has won since the Ottawa Senators in 2002-03.
Sid and Steven’s Scoring
The NHL’s goal-scoring race went down to the final game of last season and didn’t finish with a winner — Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Tampa’s Steven Stamkos ended up tied with 51 goals apiece. They’re back at it again this year with Crosby currently leading Stamkos 33-32. That puts both players on pace to eclipse 60 goals, although Crosby is currently sidelined with a concussion. The Penguins captain is off to the best start of his six-year career and was on pace to surpass 120 points for the first time prior to getting injured.
The Western Conference standings are going to have many different looks over the next few months. A meagre 10 points separates third-place Dallas and 13th-place Columbus, putting virtually every team in the conference in a playoff push. The standings are so tight that the Los Angeles Kings dropped from fourth to 11th with one loss earlier in the week. If the playoffs started today, three Western teams would be in after missing out a year ago (Dallas, Anaheim and Minnesota) and the two that faced each other in the conference final (Chicago and San Jose) would be out.
Can the goaltending duo of Brian Boucher and Sergei Bobrovski keep the Philadelphia Flyers at the top of the conference? Will Stamkos and the Lightning make a push for the Southeast Division crown? Is Pittsburgh going to get itself back into championship form? Are the high-flying Capitals going to continue embracing a more defensive style? Is Atlanta for real?
No team has had more trouble this season than the New Jersey Devils. Back in October, they would never have been considered a candidate for the top draft choice in 2011, but now that it’s a possibility will they continue to stink? The Toronto Maple Leafs will be desperately trying to improve their position. They sit 27th overall and will be looking to climb at least as high as 25th to keep Boston out of the lottery for that No. 1 selection — the Bruins received Toronto’s first-round pick in the Phil Kessel trade. And how will things play out in Calgary? Interim GM Jay Feaster should be anxious to start putting his stamp on a team that appears to be heading nowhere fast.
Deadline Drama or Dud Deadline?
The deadline for making trades passes at 1 p.m. on Feb. 28. In recent years, deadline day has become a major event with lots of movement and all kinds of buzz. Will that trend continue? A number of teams currently have their hands tied by finances (whether it be the salary cap or internal budgets) and there aren’t many big-name players that appear to be candidates for a move. It was once thought the Dallas Stars might have to deal pending free agent Brad Richards, but they’ve exceeded expectations so far and will likely hold on to him.
Five games that will hold some appeal in the second half:
• Jan. 23 — Philadelphia at Chicago: A rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup final kicks off NBC’s game of the week coverage. The teams have gone in different directions this season — Philly is near the top of the Eastern Conference while the Blackhawks are battling for a playoff spot in the West.
• Feb. 6 — Pittsburgh at Washington: The Penguins and Capitals renew acquaintances for the first time since the Winter Classic. It will be a matinee game at Verizon Centre and an excellent prelude to the NFL’s Super Bowl.
• Feb. 20 — Montreal at Calgary (at McMahon Stadium): The NHL goes outdoors in Canada for the first time since a bitterly cold evening at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in 2003. Calgary is known for its fickle weather patterns, so meteorologists will receive as much attention as the Habs and Flames ahead of this one.
• March 10 — Montreal at St. Louis: The Canadiens face Jaroslav Halak for the first time since the popular goaltender was traded away in the summer.
• April 10 — Dallas at Minnesota: Of the five games taking place on the final day of the regular season, this one appears to be the most likely to have an impact on the playoffs. It will also be the last game played before the post-season begins on April 13.