The Winners and Sinners of the NHL's First Half
In a sport where the season will drag into the middle of June, nothing has been settled yet. There are the Olympics and a crowded second half schedule to be dealt with before a champion can be crowned.
Anything remains possible but in the first half of the 2009-2010 season several teams have defied the odds and put themselves in contention. Several others have put themselves in a place where a repeat of the Penguins second half last year might not get them to the promised land.
Let's take a look at the first half winners and sinners.
Winners: Phoenix Coyotes
A team that started the year drawing paychecks from the league, and not sure if they were staying put in the desert or being hauled off north of the border by Jim Balsillie, had every excuse to lay down and die.
New head coach Dave Tippet would have none of the doom and gloom and has taken Wayne Gretzky's leftovers and made a team of it. Fourth place in the conference might be too much to hang onto for another 41 games but this pack of Coyotes has so far had more bark than bite.
Winners: L.A. Kings
Ryan Smith, Anze Kopitar, and Jack Johnson were going to make the core of a good team someday. But nobody expected that some day would come so soon.
While the team has cooled off from a blistering start there is no reason to believe this team is going to tank anytime soon. Being ahead of schedule is a good thing in a cap restricted league. Are the Kings the next Washington Capitals?
Winners: New Jersey Devils
37-year-old Martin Brodeur was supposed to be too old. Jacques Lemaire's 1-2-2 trap was supposed to be too antiquated to handle high flying offenses in Washington and elsewhere. But a funny thing happened in the first half...it all worked.
Brodeur has broken a handful of goaltending records and returned to the brilliance of his youth, while the Devils have thrived on playing traffic cone hockey. Nobody would have picked this team to lead the Eastern Conference back in training camp. Nobody.
Winners: Buffalo Sabres
Two words describe the assent of the Buffalo Sabres this season: Ryan Miller. Miller has taken his game to a dizzying new level this season, played himself onto the U.S. Olympic team and pulled his teammates into second place in the conference. So long as he stays healthy this is a formitable team who might find themselves deep in a playoff run about the time that Sabres fans can finally see the grass in their front yards again.
Winners: Colorado Avalanche
While things have cooled off in the Mile High City of late, the Avalanche are another team riding a hot goaltender for all he's worth. Craig Anderson was an interesting looking backup in Florida last year but took the starting job by storm in training camp and has added a new flavor to an interesting young corps of talent that includes Paul Stastny and Matt Duchene.
With many of the Avalanche home watching the Olympics this could be a rested and tough team down the stretch.
Sinners: St. Louis Blues
The Blues stormed into the playoffs last season and upgraded its goaltending and defense coming into the season. The result? 40 points in 40 games and coach Andy Murray on an unemployment line.
A team with Paul Kariya shouldn't be this bad, but every night its a new and interesting twist in the "L" column. President John Davidson suddenly has much more work to do than anyone realized.
Sinners: Carolina Hurricanes
Last year's Eastern Conference runners-up have played like an expansion team for most of the season and have already sealed their fate come playoff time.
A gruesome injury to extra ordinary goaltender Cam Ward didn't help matters but this team had already crashed and burned before that. There are holes to be sure in this lineup and it appears that GM Jim Rutherford could be filling them with a lottery pick this spring.
Sinners: Columbus Blue Jackets
While this team made a splash with its first playoff run last spring it has gone splat since. Steve Mason hasn't been the second coming of Martin Brodeur and Ken Hitchcock's act is wearing thin in another NHL stop. The Jackets aren't completely out of the playoff picture, but are as close as a team could be. Even if Mason returns to his rookie form, it probably won't be enough.
Sinners: Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks goose appears to be cooked before the New Year even began. A team that was expected to contend for a slot in the Stanley Cup finals is in 13th place in the conference and swimming in circles.
Like the Penguins of last year, these Ducks appear to be playing to get coach Randy Carlisle fired and the sooner the better. The team isn't winning loose pucks and can't buy a clutch goal all the while trying to figure out which of its two goaltenders are going to step up. These Ducks have taken a giant leap backwards.
Sinners: Philadelphia Flyers
Team President Bobby Clarke claimed the Flyers were a legitmate Stanley Cup contender the second he handed an orange and white jersey to Chris Pronger. The Hockey News picked them to win the Stanely Cup. Then the team fell flat on its collective face, got its coach fired and only recently has begun to look like a team not in the running for a lottery pick.
Take your pick: goaltending, scoring, or special teams all have failed at one time or another. Chris Pronger was supposed to neutralize Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. So far the Flyers are a collective 0-4 against the defending champs.