by Chris Carosi
With a shortened season due to the lockout, the NHL has already arrived at its mid-season. The good news is that this quickened season has meant fantastic hockey and close races (especially in the Northeast, but we’ll get to that later) because every game really matters. It also means a very, very interesting trade deadline date looming in April, which might provide some teams with the added juice to get to the Cup.
Calgary forward Jarome Iginla is just one of many high-profile players in demand at the deadline this year.
Fewer games means that each point is more important and the teams vying for those last few spots are battling like never before. Seriously it’s great. Makes the NBA look like a kitten fight. Let’s take a look at the each of the six divisions, who will win and who is the dark horse in the Stanley Cup playoff race.
Current leader: Pittsburgh Penguins (18-8-0, 36 points)
Who will win the division: Pittsburgh
The dark horse: New York Islanders
Even though Pittsburgh has been solid for years now, they’ve only won the Atlantic once since Sidney Crosby was drafted in 2005. They are heavy favorites because they are just a beast on offense with no sign of stopping. They look to lead the league in goals for the second straight year. In fact, in their last 5 games, they’ve allowed 18 goals. They are 5-0 in those games. But if they want to get back to the Finals, the defense has to be solved. Age and a significant failure to keep opponents out of the crease has led to too many goals allowed. Their goaltenders haven’t been able to save games in that span either.
The Islanders have the young talent and speed to score a lot of goals too. Their weakness has also been on defense, where they allow well over 3 and a quarter goals per game. They have plenty of young leadership with John Tavares and Kyle Okposo among others, so they’ll end up leaning on those skaters to keep scoring. The shortened season favors them to climb the standings over the old and injured New Jersey Devils and the nose-diving Flyers. They play better on the road, which is typical of a young squad, and would help them in the playoffs. Now if they can just get rid of that atrocious alternate black jersey. Side note: they’re playing in Brooklyn starting next year. Hova!
“Nice work, boys. Oh no, look at us in the jumbo-tron. Jesus.”
Current leader: Montreal Canadiens (17-5-4, 38 points)
Who will win the division: Boston Bruins
The dark horse: Toronto Maple Leafs
The Northeast is very, very competitive this year, which came as a surprise. They could easily qualify four out of the five teams into the playoffs if things stay as they are right now and right now things are cray-cray. With the exception of Buffalo, who are just awful before and after firing longtime Coach Lindy Ruff, the rest of the Northeast continues to play exciting hockey.
“I know I look like an inflated Rutger Hauer. Doesn’t win hockey games.”
Bruins/Canadiens battling it out for the division title is good for the game, but I think the Bruins’ superior defense and experience will give them the edge by the end of the year. They’re just a little better than the Habs, and that’s saying a lot. Michel Therrien has turned the Habs into a balanced, tough, and tenacious group overnight, and they will certainly make life miserable for whomever they face in the playoffs. Boston has only lost 3 games in regulation so far this year, and they are as solid as they’ve ever been.
Toronto are the new kids on the block, and after so many years of re-building, seem to be clicking as a group. They have a great group of fast forwards with the likes of Mikhail Grabovski, Phil Kessel, Joffrey Lupul, and Nazem Kadri. Goaltending has been okay, and will have to be better to advance in the playoffs. If they can steal some games on the road in the first round, they might get lucky and draw a team with a weak defense like Pittsburgh in the second round. You never know.
Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf and his strange combo of mean face + dweeb hair.
Current leader: Carolina Hurricanes (14-9-1, 29 points)
Who will win the division: Carolina Hurricanes
The dark horse: Winnipeg Jets
The Southeast is as flimsy as its ever been in this abbreviated year, with the strong possibility of only qualifying one team into the playoffs, their division winner. Carolina is not a very good team, especially when compared to their peers in the Eastern Conference, but their history is based on either raising or lowering expectations in an extreme way, and then performing in a manner opposite those expectations. This year, they brought in Alex Semin and Jordan Staal to bolster their offense and power play unit, which dwindles at the bottom of the league. The Canes are leaning on their goaltender, Cam Ward, more than ever.
Winnipeg has put together a nice little spurt these last few weeks, winning 8 of their last 11 games. The Jets have had great production from their top forwards like Andrew Ladd, Blake Wheeler, and especially Evander Kane, who has emerged as a quality scorer. Besides that, there isn’t much to look at. But the Jets have the advantage in their last year in this weak division. If they can beat up on teams like Tampa Bay, Washington, and Florida, they could steal their way up the standings and get a playoff spot.
In keeping with our theme: I present Evander Kane’s hair. It stands for, “Young Money Cash Money Billionaires”. Not joking.
Current leader: Chicago Blackhawks (21-2-3, 45 points)
Who will win the division: Chicago
The dark horse: St. Louis Blues
This year is all about Chicago’s ridiculous run of 25 games without losing in regulation. That’s an insane accomplishment, and even rarer when you think about how much more defensive the game has become since the old days. While the Blackhawks have the number one seed locked up yesterday, the rest of the division is kind of the same story as its been for a while. The Red Wings are solid as ever and the Blues, in spite of themselves, are an explosive team on paper.
Why does Patrick Kane look like this when he skates? He is drunk all the time.
The Blues need to get their shit together. Their defense has been very poor this year. This is especially frustrating given their awesome one-two punch of goaltending in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott. Both have been injured and/or awful. The good news is that they have a lot of variety at forward with eleven players in double-digit points. Injuries have not been kind to the Blues either with key man games missed in goal and forward, including rookie Vladimir Tarasenko. The future is always bright in St. Louis. They need to make believers out of themselves.
Current leader: Minnesota Wild (13-9-2, 28 points)
Who will win the division: Vancouver Canucks
The dark horse: Colorado Avalanche
A very strange lackluster year so far for teams in the Northwest, as Vancouver has proven to be mortal and everyone else either too crappy or just too wet behind the ears. Although experience down the stretch will give the Canucks the edge, a team like Minnesota, all bound up with energy from their new leadership in Ryan Suter and Zach Parise, as well as rabid fans can get them what they very well deserve: their first playoff round win since 2003. The pressure is on.
There’s an outside chance that a team like Colorado could sneak in as they get healthier but yeah, I don’t know. The Northwest is a wasteland of hope and Roberto Luongo. It’s hard to imagine any other team but Vancouver doing anything extraordinary in the playoffs, but there’s a lot of hockey left. Colorado (the snappers of the Blackhawks aforementioned streak) has some jump very recently. We’ll see if they flake out.
There is no reason for why I dislike Roberto Luongo. It’s just fun I guess.
Current leader: Anaheim Ducks (18-3-3, 39 points)
Who will win the division: Anaheim
The dark horse: San Jose Sharks
The other great team in the Western Conference are the Ducks, who have been destroying teams all year long. They have the league’s best power play unit (popping at over 25%), one of the most prolific scoring offenses, and a quality young goaltender in Viktor Fasth. They are vulnerable killing penalties, where they are at the bottom of the league, but these Ducks know how to win in their division and are really the sexy pick to advance far into the playoffs given the hype now surrounding Chicago.
Thing you know but always forget: Teemu Selanne is 42 and faster than you will ever be.
Don’t know much about the Sharks, which is weird because I live in the Bay Area and actually saw them skate at the HP Pavillion once. Anyway, here’s a picture of the Cow Palace where they used to play in the 90’s. Here’s to another awesome battle to the end!
Dude. Best hockey venue of all time.