The All-Star Break is considered the unofficial ‘halfway’ point of the NHL. Yes, every team has played more than half of their games, but this point in the season really represents a turning point. When things resume on Monday, teams near the bottom of the standings will be more focused on selling off assets before the trade deadline while teams that are in the hunt for a playoff spot are entering the most important stretch of the season.
It’s a good time to look forward but also a good time to reflect on everything that has happened in the last four months around the NHL.
There really isn’t any debating the fact that the Columbus Blue Jackets are the biggest surprise in the NHL. About 11 months ago, Jarmo Kekalainen loaded up and unloaded significant future assets to acquire the likes of Ryan Dzingel and Matt Duchene at the trade deadline. The team then upset the Tampa Bay Lightning before losing out in the second round to the Boston Bruins.
In the summer, they lost both Duchene and Dzingel, along with Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin to free agency. To most, it looked like they had been gutted. Some projections had them not even cracking 60 points this season.
Well, that’s not even close to how things have played out. The Jackets currently hold the top wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference and have an incredible record of 16-2-2 in their last 20 games.
They haven’t had an easy road either. Right now, they’re missing five regulars from their lineup and even when injuries have piled up, they haven’t missed a beat.
Who does the credit go to? Well, John Tortorella deserves a lot, but so does Jarmo Kekalainen. This team is incredibly deep up front with five players already passing the ten-goal mark and their blueline is no joke either. How many NHL teams have a top-pairing as skilled at moving the puck as Seth Jones and Zach Werenskui are? Not too many.
They consistently outshoot their opponents and are seldom outworked. Also, they rank 15th in the NHL when it comes to PDO which shows that this is far from a fluke. If the goaltending holds, then the Jackets are serious playoff contenders.
TEAM TO WATCH RISE
It’s the Vegas Golden Knights and it has nothing to do with their recent coaching change. This team has fantastic underlying numbers but have just struggled through different problems all season.
Their division is very tight right now and honestly, may be filled with more pretenders than contenders so I could easily see Vegas winning the Pacific. Their top-six is wildly dangerous, they just need William Karlsson back in the lineup, and if Marc-Andre Fleury can return to form, they’ll be a tough team to beat.
The one concern is their blueline. They’ve allowed the sixth most high-danger corsi chances in the league. If they can knock that number down, Fluery will see his numbers go up and they’ll start to win more.
Also, keep an eye on the Panthers. Sergei Bobrovsky never starts the year strong and if he finds his elite form down the stretch, playoff hockey will return to Florida.
- Can Connor McDavid get back into the playoffs? The best thing for a sport is to have its best players on the biggest stages. Having Connor McDavid playing in the postseason would be a massive positive for the NHL. Can the Oilers find a way to stay afloat in a very tight Pacific? I bet the NHL is hoping so.
- How many does Ovechkin score? The guy is on pace for close to 60 goals and he has scored eight in his last three games. If he stays hot for the season, he could catch Pastrnak for the Rocket Richard Trophy and it will make the conversation about him catching Wayne Gretzky a lot more interesting.
- Is this the year of the Lightning? Every year the Lightning are Stanley Cup favourites throughout the regular season. This season has been much different but I wonder if this could be a good thing for them. They’ve finally had to fight through some adversity and they won’t have the pressure of being ‘the favourite’. I’ll be keeping a close eye on them through the end of the regular season.