11 things to keep an eye on down the stretch in the NHL
Ready, folks? It's go time.
All-Star Weekend, though much too short, is an opportunity for players to heal the buildup of damaged tissue that accumulates through the four-month grind to start the season. But also, and perhaps most importantly, time spent on the beach or with family allows players to recharge mentally, and prepare for the stretch run.
Because with the table now set, the objective for each team and every player is clear.
Here are 11 things to watch out for in final 11 weeks of the regular season:
Can the Capitals handle adversity?
Things have come all too easy for the league's best team, which has failed to collect at least a point in just eight games all year. But adversity will knock, with graver news than Alex Ovechkin having to sit one game.
Washington has been, not coincidentally, one of the healthiest teams in the league, with its top six combining to miss only six games to injury.
It should be noted, though, that the Capitals have already survived a major loss. They went 9-2-1 without their best defenseman, John Carlson, for a stretch in January.
How high can Kane set the bar?
Having carried his first-place club through sluggish portions with his offensive wizardry, Patrick Kane met the All-Star break as the only player on pace for a 100-point season.
Should he maintain this form, he'll surpass Jamie Benn's Art Ross campaign total from last season before the calendar flips to March, hit 100 points around the time the Chicago River is colored St. Patrick's green, and finish with 113 points to match Evgeni Malkin for the most since Sidney Crosby in 2006-07.
McDavid's rookie season
It will begin in earnest Tuesday, when the Edmonton Oilers phenom, on the mend from a broken clavicle, returns to the lineup versus the Columbus Blue Jackets.
McDavid likely doesn't have a shot at the Calder Trophy, and another season appears lost in Edmonton, but the Alberta capital will see must-watch second-half games (32 of 'em) for the first time in a decade with the 19-year-old in the lineup.
Is Florida for real?
Unknown, underrated, and, contrary to the rest of the division leaders, a team firmly on the wrong side of the possession war. As far as the game's elite go, the Panthers are not like the others.
But is this ragtag group of talented young guns and grizzled veterans a true Stanley Cup contender?
With the Red Wings (twice), Penguins (twice), Capitals, Blues, and Predators on the schedule over the next two weeks, we may soon find out.
Anaheim dug itself into a similar hole its in-state rival, the Los Angeles Kings, failed to successful emerge from last year, losing nine of its first 10 games.
But unlike those Kings, the Ducks appear as though they'll survive the early turbulence, moving to within two points of a postseason position in their downtrodden division.
No longer employing a breakneck pace, the Ducks are winning games with a shutdown trap that has bumped their authority over shot attempts in the last two months to over 55 percent. Suddenly, they're a team to be reckoned with.
Stamkos, at ease
The Stamkos saga will rage on for a few more weeks, or perhaps less. At some point this season, the poking and prodding will discontinue, and the Tampa Bay Lightning captain's only concern will be what happens on the ice.
With the pressure only to perform, suitors might just then determine how much money they're willing to sink into the superstar.
Can the Canadiens find a lifeline?
Not in the form of John Scott.
The All-Star break wasn't at the right time, but "about time" for Montreal, which compiled a league-worst 11 total points across the last two months. To put that in perspective, the Blackhawks banked 41 over that same stretch.
The Canadiens desperately need something to rally around. And since they can no longer afford to hold their breath on Carey Price, that tangible something needs to come from P.K. Subban or Max Pacioretty - the only other real difference-makers on the roster.
We expected a fun race; we just got the participants wrong.
With Jack Eichel's slow start and McDavid's season derailed, neither of the top two picks in last summer's draft is assured to be in Las Vegas when the Calder is handed out. But that doesn't mean top rookie won't be the most competitive, exciting sprint for an individual trophy this season.
Artemi Panarin, on pace for the most points by a rookie since (who else?) Kane, is leading the field right now. But the exemplary two-way efficiency of Dylan Larkin, incredible production off the blue line from Shayne Gostisbehere, and emergence of John Gibson between the pipes, should push the shifty Chicago winger.
Can Sid prolong this tear?
Ignited under Mike Sullivan, Sidney Crosby has a very real chance to finish in the top 10 in scoring after producing almost two-thirds of a point below his career average for two months to start the season.
If he continues his pace under Sullivan, which is better than a point per game - though still well below his career average - Crosby will finish with 80. That would've been good for sixth in the league last season.
All eyes will be on Toronto in the lead-up to trade deadline day.
The last-place Maple Leafs, built up to be dismantled this month, are in the beneficial position of being the only team actively looking to be stripped for parts.
Sure, basement-dwellers in the Blue Jackets, Jets, and Oilers - hapless in their own rights - might move out a body or two. But those teams are further along in their rebuilds, and are in the process of refining, not juicing for draft picks.
Will the Central catch up to the Stars?
Dallas coughed up its lead atop the Central with just two regulation wins in the month of January. It's not time to panic, considering the Stars still have the third-most points in the NHL, but dangerous waters lie ahead.
Having competed within the Central in just 13 of its 50 games before the All-Star break, half of Dallas' remaining schedule will come inside the best division in hockey, including four games each against the Blackhawks and Predators.
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