Every Team's Biggest Concern Midway Through the NHL Season

Dave Lozo@@davelozoNHL National Lead WriterJanuary 6, 2014

Every Team's Biggest Concern Midway Through the NHL Season

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    The NHL season is now more than half over, which means it's time to take stock of all 30 teams and assess each one's biggest concern now that the second half is here.

    Can the Toronto Maple Leafs sustain their success and reach the playoffs? Will the Minnesota Wild offer more offensive support for goaltender Josh Harding? Is Corey Crawford good enough to get the Chicago Blackhawks back to the Stanley Cup Final?

    What follows is the greatest question surrounding each team in the NHL. The list is alphabetical, so click on through to see what could cause your team its biggest headache as we enter the season's second half.

    All statistics via NHL.com, ExtraSkater.com and Hockey-Reference.com.

Anaheim Ducks: Is Their Success Sustainable over the Second Half?

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    This is all about the underlying statistics of the Anaheim Ducks, who are 30-8-5 with 65 points through 43 games.

    There's no denying the Ducks are good, but just how lucky have they been?

    Based on their PDO in close games, they have been very fortunate this season. It sits at 103.7, the highest mark in the league. The theory behind PDO is a team's combined on-ice save and shooting percentage at five-on-five will settled around 100.0 over an 82-game season. The Ducks lead in the NHL in shooting percentage (11.0) and are 11th in save percentage (.928) through 43 games.

    The Ducks are also middle of the pack when it comes to their Corsi and Fenwick numbers, another strong indicator of a team's long-term success.

    Those numbers usually mean a team is due for a regression. 

    But even if the Ducks play .500 hockey and go 19-19-1 over the rest of the season, they will finish with 103 points and be a playoff team. The Presidents' Trophy likely isn't in the cards for the Ducks, but they'll likely have to battle to hang on to the top spot in the Pacific Division in the second half.

Boston Bruins: How Will Tuukka Rask Hold Up?

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    It may seem strange to doubt a goaltender who has been nothing but dominant in his career. In 171 games, Rask has a 2.11/.928 split. That save percentage is No. 1 in NHL history for a goaltender over the first seven seasons of a career.

    The caveat, very clearly, is Rask has played just 171 games over those seven seasons. That's why his ability to maintain that level of play over an 82-game season should be a mild cause for concern.

    Rask has never played more than 45 games in a season, partly because he served as a backup to Tim Thomas for several seasons. Rask was the unquestioned No. 1 last season, but the lockout-shortened season prevented him from playing more.

    The 26-year-old has played 33 games this season. It will be interesting to see how Rask performs in starts 50 through 65 in the second half.

Buffalo Sabres: What Will Happen with Ryan Miller?

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    The Sabres have gotten it together over the past month, going 6-4-2 in their past 12 games. It doesn't change the fact they are the worst team in the NHL and will have some decisions to make with their roster at the March 5 trade deadline.

    The biggest decision for the Sabres—who are still without a general manager—is what to do with franchise goaltender Ryan Miller.

    The 33-year-old is in the final year of his contract and performing quite well under adverse conditions. He's 11-18-1 with a .927 save percentage, which is the seventh-best mark among regular starters. Miller also has a chance to start in net for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics.

    If the Sabres feel they can't re-sign Miller or he decides he doesn't want to be part of a rebuild, they will then have to find a suitable trade partner. That's easier said than done, as most teams in the playoff hunt already have a reliable starting goaltender. Miller also has a limited no-trade clause, which hampers the Sabres' ability to deal him.

    It will be an interesting first order of business for whoever gets the Sabres' GM job. 

Calgary Flames: How Will Brian Burke Make Over the Roster?

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    General manager Jay Feaster was fired in December, and his position has yet to be filled. Brian Burke is in the role of director of hockey operations, but he will exert his influence over what the also-ran Flames do over the rest of the season.

