Monday, January 30, 2012

Oh. Hey. We've Got a Second Half to Play.

I'm going to be brutally honest in admitting that with the Giants playing in this football game you might have heard about this coming Sunday, I'm a little preoccupied with my own emotional anxiety this week. Really. But I was still able to look past the looming specter of next Sunday, not just to take the rockin' good time that was the NFL's annual touch football beauty pageant last night, but to notice that earlier in the day we had this thing called the NHL All-Star Game.

There was, granted, very little defense in a game that more or less devolved into superstars trying to set each other up for crazy two-on-ones without applying any actual hockey strategy. After all, we wouldn't want to risk committing penalties on a weekend when the players almost certainly had no practice running a penalty kill with each other. Despite the fact that really only half the game was played, we did get to see some pretty cool goals and some sweet celebrations to boot. And let's not forget Claude Giroux's attempts to knock down his Flyers teammate Scott Hartnell because he promised to donate $1,000 every time he fell to the ice.

But now that Hartnell's donated $4,000 to charity, it's time to focus on some more pressing matters, namely the second half of the NHL season, which will get underway Tuesday night when 26 teams take the ice. As per the NHL's usual situation, the playoff races in both the East and West are looking particularly tight at the moment. Of the 30 teams in the League only eight are more than five points out from a postseason spot, which means we'll have 22 teams fighting for 16 spots as the calendar starts to approach April. However, if we're going to be more specific about this than simply who might be headed for early spring tee times with old Jewish authors (Goodbye, Columbus! Get it?!), you're going to need a list of what the big stories are as we head down the stretch of the 2011-12 regular season.

Here's your primer. Or at least the best one I can muster.

Pittsburgh's Sid-uation
Most of the hockey world has kept its eyes on Pittsburgh this season not for who is there, but for who notably isn't. When he's healthy Sidney Crosby is according to most accounts -- including mine -- the best player on the planet. Ever since he suffered a concussion more than a year ago however, he has spent far more time rehabilitating and seeing chiropractors than he has playing hockey. Crosby had a much publicized -- and enormously successful -- return earlier this season when he scored two goals in his first game in more than 10 months and wound up tallying 10 points in 8 games. However, the headaches returned and he's been off the ice ever since, leading to much speculation which was complicated this weekend by two startling revelations, the first being that Crosby was determined to also have suffered an injury to his neck in addition to a concussion, and that Sid is apparently good friends with Tom Brady. Because of an otherworldly season by Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins have managed to stay afloat despite injuries to numerous players in addition to Crosby, most notably Kris Letang (who has since returned) and Jordan Staal, but there is no doubt that Crosby brings Pittsburgh to a different level. While the Pens expect him to return for the playoffs, questions will linger until he returns to the ice and in the worst way possible, the NHL could feasibly have found its own Peyton Manning.

Stanley on Broadway?
The New York Rangers are clearly one of the glamor franchises of the NHL, not simply as an Original Six team, but also because they happen to play in the biggest media market in the world. Of course, the Blueshirts would also love to obscure the fact that they've won just one Stanley Cup in the past 72 years (and more than a third of those years were spent in a League with just six teams), and with 1994 nearly two decades in the rearview mirror, New Yorkers are likely to get itchy. After all, not too long ago the Rangers endured a seven-season stretch without a playoff appearance while the rival Devils were winning championships. Now, however, the tide has turned. The Rangers have made the playoffs five of the past six seasons, but this year they've exploded into one of the League's elite. With Henrik Lundqvist having arguably the best season of a fine career in net, Marian Gaborik producing and staying healthy, Brad Richards having an impact after coming over as a free agent and younger players like Brandon Dubinsky and Dan Girardi maturing into top level players, New York has the best points percentage in the NHL and has a real shot at bringing Stanley back to the Big Apple for the first time since Mark Messier was making guarantees.

The Central Jumble
There are plenty of Divisions loaded with talent in the League. The Atlantic has three teams with legitimate Cup aspirations, the Northeast features the defending champs and the Pacific should be sending at least two -- and likely three teams -- to the playoffs. But there is nothing like the Central, where Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and Nashville are separated by a grand total of three points. Oh, and no one in the Western Conference has more points than any of them. Each of these teams has its own positives going for it, Chicago with its stellar offense, Detroit with its absurd 20 wins in 23 games at The Joe this season, St. Louis with its remarkable response to early-season coaching replacement Ken Hitchcock and the Predators in Music City, who just may be the most complete team of the lot. It's likely these four will shuffle and re-shuffle a few more times before the regular season ends on April 7, but the guess here is we'll still be hearing from all of them well after that.

Will the League get 'Peggers?
A year ago the Atlanta Thrashers were continuing to spiral out of playoff contention and in a matter of months would suddenly spiral their way out of Atlanta, too. Everyone knew there were some serviceable players on the roster, but by the time the re-christened Jets landed in Winnipeg expectations were not for a postseason berth, just a sold out crowd at the MTS Centre and an uptick in merchandise sales. But as a recent piece in Sports Illustrated details, Winnipeg, a city with little more going for it than its reputation as an ice cube, is going wild for its Jets and those Jets could be flying into the playoffs. The franchise made just one postseason appearance in 10 seasons in Atlanta, but in its first season in Manitoba, the team is five points outside of the East's top eight and has been on the inside multiple times over the first 50 games of the season. It would be quite the Canadian hockey coup if Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd were skating in the postseason in the Jets' first season back in the NHL.

