7 Things You Need to Know with the Second Half of the NHL Season Approaching
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The NHL season is zipping along, and the halfway point is just around the corner.
There is no feeling-out process to the 2013 season.
When the puck finally dropped in mid-January, it was already a critical point on the calendar, and teams attempted to sprint out of the starting gate.
No team has had a faster start than the Chicago Blackhawks, who have gotten off to the best start in NHL history with a 14-0-3 getaway. There are plenty of reasons for the Blackhawks' explosive start, including the productive play of Patrick Kane, the rock-solid play of the defense, the overall depth and the sharp coaching moves of Joel Quenneville.
Here are seven things to know as the second half of the season approaches.
Montreal Canadiens Are a Legitimate Playoff Contender
The Montreal Canadiens do not resemble the team that finished in last place in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12.
This year's team has combined a rock-solid defense, strong goaltending and clutch scoring to rise to the top of the conference.
While it may be difficult for them to maintain the top position, the Canadiens should remain a playoff contender throughout the season.
Michel Therrien has given the Canadiens a disciplined environment, and the team is following his game plan. Defensemen Andrei Markov, Raphael Diaz, P.K. Subban and Alexei Emelin are doing a solid job setting the tone and eliminating mistakes.
The Canadiens may not be the offensive juggernaut of past generations, but they get clutch scoring from Max Pacioretty (13 points), Thomas Plekanec (13 points) and David Desharnais (10 points) up front.
Rookie Alex Galchenyuk has some explosive characteristics as well.
The Canadiens are very tough to compete against, and as they get closer to the postseason, they will get better.
Los Angeles Kings Come Alive
The Los Angeles Kings have gotten off to a dreadful start.
That's been standard procedure for recent Stanley Cup winners. The Chicago Blackhawks played ordinary hockey following their 2010 championship, and the Boston Bruins did the same after they won the Stanley Cup in 2011.
The Kings have started to right the ship. They have won four of their last five games and are showing signs that they are going to make a climb from 11th place in the Western Conference.
This team is too talented to go down without a fight. Look for Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter to carry this team offensively.
The key for the Kings is goalie Jonathan Quick. He has a 2.58 goals-against average and a .900 save percentage. He has to do much better than that, and he certainly has the skills after winning the Conn Smythe Trophy last year.
Dallas Stars Go into Sell Mode
The Dallas Stars went all in during the offseason in their bid to make the playoffs.
The Stars have not been in the postseason since the 2007-08 season, so Joe Nieuwendyk brought in Jaromir Jagr, Ray Whitney and Derek Roy to make the Stars more dangerous.
The Stars are tied for ninth in the Western Conference, and they have lost three of their last four games as of Feb. 23.
It seems likely that this older team will have a hard time staying in the playoff race. Nieuwendyk will probably go into sell mode by mid-March as he comes to the realization that the team will have to rebuild.
Jagr, Roy, Michael Ryder, Brenden Morrow and Eric Nystrom will be free agents at the end of the season. Look for Nieuwendyk to move several of these players.
Chicago Blackhawks Continue to Dominate
The Chicago Blackhawks had plenty of questions going into the season after two straight years of first-round exits from the playoffs.
During the 2013 season, the Blackhawks have been answering all questions.
Start with Patrick Kane, who has been a 20-goal scorer in each of his first five seasons. This year, he's far more dangerous than he has ever been. Kane has scored nine goals and 14 assists and is leading the team in scoring.
The Blackhawks have a dominating puck-possession game. The skills of Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp allow the Blackhawks to maintain possession and take pressure off of goaltenders Corey Crawford and Ray Emery.
The solid defensive play of Johnny Oduya (plus-nine) and Michael Rozsival (plus-seven) has allowed Duncan Keith to take more chances in the offensive zone. When Keith can freelance in the offensive zone, the Blackhawks are a much more dangerous team.
While the Blackhawks will eventually lose a game in regulation, they will not relinquish first place in the Western Conference.
Big-Time Rookie Show
It's clear that the 2013 season is a banner year for rookies.
Cody Conacher of the Tampa Bay Lightning, Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers, Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues and Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens have all gotten off to impressive starts.
Rookie blueliners Justin Schultz of the Edmonton Oilers and Dougie Hamilton of the Boston Bruins have also shown their talent.
Look for Huberdeau to take the lead among the rookies as the Panthers are in dire need of productive players. Huberdeau seems to get a little better each game, and there may be no stopping him as the second half of the season approaches.
Daniel Alfredsson On the Move
The Ottawa Senators have competed like warriors since Paul MacLean took over behind the bench prior to the 2011-12 season.
They made the playoffs last year and have reeled off a 10-6-2 record through the first 18 games of the season, putting them in the playoff mix.
However, the Senators have been eviscerated by injuries to Jason Spezza (back), Erik Karlsson (Achilles) and goalie Craig Anderson (ankle). At some point, reality will take hold and the Senators will stumble.
At that point, free-agent forward Daniel Alfredsson will be in play. Alfredsson's heart may be in Ottawa, but he won't be able to resist the lure of playing for a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. The Sens will get minor-league talent and a draft pick or two in return.
Look for the Boston Bruins or Pittsburgh Penguins (via CBSSports.com) to make concerted efforts to secure Alfredsson in March.
Rangers Make a Run
The New York Rangers started the season as the favorites to win the Eastern Conference.
It looked like the Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins might be able to push them, but after adding Rick Nash, the Rangers looked like the strongest team.
The Rangers have come out of the gate in a halting manner. Through their first 16 games, the Rangers are barely holding on to eighth place in the Eastern Conference.
Head coach John Tortorella is getting antsy. Nash is out with a reported concussion (via NBCSports.com). Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is not at its best.
Instead of rolling to the title, the Rangers are barely keeping their heads above water.
The struggles will not continue forever. The angst-ridden Tortorella will find the right formula, the offense will come through and Lundqvist will get back to the top of his game.
The Rangers are legitimate Stanley Cup contenders, and they will play like it in the month of March.