    At the time of Feaster's dismissal, Burke talked of the Flames needing to get tougher. Last week, the team acquired tough guy Kevin Westgarth from the Carolina Hurricanes, a move that is sure to make the Flames…well, not better. That seems to be the problem with the Flames—how is Burke going to make this perennial disappointment better?

    The Flames seem a long way off from contending for anything, but they have pending UFAs Michael Cammalleri, Matt Stajan and Lee Stempniak who could fetch decent returns. What Burke—or whoever he possibly installs as GM—gets in return for those players will partially influence how the team does next season.

Carolina Hurricanes: Can Cam Ward Find His Missing Game?

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    The Hurricanes are within striking distance of a playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division, and it has very little to do with the play of goaltender Cam Ward.

    The veteran hasn't lost his job to Justin Peters, but Ward finds himself in a time share after seven seasons as the team's No. 1 goaltender. That's what happens when your save percentage is below .900.

    Peters has played well, but if the Hurricanes are going to take advantage of their inept division over the second half and make a push for the playoffs, it's likely going to be a result of Ward rediscovering his game. 

Chicago Blackhawks: Will Corey Crawford Get It Together?

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    There aren't too many concerns for the Blackhawks, who have been tearing up the NHL since the start of last season. 

    But the play of goaltender Corey Crawford could decide if the Blackhawks are going to repeat as Stanley Cup champions or fall short in the postseason.

    Crawford's best season was 2013, when the NHL played a 48-game regular season. He posted a career-best 1.94/.926 split in the regular season, then improved to 1.84/.932 in the postseason. But looking at the rest of his career, that's really an anomaly.

    In 2011-12, the most recent 82-game season, Crawford was just average. He went 30-17-7 with a 2.72/.903 split, which is probably more reflective of who he is as a goaltender. That's where he's hovering around this season—he's 17-6-4 with a 2.49/.907 split.

    The Blackhawks are so loaded that they don't need great goaltending to win most nights. But if they want home ice throughout the playoffs and another Stanley Cup, Crawford needs to be much better.

Colorado Avalanche: Can They Survive and Reach the Playoffs?

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    The Avalanche opened the season 14-2-0 and were darlings of the NHL, riding the hot goaltending of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere to a franchise-best start.

    Since then, they have been slightly above average. They are 12-9-4 in their past 25 games, which is a 92-point pace. That's good enough to reach the playoffs in almost every season, but with the way teams in the Western Conference have been playing, that wouldn't be enough without the hot start.

    They are currently seven points clear of ninth place in the West, so it would take a real collapse for the Avs to miss the playoffs. But this is a young team that hasn't tasted the postseason in three years. How they handle the rigors of the second half of the season will reveal if they are a playoff team or an also-ran for a fourth straight season.

Columbus Blue Jackets: Will They Get Healthy Enough to Make a Run?

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    The Blue Jackets have been pretty hard by the injury bug this season, a big reason they are two games under .500 in the Metropolitan Division. But they are close enough to the playoff pack where a second-half push could get them to the postseason.

    Marian Gaborik, Sergei Bobrovsky and Nathan Horton have all missed extensive time due to injury. Gaborik and Horton usually account for about 60 goals in a season, while Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy last season. The holes have been huge and tough to fill.

    Gaborik has only played 18 games this season, as he has dealt with a knee injury and a broken collarbone, which occurred in his first game back from the knee issue. A broken collarbone is usually a six-to-eight-week injury, which means Gaborik likely won't be back until right before or after the Olympics.

    Horton has played in just two games, as he spent the first half of the season recovering from shoulder surgery. He already has a goal and will be counted on for more offense over the second half.

    Bobrovsky recently returned from a groin injury that cost him a month. He wasn't playing well before he went down, but he'll need to be at Vezina levels to get the Blue Jackets into a playoff spot.

    There's plenty of time for the Jackets to right the ship, but they'll need to stay healthy the rest of the way.

Dallas Stars: They're Good, How Good Are They in the Loaded West?