Can the Leafs stop falling?
Toronto was another one of the NHL's big early season success stories. Phil Kessel has had an MVP-caliber season and his on-ice chemistry with Joffrey Lupul has been another bright sign for the Maple Leafs. As the owners of the League's longest Stanley Cup drought (45 years and counting) as well as one of its longest playoff droughts (six seasons and no appearances since the lockout), the demanding fans in Toronto are long past itchy. They're covered in scabs now. In no uncertain terms, having a strong team in Toronto is good for the NHL -- and GM Brian Burke has the team headed in the right direction. The Maple Leafs have spent most of this season in the East's top eight, though they're tied with New Jersey for the final spot right now, and many eyes will be looking to see if Toronto can finally make its return to spring.

Will the Ducks make a rally?
A season ago, the Devils started attracting attention when they made a 27-point postseason deficit almost disappear. In the end New Jersey fell short, but Anaheim is trying its best imitation anyway. The road is still long for the Ducks, who remain a daunting 12 points out of the final spot in the West, but after one of the wildest coaching changes in NHL history in December, Anaheim -- a team loaded with offensive talent and a top tier goalie -- is buying into coach Bruce Boudreau's system. Suddenly the Ducks are getting hot, going 8-1-1 in their last ten games. Reaching the postseason is unlikely given the odds, but this is a team that will definitely make it interesting, and it'll probably spoil party invitations for some other teams along the way.

A Mirage in Sunrise
I've always found it something of a peculiar sports oddity that two different expansion teams in American sports came into existence in the early 1990s while taking on the name "Panthers". The NFL's variety quietly announced a subtle change to its logo this weekend, and they just might be hoping they'll experience the same turnaround the NHL's Panthers did when it introduced a new Jersey this season. That came along with a pretty significant roster turnover, bringing players like Brian Campbell, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky and John Madden in -- and championship experience along with them. The result was a stunning first half that had Florida on top of a division that included a regular contender (Washington) and a team that was one win from the Stanley Cup Final last season (Tampa Bay). That success has started to slide, however, as the Panthers, who hold the League's longest playoff drought, have come back to the pack and now are tied not only with Washington for first place, but also with New Jersey and Toronto at the bottom of the East's playoff pack. The rest of the season will be delicate for a franchise that is aggressively rebuilding, and the Panthers will be facing tremendous pressure to determine if they're the hunter or the prey.

What the hell is happening in the Northeast?
The Northeast Division has one team that's easy to figure out -- Boston as the defending champion has played like its headed for title No. 2. The rest of the division is full of questions, however. Toronto's tenuous season is only one noteworthy storyline. Elsewhere Montreal has dealt with some of the stiffest turmoil the team has seen in years, enduring a coaching change and struggling to put together any momentum whatsoever this season. The Habs have managed to climb within eight points of the postseason, but the team has shown no sign that it's capable of putting together a sustained run. The off-ice drama -- Michael Cammalleri's bizarre trade and the ludicrous fan uproar over interim coach Randy Cunneyworth's inability to speak French -- have been nearly as compelling as the on-ice struggles. Add to that the unanticipated struggles in Buffalo, where the Sabres made multiple big offseason acquisitions -- Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff -- and things get more confusing. Some saw a solid postseason showing last year and the added dollars of new coach Terry Pegula as the combination that could make the Sabres Cup contenders, but instead they're tied with bottomfeeders Carolina and the New York Islanders in the East cellar. And what else has been unexpected up here? Ottawa was expected to have a rebuilding year in 2011-12, but suddenly the Sens are thriving and not just in the East's top eight, but five solid points clear of the postseason drop zone. Beyond the success of Boston, the Northeast has been a division without rhyme or reason. It will be interesting to see just who is standing come April.

Are we headed for a Cup Final rematch?
Of all the teams I've talked about so far here, the one I've been conspicuously silent on is one that so thoroughly dominated the League a season ago, there should have been no worries about its future. At the quarterpole Vancouver wasn't living up to the expectations of a year ago, but that no longer seems to be a concern. The Canucks are back on top of the Northwest and have consistently been one of the clear Cup frontrunners over the last two months. Add into that the noted success of Boston and the signs are obvious. The Stanley Cup playoffs are a marathon and going the distance two seasons in a row can be difficult due to sheer mental exhaustion if nothing else, but there is a very real chance we're headed for a repeat of Boston and Vancouver in 2012. Oh, and they don't like each other, if you hadn't heard.

Ok, are you all with me? Clearly, there are several questions in the air as the NHL gears up for the postseason. The lucky thing for all of us is that we just get to sit here and watch while the questions get answered -- and they will be soon enough. The only thing we can do is wait.

Of course, some of you are impatient and probably want some sort of prediction, and while that is utterly pointless I'll throw you a bone and say the 2012 Stanley Cup Final will be played by..... oh hell, Boston and Chicago, why not?

I don't particularly care if I'm right, but feel free to mock me for it when I'm wrong. As long as you're paying attention, that's all I'll care about. After soaking all of this in, you ought to be ready.

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