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.

Jack-Eichel

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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