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    The Stars went 20-14-7 in the first half. That's a 94-point pace, which is plenty good for making the playoffs in the NHL.

    Well, it might not be good enough this year.

    With Tyler Seguin and a host of young talent leading the way, the Stars have become one of the more fun teams to watch in the NHL. Unfortunately for them, they are doing it in the West, where a first half as good as theirs is only good for 10th place in the conference.

    The Stars will either need to be better or hope a team or two ahead of them falls apart in the second half. 

Detroit Red Wings: Is Jimmy Howard Going to Turn It Around?

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    The Red Wings should be happy they made the move to the East for this season, because they'd be dead in the water if they were still in the West.

    They've had a gaggle of injuries this season, but the one problem that may not fix itself with rest and rehab is the shaky play of Jimmy Howard.

    He is 7-9-8 with a 2.65/.911 split, a steep drop from his performances over the previous two seasons when he was a 2.13/.921 goaltender. Howard missed three weeks with a groin injury as well but hasn't been great in his two games back.

    Jonas Gustavsson and Petr Mrazek are the backups, and while Gustavsson has filled in admirably in Howard's absence and struggles, he's not a goaltender to be counted on throughout the season.

    If Howard doesn't figure things out, the Red Wings will be in trouble.

Edmonton Oilers: How Will They Keep Everyone Interested?

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    Stop me if you've heard this one, but the Oilers have no chance of making the playoffs and will spend the rest of the season trying to position themselves for the first overall pick in the draft.

    The difference this season is there was optimism in Edmonton. They acquired David Perron, an upgrade to the forward group. They signed Andrew Ference, who was supposed to steady the defense corps. They hired Dallas Eakins to coach the team, and he was supposed to whip this young team into a playoff contender.

    Instead, the Oilers are 13-26-5 and 18 points out of a playoff spot.

    The challenge for the first-year coach is keeping this young team focused on winning. No one wants to play for next season with 38 games remaining, but if the Oilers are going to have success in 2014-15, they need to learn to play better in all three zones now.

    If the Oilers don't break their bad habits now, they'll likely be there again in October.

Florida Panthers: Is There Enough Time to Make a Playoff Push?

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    Through 18 games, the Panthers were 3-11-4 and heading nowhere. Coach Kevin Dineen was fired, and this young team looked like it had no chance to reach the playoffs for the second time in three years.

    But in the mediocre East, the Panthers aren't dead yet.

    They are 12-9-2 in their past 23 games and have climbed to within eight points of a playoff spot with half a season to play. That's a long way to go to reach a wild-card spot, but the Panthers may be equipped to do it.

    Goaltender Tim Thomas has battled injury this season, but December was his best month. He went 3-1-1 with a 1.95/.936 split and has been improving in his first season back after temporarily retiring in 2013. If he can provide that type of play in net, the Panthers have a chance.

    Throw in the fact the Panthers have a crop of young forwards who could improve in the second half—Aleksander Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jonathan Huberdeau are all 21 and younger—and there's still hope for the Panthers to claw back into contention.

Los Angeles Kings: What Is Wrong with Dustin Brown?

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    The problems with Dustin Brown typify the problem with the Kings as a whole—neither are scoring goals.

    Brown has eight goals and six assists in 42 games, putting him on pace for by far the worst offensive output of his career. The Kings are 22nd in scoring, averaging just 2.49 goals per game. The minimal output hasn't mattered much, as the Kings are allowing a league-best 2.02 goals per game.

    But at some point, the lack of scoring could come back to haunt the Kings.

    Brown is shooting just 6.9 percent this season, lowest of his career. The team as a whole is shooting 5.1 percent at five-on-five in close situations despite being one of the best possession teams in the NHL.

    It's an indicator that things should turn around for the team in the second half.

Minnesota Wild: Can They Score Enough to Avoid Collapsing?

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    Goaltender Josh Harding has played so well that if the season ended today, he'd likely be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy.

