Ovechkin, Caps leading the way at NHL's Olympic break

Barry Riz -

2/15/2010 1:56:59 PM

The Olympic flame is burning bright, and so for the next two weeks, the arenas of the National Hockey League will be dark.
Except for the one in Vancouver, of course.
But the fact that the NHL is on hiatus only heightens the drama that is set to play out in a short six-week race to the conclusion of the regular season from Mar. 1 to Apr. 11.
Who is in the driver's seat? In the Eastern Conference, look no further than the Washington Capitals. With 90 points, Alex Ovechkin and company sit a full 13 points clear of their nearest competitors (New Jersey Devils - 77 points), and have the inside track to the number one seed and home ice advantage. In the West, the San Jose Sharks, with 89 points, are two ahead of the Chicago Blackhawks.
A look at the standings shows that 11 of the 16 post-season berths are most likely secure. But as many as 13 teams have a reasonable shot at the remaining five spots.
In the East, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal, Tampa Bay, the New York Rangers and Atlanta are separated by five points, with the Flyers, Bruins and Canadiens holding down the final three playoff spots at the time of the Olympic break.

In the West, Nashville, Calgary, Dallas, Detroit, Anaheim, St. Louis, and Minnesota are separated by seven points. The Predators and Flames hold the final two playoff spots at the moment.
It is certainly a changing of the guard in the West, where the Kings and Coyotes are comfortably in playoff position, while the Red Wings, Ducks, and Stars are on the outside looking in.
Among Canadian teams, the Canucks and Senators have been success stories, while the Canadiens and Flames are in the thick of the fight for playoff position. But at the bottom of each conference sit another pair of Canadian clubs who have had significant difficulties. The Toronto Maple Leafs didn't pick up a win until their 9th game, and the team has endured defensive and goaltending issues that have left them with just 19 wins in 61 starts at the break.
Only one team checks in with fewer points than Toronto's 49, and that's the Edmonton Oilers with a league-worst 44. The Oilers' only solace is that they currently have the best chance of any team of securing the first overall pick for this summer's NHL draft. Should Edmonton rally and pass Toronto in the standings, then the destination of the top selection might just be Boston, since the Leafs traded their first pick to the Bruins last fall for Phil Kessel.
For the players, there are several individual races to be decided. Ovechkin (89 points) has passed Vancouver's Henrik Sedin (80) atop the scoring list. The Russian star is on pace to capture his second Art Ross Trophy and is a favourite to win his third consecutive Hart Trophy.
Looking for 50-goal scorers? Ovechkin has 42 and is a good bet to hit the mark for a fourth time. But right alongside him is Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby (42), who has ramped up his goal scoring and is likely to crack the 50-goal milestone for the first time. San Jose's Patrick Marleau has 38 goals and is on pace for 51.
Looking for Vezina candidates? Martin Brodeur and Evgeni Nabokov both have 34 wins, but upstart Kings' netminder Jonathan Quick leads the NHL with 35. Tomas Vokoun (.931) and Ryan Miller (.930) lead the way in save percentage, while Tuukka Rask's goals-against-average is 2.08. With no clear favourite, voters will have plenty of choices.
While 2009 first-overall pick John Tavares has been solid in his rookie season with the New York Islanders, it's the forward who was chosen two spots later who has made the biggest waves for the Calder Trophy. Colorado's Matt Duchene leads all rookie scorers in goals (20) and points (42), and he has helped a vastly improved Avalanche squad move into playoff contention. Defencemen Tyler Myers of the Sabres and Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers have impressed on the back end, but at this point the Calder appears to be Duchene's to lose.
Teams around the league have approximately 20 games left, so the pressure will be on the moment the season resumes. But all regular season questions will be answered just six weeks later, when the NHL's "second-season" begins and the Penguins prepare to defend their Stanley Cup title.