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.

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