    His outstanding play is what makes the Wild sitting out of playoff spot right now tough to swallow in Minnesota, as the team is sitting at 27th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.30 per contest.

    Harding is a career backup and has never played this well in his career, so it serves to believe his play will dip a little in the second half. That's where the offense needs to show up, and it hasn't all season.

    Jason Pominville has 18 goals and Zach Parise has 15, but the support has been sorely lacking. If Dany Heatley, Mikael Granlund and Charlie Coyle don't score more—especially with Parise out with a foot injury—the Wild are in serious trouble.

Montreal Canadiens: Do They Have Enough Offense Up Front to Succeed?

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    The Canadiens' leading scorer is a defenseman—PK Subban has seven goals and 33 points—and the top-scoring forward is Tomas Plekanec has 26 points in 43 games.

    Left wing Max Pacioretty has a team-leading 19 goals, but there have been some underperforming Canadiens hurting the club.

    David Desharnais has five goals in 41 games. Daniel Briere, signed this summer to bolster the offense, has seven goals in 31 games and has been a healthy scratch. Brian Gionta has six goals in 42 games.

    This team has had success thanks to its great defense corps and goaltender Carey Price, but the scoring needs to pick up if the Habs want to avoid a collapse in the second half.

Nashville Predators: Will Pekka Rinne Return in Time to Make a Difference?

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    The Predators have been hovering around .500 all season, which is quite the accomplishment considering they are inept offensively and missing Pekka Rinne, who is out with a bacterial infection in his hip.

    Rinne's return might not be until after the Olympic break. Will that be soon enough to make a difference in the playoff race?

    The Predators will have 23 games remaining when the Olympic break ends. Right now, they are seven points back of a playoff spot using rookie goaltenders Carter Hutton and Marek Mazanec. If the Predators can keep it close, Rinne could be a difference-maker when he returns.

    It's asking a lot to have Hutton and Mazanec keep things close in the ultra-tough West, but if they can do it, Rinne could carry the Predators over the final month-plus when he returns.

New Jersey Devils: Can Jaromir Jagr Continue Carrying the Offense?

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    The Devils are hanging on by a thread in the East, benefiting from playing in a division that is below average at best outside of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    A big reason the Devils haven't sunk completely is the play of 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr. He leads the team in scoring with 13 goals and 34 points in 43 games. Jagr has carried the team while many forwards—Travis Zajac and Damien Brunner especially—have underperformed.

    But is it too much to ask to have a 41-year-old continue to lead the way over an 82-game season? Jagr has already started to slow, posting one assist in his past seven games. It could be just a slump, but it's more likely an older player wearing down in the middle of a long season.

    Jagr may need to turn back the clock in the second half if the Devils are to make a run at the playoffs.

New York Islanders: What Will Happen with Thomas Vanek?

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    When the Islanders sent Matt Moulson to Buffalo in exchange for Thomas Vanek in November, they were hoping the move would jump-start a struggling team that reached the playoffs last season.

    It didn't work, and now the Islanders are left with two choices—re-sign Vanek or trade him to a contender in order to regain the draft picks they sent to Buffalo along with Moulson.

    It's tough to imagine Vanek, who will be an unrestricted free agent this summer, would want to hitch his wagon to the Islanders for the next seven years. He'll be the most-coveted UFA during the offseason and will want to test the waters after the season.

    The Islanders should be able to recoup the first- and second-round picks they lost in the Moulson deal and could add an NHL-ready player in the process.

New York Rangers: Will the Old Henrik Lundqvist Show Up?

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    It's a minor miracle that the Rangers are a game over .500 considering Henrik Lundqvist, who has been their backbone for years, is in the midst of his worst NHL season.

    Lundqvist is 12-16-2 with a 2.78/.905 split and has had a hard time adjusting to new coach Alain Vigneault's system, which isn't as defensively rigid as the one employed by ex-coach John Tortorella. He's also playing with smaller leg pads and isn't taking up as much space between the pipes.

