The NHL All-Star Game certainly doesn’t compare to the playoffs, but the league usually puts together a fun weekend — and a game that doesn’t end in a tie. Last year’s first ever Young Stars game replaced the Old Timers game and was a success that will be repeated this year.
Additionally, it’s always fun to watch the Super Skills Competition, especially when Al MacInnis unleashes his 100+ mph slap shot. And since the novelty of North America vs. the World has worn out, the format has returned to East vs. West. But what hockey players and fans really look forward to is the end of the break.
When the games resume on Tuesday, the competition will heat up just a little more as another major landmark of the season will pass. The Western Conference will be a battle for position, as Anaheim is the only real threat to any of the eight teams currently holding a playoff spot. The East however, is wide open, with just ten points separating the sixth through thirteenth teams in the conference. The playoff fates of some teams could be decided by a run or a slump in the next few weeks, but many battles will definitely last until the final days of the season.Atlantic Division
As expected, Martin Brodeur has been stellar all season, and the Devils have ridden his strong play to the second best record in the Eastern Conference. They recently recalled Mike Rupp from the AHL, and his NHL career has started with a bang. If they continue to find scoring from unlikely sources and Brodeur continues to be Brodeur, the Devils will most likely win the Atlantic Division and battle Ottawa for the top spot in the conference.
April is a long way away, but it looks right now that the only team that can challenge the Devils in the Atlantic Division is Philadelphia. Roman Cechmanek and Robert Esche have been more than adequate in goal, and Jeremy Roenick has been better lately after a slow start. Mark Recchi and Simon Gagne must continue to lead the Flyers in the absence of John LeClair and Justin Williams. With a very balanced team and great coaching, the Flyers could come out of the East in the playoffs.
When Mike Peca returned from surgery, the Islanders were 7 games under the .500 mark. With him in the lineup, they are 10 games above .500 despite being shut out three times in recent days. Jason Blake — the Isles version of the Energizer Bunny — has helped put them back in playoff position, but the loss of Eric Cairns leaves the Isles short two of their top d-men until he and Adrian Aucoin return. With Chris Osgood out for a few more weeks, Rick DiPietro will finally get his chance to prove he deserves to play with the big team.
With the Penguins so close to a playoff spot, it’s a shame that the only hockey-talk in Pittsburgh is of Mario Lemieux’s injury and the inevitable trade of Alexei Kovalev. After Johan Hedberg’s emergence in the playoffs several years ago, his current injury has made way for another Penguin goalie to take center stage. This time, Sebastien Caron has stolen the show from the stars in Pittsburgh and posted two shutouts and a 1.51 goals against average in his first seven games as an NHL goalie.
Don’t let the standings fool you — the Rangers aren’t as close to playoff position as it may seem at first glance. Strong play early this month got them back into contention, but a recent slide includes two losses to Atlanta and a 7-2 loss to Washington. Additionally, the Blueshirts have played at least two more games than every other team in the East and still sit two points out of the final playoff spot. Although it’s still early in the season, old teams — they like to refer to themselves as “experienced veterans” — tend to break down as the season progresses, just as the Rangers did last year.
Northeast DivisionEven bankruptcy can’t stop the Ottawa Senators. The players received empty envelopes on Jan. 1 instead of paychecks, and yet they’ve continued to unquestionably be the best team in the East. Marian Hossa has become one of the top scorers in the league to lead a scoring attack that includes Daniel Alfredsson, Martin Havlat, Todd White and Radek Bonk. Wade Redden, Chris Phillips, and the monstrous Zdeno Chara form arguably the top defense in the league, and Patrick Lalime was a late addition to the All-Star team. Now they just have to prove they can win in the playoffs — and survive the season in Ottawa.
Ed Belfour has done a great job helping fans of what Sports Illustrated called “the most hated team in hockey” forget that Curtis Joseph left the hockey capital of the world for Hockeytown U.S.A. After a slow start to the season, Darcy Tucker and the Maple Leafs survived their return to Long Island — although they lost that game — and currently hold the fifth spot in the East. Alexander Mogilny and Mats Sundin lead an attack that is third in the conference in goals scored. Their record indicates that they desperately need home-ice advantage in the playoffs, but they will need to pass the Devils or Flyers to get there.
After starting the season on fire, the absences of Bill Guerin, Kyle McLaren and Byron Dafoe had begun to show up on the ice in Boston. That was of course, until they finally traded McLaren and acquired veteran goalie Jeff Hackett. Since the trade they are 3-0, and they look to be headed in the right direction. If Coach Robbie Ftorek’s job had been in jeopardy before the deal, it probably isn’t anymore. If Hackett continues his strong play, the Bruins could challenge for home-ice advantage in the playoffs.
Even a .500 record is no longer acceptable in Montreal. Coach Michel Therrien was recently replaced by Claude Julien, a move that appears to have taken the blame away from players having sub-par seasons, including last year’s MVP Jose Thedore, who has struggled throughout the season, although he has improved lately. One bright spot for the Habs has been the emergence of Marcel Hossa, younger brother of Ottawa star Marian Hossa, as one of the top young players in the league.First they traded Dominik Hasek, then Michael Peca. The league took over the team and they can’t find a stable owner. Then, for the second time in a week, an NHL team filed for bankruptcy, and the Sabres might be contracted after the season. In a weird twist, the Sabres have only one regulation loss since filing for bankruptcy over three weeks ago. Martin Biron has played well, and Taylor Pyatt, Ales Kotalik, J.P. Dumont and Tim Connolly may eventually lead two solid lines — if the Sabres are still around.
Southeast DivisionThe Washington Capitals were expected to compete all season for the top spot in the division and thus the third seed in the Eastern Conference. They weren’t, however, expected to be competing with Tampa Bay and Florida. The Caps, led by Jaromir Jagr, who has come alive lately, and Olaf Kolzig in goal, are just four games above .500, but thanks to a weak division, sit in first place. Trading for Michael Nylander has aided the struggling offense. As long as Jagr and Peter Bondra continue to score, the Caps will emerge as the winners of the Southeast.The Tampa Bay Lightning were an early season surprise, but have faltered as of late. Even with starting All-Star goalie Nikolai Khabibulin not at the top of his game, the Lightning have remained in playoff contention. If they are still in striking distance in a month, look for them to make a trade to solidify their defense.
Who would’ve thought that the biggest snub from this year’s All-Star game would be Olli Jokinen? Only a late roster change got him the spot he deserved all along. Roberto Luongo and Jani Hurme have played solidly in goal, but the Panthers are just 1-4 in their last five. If they can snap out of the slump, it might not be too late to salvage the season. With a solid young team, the Panthers are probably not ready to get in this year, but by next season should compete.
These days, having “Hurricanes” as your team name isn’t a very good thing. The defending National Champion Miami Hurricanes lost this year’s National Championship football game, and the defen
ding Eastern Conference Champion Carolina Hurricanes currently sit in fourth place in the Southeast, behind perennial cellar-dwellers Florida and Tampa Bay. With Rod Brind’Amour out for at least two months, Carolina will likely fall further out of contention.
If Bob Hartley had been coaching them all season, or if they played the Rangers every night, the Thrashers might have been a Stanley Cup contender. Atlanta has just two losses — both to the Islanders — in their last ten games, including consecutive victories over the Rangers that have actually gotten people in Atlanta talking about a playoff run, which still seems very unlikely as they are 12 points out of the eight spot. Things are finally starting to come alive in Atlanta.
Swidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.