NHL midseason review 2: Gearing up for a run at the Cup

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey provides his thoughts on the NHL season so far.

We’re now just 79 days away from the end of the regular season, with the 2016 playoffs commencing four days thereafter. Teams have established their identities, players have risen and fallen, and league-wide goal scoring is lower than Sarah Palin’s credibility.

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Eight teams from both the Eastern and Western Conferences will emerge in the early spring, hoping to keep playing until summer is on the horizon for the chance to raise Lord Stanley’s Cup. Seems like a good time for 16 observations from this end of the rink:

  • What true NHL fan wouldn’t want to see a Capitals-Stars final? Tremendous speed and scoring acumen on both sides, plus depth guys and goaltenders that can turn away the odd-man rushes that inevitably come protecting those type of offensive clubs. Were this to play out, give me the Capitals in six.
  • One of the league’s most valuable players who won’t get a sniff at the Hart Trophy is Cory Schneider. The Devils’ goaltender has been nothing short of magnificent carrying what by all accounts should be a moribund New Jersey squad into the playoff picture as currently constituted. Without a reliable backup—he leads the NHL in games (39) and minutes played (2,332)—Big Red has 20 wins, a 2.03 goals against average, a .927 save percentage and three shutouts, all while facing the fourth-most shots in the league. In a league of superstar talents between the pipes, Schneider belongs in that elite class.
  • If Jack Eichel can carry a bad Sabres team as a 19-year-old rookie, imagine what he’s going to be like in 2-3 years when he matures physically, is even more adept at the pro game and his team gets better. Give me 110 points and a Hart Trophy for Eich in the 2018-19 season.
  • While it personally pleases me to no end to see Montreal go from planning a parade route down rue Saint-Catherine to currently finding themselves out of the postseason party—insert an especially obnoxious Nelson Muntz “HA HA!” here—it has solidified the argument that goaltending is the crux of any successful team. Mike Condon’s story is a nice one and he’s a serviceable backstop, but those guys don’t guide teams through seven-game wars of attrition, much less get their names engraved in silver.
  • Were he to remain at his current torrid pace, Chicago’s Patrick Kane would finish with 119 points, more than 50 goals and in the neighborhood of plus-35 or -40. That would give him the Hart Trophy, making him the Blackhawks’ first league MVP since Stan Mikita in 1968 and only the second American to ever win the award. (You surely remember Hamilton Tigers sniper Billy Burch, he of the 20-7-27 line in 1925, don’t you?)
  • How, in all seriousness, does John Tortorella keep gaining NHL employment? Truly, it boggles the mind. Talk about throwing a cougar into a litter of puppies. His “fire up the boys!” style and brash personality went out of fashion around the time Mike Keenan was banished to coaching in Russia. He’s taken a fragile Columbus team and derailed them completely while dishing away its best offensive player in Ryan Johansen. (Further infuriating is that he’ll be behind the bench for Team USA in the 2018 Olympics. Like the braintrust who felt it was a good idea to put a bozo like Brian Burke in charge of the 2014 squad, I have little hopes of glory for the Americans in South Korea.)
  • What’s equally mystifying is how the Anaheim Ducks have scored a league-low 89 goals in 45 games. When you’ve got forwards like Perry, Getzlaf, Kesler and Silfverberg, etc., in the lineup each night and still can’t produce a full two scores per outing…I believe the young-uns would call that cra-cra.
  • The Rangers, yet again, are not going to win the Stanley Cup. How do we know this? Because despite having the NHL’s third-best home record, they’re abysmal on the road.
  • The league’s best player than the average fan doesn’t know: St. Louis defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk.
  • I could conceivably see Florida going from being one of the NHL’s hottest teams to out of the playoffs entirely. Still in first place atop the Atlantic Division at this juncture, but also just eight points from being out of the playoffs. And there’s still 36 games to play. We’ll see what kind of mettle Gerard Gallant’s Cats have down the home stretch.
  • The Boston Bruins remain perplexing if for no other reason that every time you’re ready to count them out—their defensemen are aging and porous; their depth is papier-mache thin; their record on home ice is dreadful; their ability to blow third period leads is scary—they do something to make you believe again. So yes, Virginia, there will be another playoff season in Boston this spring. Not a long one, mind you, but forthcoming nonetheless.
  • Raise your hand if you saw Blake Wheeler ever cracking the top dozen scorers in the NHL. Didn’t think so.
  • I really hope the Red Wings don’t make the playoffs; I’m just tired of them. Nothing overly deep or technical about that analysis, I know.
  • Hockey folks could have largely predicted the bottom five in the league to include Edmonton, Buffalo and Toronto. Columbus, not so much. But Calgary? Doesn’t seem possible, not coming off a terrific postseason ride a year ago and with a wealth of young talent. But here we are, in late January, and Johnny Hockey & Co. find themselves on the outside looking in. Who’d have figured?
  • I hope that someday, an exceptional talent like Joe Pavelski gets to play for a club with a real shot to win the Stanley Cup, rather than spending his prime years playing for a same-old-story San Jose squad.
  • While stating earlier how enjoyable it would be to see Dallas in the Cup Final, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Chicago or Los Angeles coming out of the West. The Blackhawks are, well, the Blackhawks, doing their Blackhawks thing, impervious to outside pressures or fatigue from many years of long playoff runs. And I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that the Kings will once again be real factors in May and possibly into June. Milan Lucic is probably a one-and-done guy, heading home to Vancouver to play for the Canucks after this season, but he could be golden for the City of Angels this spring.
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The midseason NHL review: So far, a season of surprises

