By: Josh Chodor
With the All-Star break now in the rearview mirror, the NHL slowly but surely is morphing into what fans expected it to look like. Cup contenders Anaheim and Tampa Bay have rebounded from awful starts to move back into the playoff picture. Feel good teams such as the Arizona Coyotes have faded back into no-man’s land. And surprising successes remain across the league, as Florida, New Jersey, Carolina, and Colorado all battle for the playoffs. To this point, the Panthers have to be considered among the league’s biggest shockers. With only one playoff appearance since 2000, Florida has juxtaposed wily veterans (Jaromir Jagr, Roberto Luongo, Jussi Jokinen) with young star power (Jonathan Huberdeau, Alexander Barkov). They sit in first place in the Atlantic Division, but there is still plenty of time to go in the regular season.
EASTERN CONFERENCE: A TALE OF TWO DIVISIONS
Perennial contenders Detroit, Washington, Pittsburgh, and New York (Rangers) all sit in playoff position. The Capitals have not slowed at all from their hot start, and have 39 wins in 52 games. Meanwhile, a healthy Sidney Crosby has vaulted the Penguins back into a wild card spot. Tampa Bay and the Islanders have bounced back from slow starts to play strong hockey. However, the surprises in the East have all come from the Atlantic. Montreal has been horrific after the loss of Carey Price, going from one of the league’s best teams to the worst. Boston can dominate, yet they fell 9-2 at home to Los Angeles just days ago. Florida, still, has not gone away, and doesn’t look like it will anytime soon.
WESTERN CONFERENCE: ROUNDING INTO SHAPE
Out west, the Blackhawks have surged into the Central Division lead and look deadly. The Dallas Stars, leaders for much of the season, have fallen back to Earth due to their pedestrian defense. The real tangle in the West is for the wild card spots, where St. Louis, Colorado, Minnesota, and Nashville battle for three berths. In the Pacific, Californian teams have re-asserted their dominance, as San Jose and Anaheim have jumped into the playoff picture. Canadian teams have not fared as well, as the Oilers, Flames, Jets, and Canucks all sit on the outside looking in.