Halfway there: A look at the NHL’s first half

The NHL has a few days to go until the four-day All-Star break. With the league a little more than halfway through the regular season, it’s a good time to check in with a roundup of some of the biggest stories in the game so far.

Midyear leaders: In the East, Washington, Columbus (!), Pittsburgh and Montreal are solidly in playoff position, with the Rangers fairly locked into the first Wild Card spot. But the rest of the East is in the hunt for the postseason right now. Ottawa and Toronto are currently sitting in the second and third Atlantic Division spots, but Boston, Florida, Detroit, Buffalo and Tampa Bay are all within six points of the Leafs. The Flyers are sitting in the second Wild Card, but again, only five points separate them from last place in the conference. The West, as usual, has a lot of powerful teams, but they’re not the ones you expect: Sure, Chicago and San Jose are in the mix, but Minnesota, Anaheim and Edmonton are all having strong seasons so far. Nashville, St. Louis and Calgary are all in playoff spots at this writing, but Vancouver, Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Dallas are all in contention. Arizona and Colorado, however, are way out of the picture.

Scoring: Connor McDavid is living up to the hype that made him the consensus #1 pick in 2015. After an injury-shortened rookie year, McDavid currently leads the league in scoring, albeit narrowly over the Penguins’ dynamic duo of Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. San Jose’s Brent Burns is having a huge year by scoring at a point-a-game pace as a defenseman, which is unheard of these days. In the goals race, Crosby leads with 28, followed by Jeff Carter with 24, Cam Atkinson with 23 and Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Leafs super-rookie Auston Matthews with 22.  McDavid leads the league with 40 assists, followed by Nicklas Backstrom with 34 and Patrick Kane with 33. For the netminders, Devan Dubnyk of the Wild leads in GAA with 1.91 and save percentage with .935, while Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus has 28 wins and Braden Holtby of the Caps has the most shutouts with 6.

Freaky streaky: There has been some serious streaking going on so far this year. Philadelphia reeled off 10 straight into mid-December. After a tough start to the season, the Blue Jackets caught fire and won 16 straight between Nov. 29 and Jan. 3, riding the hot goaltending of Bobrovsky and receiving timely offense from Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Nick Foligno, Brandon Saad and Sam Gagner. Along the way, the Jackets ended Minnesota’s 12-game streak. In the end, the Jackets fell a game short of the record of 17 set by Pittsburgh in 1992-93; they lost to Washington, which has been the hottest team in the league since.

Bye bye week: The New Year brought a new concept to the NHL: the bye week. Because of the compressed schedule this season due to the World Cup of Hockey last fall, every team will take a league-mandated five-day break: no games, no practices, no nothing. The bye weeks were negotiated by the NHL Players Association to give players a break before the playoff stretch run. How the week will affect teams in the hunt remains to be seen, although it hasn’t seemed to hurt the teams that have already taken the mini-vacation (Pittsburgh, Rangers, Islanders, Toronto, Ottawa, Philly, Arizona, Colorado…okay, the last two are continuing their awful play).

Golden child: Well, it became official in November: The newest NHL franchise will be called the Vegas Golden Knights. The team starts play next fall, but the NHL.com shop already has an assortment of Golden Knights merch for sale (although no jerseys yet). Not exactly sure what a golden knight is, but the logo’s decent. The other 30 teams are already casting an eye towards the expansion draft in June in terms of which players they’ll protect and who they’ll expose to possibly become members of the inaugural major pro team in Las Vegas.

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