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice editor Jay Kumar offers up his thoughts on the NHL season to this point. Look for contributor Phil Stacey’s take in a day or two.

The dog days of winter are upon us. At least here in the northern part of the country, the days are cold and bleak. But in the NHL, things are just starting to get interesting. We’re halfway through the regular season, about three months before the playoffs (aka the most exciting tournament in sports) begin. Let’s take a look at where things stand right now. (Jim Carr will be along later to explain the finer points of the game.)

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Eastern Conference: Metropolitan Division

The Washington Capitals are the beast of the East. Thanks to Braden Holtby, Alex Ovechkin and a deep team that’s firing on all cylinders, the Caps (33-8-3, 71 points) have the best record in the NHL and are 17 points ahead of the second-place Islanders going into Monday night’s action. This team’s for real, so don’t expect a big letdown unless there’s a rash of injuries to the team’s stars. Things get interesting after that, though: Only six points separate the Islanders and the seventh-place Hurricanes. In between are the Rangers, Penguins, Devils and Flyers. Meanwhile, disappointing Columbus is in last place with 38 points. Of these teams, the Rangers and Penguins and especially the Blue Jackets are underachieving, the Isles and Flyers are probably where they should be and the Devils and Canes are overachieving.

Eastern Conference: Atlantic Division

The biggest surprise of the season is leading the Atlantic. The Florida Panthers (26-14-5, 57 points), led by the ageless Jaromir Jagr, stormed to the top of the division thanks to a recent 12-game winning streak. Can the Panthers keep it up? They’ve got a nice combination of veterans and youngsters. But the chance is there for a drop-off. The second-place Red Wings are just three points in back of Florida, but again, there’s a logjam of teams right behind them: Tampa, Boston, Montreal and Ottawa. The Habs started off on fire with a 9-game win streak, but they came back to Earth as the team dealt with Carey Price’s injury woes. The bottom of the division is populated by the expected denizens: Buffalo and Toronto.

The playoff picture will no doubt change a fair amount between now and the end of the season. Honestly, other than Columbus, Buffalo and Toronto, fans of every other team can still hold out hope for a playoff spot.

Western Conference: Central Division

The Central has the heavy hitters. Red-hot Chicago (31-13-4, 66 points) just won its 11th straight, putting it three points ahead of slumping Dallas (3-5-2 in its last 10) and seven ahead of St. Louis. Dallas started off on fire but has cooled off of late. All three teams are loaded with quality players and should all be near the top of the conference by season’s end. Chicago’s Patrick Kane is putting the legal problems of the pre-season behind him and currently leads the league in goals and points (29 and 69, respectively; the latter by a wide margin, 13 points, over Jamie Benn).

The other four teams in the division—Minnesota, Nashville, Colorado and Winnipeg—are within seven points of each other. The Predators have been struggling all season. A recent trade with Columbus (sending d-man Seth Jones to Columbus for forward Ryan Johansen) hasn’t helped the team yet, but Nashville has the potential to get hot.

Western Conference: Pacific Division

There’s one dominant team in the Pacific, the LA Kings (28-13-3, 59 points). After missing the playoffs last season, the Kings were due for a bounce back, with the likes of Anze Kopitar, Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter, Milan Lucic, Drew Doughty and goalie Jonathan Quick leading the way.

Every other team is in the hunt: Eight points separate Arizona, San Jose, Vancouver, Anaheim, Calgary and Edmonton. After a horrendous start, the Ducks are on the upswing, as are the Sharks, Canucks and Coyotes.

The top four spots in the West should be locked up by the Hawks, Stars, Blues and Kings, but the dogfight for the last four should be a blast to watch.

Midseason awards

As noted earlier, things can change dramatically between now and April. But if the season ended today, here’s who I think should walk away with the hardware.