    The Rangers have been kept afloat by rookie Cam Talbot, who is 9-3-0 with a 1.66/.938 split. 

    But the Rangers can't count on a rookie over the second half if they want to make the playoffs. Lundqvist needs to find his game.

Ottawa Senators: Are They Going to Find More Consistency?

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    The Senators entered the season as many people's picks to reach the conference finals and perhaps even the Stanley Cup Final. They were coming off a trip to the conference semifinals a year ago, added sniper Bobby Ryan to replace captain Daniel Alfredsson and were a team with young players who appeared to be on the rise.

    The first half was mostly a letdown, as just about every facet of the Senators' game had problems.

    They have a season-high four-game winning streak, a sign maybe they are ironing out their problems. They are within two points of the playoffs, so there's no reason for panic.

    The issue with the Senators is they have so many of them. They're giving up the second-most shots per game in the NHL. Jason Spezza hasn't been himself. Craig Anderson hasn't had his share of problems stopping the puck.

    But the team has had a nice track record the past two years. It's just a matter of them minimizing their mistakes in the second half.

Philadelphia Flyers: Can Steve Mason Sustain His Outstanding Play?

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    When the Flyers were struggling in the early part of the season, it had nothing to do with Steve Mason. The goaltender was keeping the team in games as the offense failed to produce more than two goals on most nights.

    That has changed over the past 11 games, as the Flyers have gone 8-2-1 to move into second place in the Metropolitan Division.

    Mason has maintained his steady level of excellence, going 17-10-4 with a 2.39/.922 split.

    If the Flyers are going to secure a playoff spot, Mason needs to continue to play well. He has had his issues since winning the Calder Trophy in 2009, so this will be a real test for Mason and the Flyers.

Phoenix Coyotes: Will the Excellent Defense of Years Past Return?

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    The Coyotes are currently the second wild-card team in the West with a record of 20-12-9. It's a mild surprise for a team that missed the playoffs last season, but the real shocker is they're winning with offense.

    Since coach Dave Tippett came to Phoenix in 2009, the Coyotes have been one of the best defensive teams in the NHL. That's changed this year, as the Coyotes are allowing the fifth-most shots per game (33.0) and sixth-most goals per game (3.00).

    They are winning with offense. Free-agent signing Mike Ribeiro leads the team with 29 points, but the Coyotes are receiving contributions throughout the lineup. The scoring has helped overshadow the defensive problems that include goaltender Mike Smith's 2.89/.911 split in net.

    If the Coyotes want to reach the playoffs, they'll need to tighten up defensively.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Where Will the Depth Scoring Come From?

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    Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Jussi Jokinen and James Neal have scored 85 of the Penguins' 139 goals this year. They have been deadly and efficient, but there's not much scoring coming from the rest of the offense.

    Pascal Dupuis, who scored 20 goals in 48 games last season and 25 goals in 2011-12, is out for the season. Beyond their big five scorers, there's not much offense coming from the rest of the Penguins' forwards.

    It's not much of a problem when compared to what other teams are going through, but the Penguins fancy themselves Stanley Cup contenders. They'll need to go out and acquire more offense if they don't want to stumble again like they did in the conference finals last year.

San Jose Sharks: Can They Win More Consistently on the Road?

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    The Sharks have been dominant at home—they are 15-1-3 at SAP Center this season and 32-3-8 there dating to last season—but have had their problems outside of San Jose.

    They are 11-9-3 on the road this season, a perfectly acceptable mark but one they'll need to improve upon if they want to chase down the likes of the Ducks, Blues and Blackhawks. 

    There's no denying the Sharks are one of the deepest and most talented teams in the NHL, but they'll need to take that dominant home show on the road more often in the second half and in the playoffs.

St. Louis Blues: Are They Good Enough to Win the Presidents' Trophy?

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    There's not much to be concerned about with the Blues.

