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With All-Star break over, teams get set for NHL's second half

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TSN.ca Staff
1/26/2009 12:56:49 PM
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Even though the All-Star break represents the unofficial halfway mark of the NHL regular season, most teams have played closer to 60 per cent of their schedules.  And with only 30-odd games left to play, the race for the postseason is likely to heat up quickly when action resumes on Tuesday.

History shows that having a playoff position in January tends to be a big indicator of who ends up with a spot in April. In each of the last two seasons, 14 of the 16 teams that held playoff spots at the All-Star break went on to make the postseason.  In other words, teams on the outside looking in today will really have their work cut out for them.

But that doesn't mean that the jump can't be made.  In the East, Buffalo, Carolina, Florida and Pittsburgh are separated by just three points.  Two of those teams will likely make the playoffs, and two likely won't.  In the West, only two points separate the five teams seeded six through 10, with the Oilers and Canucks in the thick of the battle.

There may not be much change, though, among the division leaders. The Bruins, Capitals, Red Wings, and Flames each have leads of at least nine points in their respective divisions, and the Sharks lead the Pacific by a whopping 20 points over the second-place Coyotes.  The only division title that appears to be up for grabs in the short term is in the Atlantic, where the Devils (61 points), Rangers (60), and Flyers (59) are all part of the mix.

As the schedule hits the home stretch, it could also be an epic struggle for the Presidents' Trophy, awarded to the team with the most regular season points.  The Bruins (34-8-5, 73 points) are neck and neck with the Sharks, who have two games in hand (34-6-5, 73 points). Both teams have put on dominant performances so far this season in what could be a preview of the Stanley Cup finals, if they are able to keep up the torrid pace.

With the Washington Capitals sitting second in the East with 63 points, many fans are getting excited to see what the explosive Alex Ovechkin can do in his second crack at the postseason with the Caps.

Will Sidney Crosby and the Penguins be missing the postseason after making it all the way to the finals against Detroit last year?  In 2007, the Hurricanes were the last team to achieve that dubious honour, when they failed to make the playoffs just one year after winning the Stanley Cup. 

As always, the races for individual awards should be interesting as well. The Art Ross Trophy (most points) appears to be Evgeni Malkin's to lose, as the Penguins star holds a 10-point advantage over teammate Sidney Crosby. The race for the Rocket Richard trophy (top goal scorer) could be tighter, with Alexander Ovechkin's 31 goals currently leading the way. Jeff Carter (30), Zach Parise (28), and Thomas Vanek (28) are also in contention.

Blue Jackets rookie goaltender Steve Mason (six shutouts, 2.05 GAA) has made a huge jump with his recent play to become a frontrunner for the Calder Trophy.  But scoring leader Kris Versteeg of the Blackhawks (36 points) will also garner votes in that category, along with up-and-comers Bobby Ryan of Anaheim (15 goals), and Blake Wheeler of the conference-leading Bruins (14 goals).

The NHL trade deadline is March 4, and it probably won't be long before the identities of the league's buyers and sellers are revealed. Toronto's Tomas Kaberle and Nik Antropov have been surrounded by rumours for months, as have Ottawa's Jason Spezza, Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier, and Florida's Jay Bouwmeester.

One of the big subplots this year has focused on the teams near the bottom of the standings, with an eye on which organization stands the best chance of winning the right to draft top-ranked junior phenom John Tavares.  Right now the Islanders are eight points clear of the rest of the league for fewest points, and seem destined to gain the best odds (25 per cent) of winning the NHL draft lottery. Ottawa and Atlanta are currently ranked 28th and 29th overall, while Toronto, St. Louis, and Tampa Bay round out the bottom six.

Joe Thornton (Photo: Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Scott A. Schneider/Getty Images)
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