Hart (MVP): MVP voting tends to lean toward the flashiest players with the gaudiest stats, so I’m sure plenty of pundits are going with either Braden Holtby of Washington or Patrick Kane of the Hawks, who is leading the NHL scoring by a healthy margin. I think the award should go to the guy who is actually the most valuable to his team, so my choice is none other than Jaromir Jagr. Not only is he leading the Panthers in scoring, he’s got the team playing way over its head right now. Take those other guys away and their teams are still deep enough to be competitive. Take Jagr out of the equation in Florida and that team loses its heart.

Norris (d-man): When it comes to defensemen, Drew Doughty of LA is the real deal: He’s got offensive flair but more importantly, he’s a shutdown blueliner. Erik Karlsson of Ottawa, while putting up terrific numbers (he’s fourth in the league in scoring with 46 points), is not a defensive-minded d-man.

Vezina (goalie): If the season was only a month long, the award would go to Carey Price. But it’s not, and since then Braden Holtby of the Caps has dominated. He had to leave the game yesterday because of exhaustion, so that’s something to watch. In the running: Cory Schneider, NJ; Roberto Luongo, FLA; Jonathan Quick, LA.

Adams (coach): There are several worthy candidates for top coach. Gerard Gallant of the Panthers, Jeff Blashill of the Red Wings and Mike Babcock of the Leafs (if you don’t buy that, just take a look at the Toronto roster). But Barry Trotz has taken a team of perennial underachievers in Washington and has them looking like world-beaters. He’s always been a good coach, but he’s now blessed with a powerhouse club. Still, he (along with Holtby’s improved play) may be the factor that finally brings a Cup to DC.

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Calder (rookie): If you had asked me in October (or even at Thanksgiving) who Artemi Panarin was, I would have given you a blank look. But I—and the rest of the hockey world—sure know who the Chicago left winger is now. The 24-year-old Russian (and yeah, I know he’s five years older than Buffalo’s Jack Eichel) has come out of nowhere to team up with Patrick Kane and light up the league’s goalies (leading all rookies with 16 goals and 43 points, 12 more than Max Domi of Phoenix). It’s been a good year for rookies, with Eichel, Domi, Dylan Larkin of Detroit and Anthony Duclair of Phoenix all off to excellent starts…and top 2015 pick Connor McDavid missing much of the season with a broken collarbone. But Panarin has jumped onto the defending Stanley Cup champs and made himself at home on the top line. ’Nuff said.

Capital offense: Red-hot Washington looks to finally cash in

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice correspondent Phil Stacey takes a look at the Washington Capitals, who are currently the team to beat in the East.

We Generation Xers love our nostalgia. One of my personal favorites was the “Schoolhouse Rock!” series of animated shorts that ran on ABC from the mid-1970s well into the 1980s.

Of all the catchy vignettes they taught us about science, civics, mathematics and how to hanker for a hunk o’ cheese, the best was “I’m Just A Bill.” It explained how a bill, in simple terms, becomes a law, going from Capitol Hill all the way to the President’s desk.

The song of the same name was catchy, funky (it was 1976, duh) and stuck in your head. The bill sang of the “long, long journey” that he had to make before becoming a law, and how he “hoped and prayed” that he would achieve his goal.

The District of Columbia’s hockey team, the Capitals, was in its embryonic years when that bit first came out, a third-year franchise that suffered for many years. It took eight seasons to make the playoffs and another seven before they reached their first conference final, getting swept in four straight by the Bruins in 1990.

The Capitals finally reached the Stanley Cup finals eight years later, only to be swept by a powerhouse Detroit team at the peak of its power. There been other seasons in the nearly two decades since then that looked promising, but never reached fruition.

But now, something’s different. And that’s a wonderful thing if you follow or enjoy hockey coming out of the nation’s capital.

The Capitals are no longer Ovechkin, Backstrom, flotsam and jetsam. They are a machine in every sense of the phrase as it pertains to hockey: deep, talented, speedy, aggressive technically sound, oozing in fortitude and hungry to finally capture Lord Stanley’s Cup.

Following Tuesday night’s 3-2 win over the Bruins in Boston—coupled with Dallas’ loss to the Rangers in New York—the Capitals now stand atop the NHL standings. If there is a better, more complete team on the circuit right now…well, then, the 1977-78 Canadiens just got reincarnated.

Washington knows how to put the hammer down: the Caps are 13-0-0 when leading after one period and 20-0-1 holding the advantage after 40 minutes. They have a virtual brick wall standing in goal in Braden Holtby, who shouldn’t only be the frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy but also, along with Ottawa defenseman Erik Karlsson, the Hart as Most Valuable Player. He gobbles up potential rebounds like a kid stealing leftover cake at a birthday party, meaning if you don’t beat him with a clean shot, you simply aren’t beating him.