    They are second in scoring and third in defense. They have one of the best defense corps in the NHL. They are deep offensively. They have a two-headed goaltending monster. They have the fourth-best power play and seventh-best penalty kill.

    The only thing the Blues need to concern themselves with is tracking down the Blackhawks and Ducks to earn home ice throughout the Western Conference playoffs. If they play like they did in the first half, the Blues will have a great shot at doing just that.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Can Anders Lindback Fill the Ben Bishop Void?

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    With Ben Bishop leaving Sunday's game against the Oilers with a right hand injury, backup Anders Lindback was pressed into duty. If the injury is serious, Lindback is about to see his workload increase greatly.

    Bishop is looking like a Vezina favorite at the halfway point, going 22-5-3 with a 1.83/.936 split. But even if his injury isn't long term, Lindback may need to do more in the second half anyway.

    Bishop has played 33 games, which is 20 more than his busiest NHL season. The wear and tear of a full season was going to be a question mark for Bishop before Sunday, and Lindback can ease that burden if he improves his play.

    Lindback entered Sunday with a 3-7-1 mark and 3.11/.886 split. He'll need to be much better in the second half, regardless of Bishop's immediate health situation.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Was the First Half a Mirage or the Real Deal?

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    The Maple Leafs are 21-17-5 through 43 games and two points ahead of the Senators for the final playoff spot in the East. It's a nice spot to be in, but with the way the Leafs have played in the first half, it may not last.

    No team has allowed more shots per game than the Leafs, but they have survived on timely scoring and outstanding play from goaltenders Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer. It's a recipe that's likely to lead to a missed playoff spot.

    The Leafs are the second-worst possession team in the NHL, ranking just ahead of the Buffalo Sabres in Fenwick differential. Despite Corsi and Fenwick numbers that should bring tears to the eyes of Leafs fans, the team has an abnormally high PDO of 102.1.

    Things don't look good for the Leafs in the second half unless they continue to defy the numbers that would have most teams settling near the bottom of the standings.

Vancouver Canucks: Can Roberto Luongo Handle His Current Workload?

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    Roberto Luongo has played 33 of the Canucks' 43 games this season, putting him on a pace for 69 games. That would be his biggest workload since the 2008-09 season, when he appeared in 68 games.

    The 34-year-old's ability to handle that workload was up for debate before he missed three games with a groin injury last week and went down again Sunday against the Los Angeles Kings. Now that he's gone down again, it could be a real issue in the second half.

    Rookie Eddie Lack has done well in his few starts in place of Luongo, but the Canucks' playoff plans hinge greatly on Luongo. How coach John Tortorella manages his goaltender's games played will play a huge role in the team's success over the rest of the season.

Washington Capitals: Can They Improve at Even Strength?

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    No team relies more on its power play than the Capitals, who have the second-best power play in the NHL but are a below-average team at even strength.

    The Capitals have been outscored 86-78 at even strength this season, which isn't the worst mark in the league but it has prevented them from making the leap to elite team from above-average team.

    When the Capitals fail to score a power-play goal, they are 6-8-4. If they don't find a way to muster some success at even strength, they could miss the playoffs in a soft Metropolitan Division. 

Winnipeg Jets: How Much Longer Can They Count on Ondrej Pavelec?

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    The Jets have a lot of work to do if they want to make the playoffs, but getting some improved play from goaltender Ondrej Pavelec will go a long way toward achieving that goal.

    The 26-year-old is having yet another subpar season, going 11-17-4 with a 3.06/.901 split, some of the worst numbers in the league. For years, Pavelec apologists have pointed to shaky defense in front of the goaltender, but that's not really the case this year.

    Backup Al Montoya is 8-4-1 with a 2.31/.921 split and has kept the Jets close enough to at least have hopes of reaching the postseason.

    If a journeyman like Montoya can make it work, why can't Pavelec?

    Coach Claude Noel may have to lean on Montoya more in the second half if Pavelec continues to stink up the joint.