Three Burning Questions for the NHL Second Half

Greg Mole

As NHL fans recover from either post-Olympic euphoria or frustration, professional hockey looks to pick up right where it left off. Most fans like myself are wondering, what should be expected from the second part of the season? Will teams continue to put up monstrous scores or will the offense settle down as defenders adjust to the new rules? What Cinderella stories are destined for disappointment? Which team will be atop the points standing at the end of the season?

Scoring

After a decade of defense-dominated play, the NHL has returned to the high-flying, big-time scoring of the 1980s. The new rule changes have negated the trap schemes that were chic only a few years ago and have really opened things up. Defenders are far more limited in their ability to impede the opposing forward, with referees calling even the most minor of hooks and grabs. The number of power plays is way up, and special teams prowess has been a deciding factor in separating the divisional wheat from the chaff.

This season has also witnessed the rise of several netminders to goaltending prominence. Martin Gerber spent two years backing up Jean Sebastien Giguere on the Mighty Ducks before posting a 2.73 GAA as Carolina’s starter. The same goes for Manny Legace, the longtime Detroit backup turned elite goalie for the Detroit Red Wings. The success of these newly anointed starters suggests that the defensive side of the NHL is not as far behind the offense as many are led to believe. With over half a season for defenses to adjust, look for scoring to go down. Games with 1-0 scores may be an increasing rarity, but there is no reason to think that 7-6 shootouts will continue to appear with such regularity.

Will the Cinderella Team Turn into a Pumpkin?

The New York Rangers are this year’s Cinderella team. After years of high-priced teams and mediocre performances, the Rangers organization made significant payroll cuts and opted to go with a youth movement. Hockey experts predicted another season of sub-par hockey; instead the Rangers have been superlative. Jaromir Jagr, the team’s only remaining star, has resurrected his career: with 88 points and 40 goals, he sits atop the league in both categories. Rookie sensation Henrik Lunqvist is tops in the NHL with a .927 save percentage, and he is tied with Dominik Hasek for second with a 2.09 GAA. With strong play all around the ice, the Rangers have excelled, and they currently sit atop the Atlantic Division with 78 points.

The Rangers have shown surprising moxie, riding the inevitable drop-off from their early season dominance and continuing to play on an elite level. They will face a severe test from Philadelphia, however, as the injury-prone Flyers regain their all-world center, Peter Forsberg. It should be a fight to the finish, and regardless of who comes out on top of the division, the Rangers should have a strong seed in the playoffs.

Which Team will have the Most Points at the End of the Season?

The Detroit Red Wings currently have the most points in the NHL with 83. The emergence of Manny Legace, coupled with top-notch forwards Pavel Datsuk and Henrik Zetterberg, makes the Motor City a dominant force. Detroit is not invincible, though. The Red Wings are solid all across the ice, but teams like Ottawa and Carolina could pose a significant threat. The Hurricanes are only a point behind the Red Wings, and possess a potent top line. Combine this with Gerber’s solid goaltending, and Carolina should hang with Detroit for the remainder of the season.

No team has more potential for a points’ explosion than the Ottawa Senators. Sure, the team has fallen off a bit from the first quarter of the season, where it flat out dominated the entire league. Dominik Hasek is also out with an injury, but, if he returns anytime soon, the Senators should be more than a good match for the rest of the NHL. With a bevy of top scorers including Dany Heatley, Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, and an out-of-this-world defense headlined by Wade Redden, Ottawa is an All-Star team in itself. Still, the Senators’ success depends on Hasek, who was having a fantastic season before injuring himself during the Olympics. Since his return is up in the air, the safe pick is Detroit to win out over its Eastern Conference competition for regular season dominance.