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And he doesn’t face many clean shots, because his teammates do a great job packing it in defensively and protecting their prized commodity. The pairing of Karl Alzner and Matt Niskanen are a ferocious duo; less heralded blueliners like Dmitry Orlov, Aaron Ness, Nate Schmidt and Taylor Chorney do the job meticulously without flash or much accolades. When injured John Carlson and Brooks Orpik return to the lineup shortly, a very good unit becomes elite.

This is arguably the best offensive team Washington has ever iced—and not purely because of its goal-scoring acumen. Ovechkin’s brilliance in the offensive zone doesn’t need to be rehashed here; what’s worth noting, however, is that he’s perhaps a more responsible three-zone player now, at age 30, than he ever has been in his career. When in the past would you have trusted him on the ice in the final minute holding a one-goal lead, as he was Tuesday night against Boston? The modern-day Mike Bossy of goal scoring has realized it takes a complete game to become a complete player and, as an addendum, for his team to reach its zenith.

Character guys added to the mix like T.J. Oshie—who skates right wing on the top line with Ovechkin and Backstrom—and Mr. Game 7, Justin Williams, have already paid enormous dividends. Young talents like Evgeny Kuznetsov, Andre Burakovsky and Marcus Johansson help complement the overall picture; so does a rough-and-tumble presence like Tom Wilson on the third line.

Add the whole package up, and you’ve got the most talented and most likely team to emerge from the Eastern Conference when springtime rolls around.

The bugaboo, of course, is that something has always seemed to derail the Washington Express from reaching its desired destination. What if Holtby falters in the postseason? What if Ovechkin reverts back to his old ways of effort in the offensive zone only? What if a key injury (or three) causes the wheels to loosen significantly, if not fall off altogether?

No. Not this season. At least it doesn’t feel like it. This team has all the makings of a Stanley Cup champion (along with Los Angeles, perhaps Dallas and, of course, Chicago). I’d expect the Capitals to continue surging forward; for general manager Brian MacLellan to add a forward or two and a depth defenseman at the deadline; and for hockey lifer/coach Barry Trotz to get a true shot at the silver chalice for perhaps the first time ever.

The Washington Capitals are that good, folks. Don’t expect them to falter anytime soon.

Hey now, you’re an All-Star

At the end of the month, the NHL All-Star Game will take place in Nashville. This year, the league announced it was going to a new 3-on-3 format to shake things up, but all anybody’s talking about is a longtime goon who’s been waived three times this season alone: John Scott. On Saturday, the NHL announced that the Arizona Coyotes winger was one of the four division captains along with Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane and Jaromir Jagr.

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Scott says he’s going to play, but how does a guy like him even get on an All-Star team? It’s all thanks to fan voting (fans pick the starting lineup, the league selects the rest). Once the 3-on-3 format was announced and voting opened on Dec. 1, fans began voting in droves for Scott because wouldn’t it be funny to see a guy known for face-punching playing with the NHL’s elite offensive stars in a 3-on-3 format? The campaign caught on and by Jan. 1, when voting closed, Scott was an All-Star. This is a guy who has one assist in 11 games this season, and five goals and 11 points in his entire seven-year career. Not exactly an offensive threat.

This isn’t a new phenomenon. In 2006-07, a similar campaign took place to get journeyman Vancouver defenseman Rory Fitzgerald into the All-Star Game that season. The “Vote for Rory” campaign snowballed quickly and sure enough, Fitzgerald was in line to get a starting spot on the team thanks to a Vote-o-Matic Firefox plug-in that allowed fans to vote automatically. Once the NHL realized what was happening, suddenly Fitzgerald’s votes dropped and he ended up missing the cut. He wasn’t quite at the level of a John Scott, but he was from All-Star caliber.

This time around, the league got on board with Scott instead of trying to digitally sandbag him. Will it be an embarrassment when this notorious goon takes the ice with the league’s best skaters? Probably, but it won’t be the first time. There have been plenty of subpar players who have made it to the game. Hell, Scott won’t even be the first goon named to an All-Star team. Back in 1991, Bruins coach Mike Milbury was in charge of the Wales Conference squad and decide to name Chris “Knuckles” Nilan to the team because…well, I’m not really sure why. It’s not like he was needed to beat up Wayne Gretzky or anything. In the end, Nilan missed the game because of a broken ankle. After that year, the NHL stopped allowing coaches to select the non-starters.

Ultimately, this isn’t a huge deal because it’s an all-star game and all-star games are dumb. Fans will likely tune in to see the spectacle of a 3-on-3 mini-game tournament as opposed to the usual 15-14 no-check goalfest. You know damn well that Scott’s teammates on the Pacific Division entry will do their best to try and get him a goal. Who knows, it could be interesting. Beats watching the Pro Bowl, amirite?