Hockey restarts tomorrow. Following the All-Star break that featured rags to riches feel good story John Scott taking home MVP honors after helping lead the Pacific to a 1-0 championship win over Jaromir Jagr’s Atlantic, the second part of the season returns.
For the Rangers and Devils, they’ll face off in Newark for a crucial Battle of Hudson. Four total points separates second place from the second wildcard. The Rangers find themselves in second with 59 points. One ahead of the Islanders, who’ll host the Wild Tuesday night. The Devils and Penguins are tied in points with 55. But Pittsburgh holds the second wildcard by virtue of two fewer games played. The Pens will also be in action hosting the Senators. The Hurricanes have 54 and resume Wednesday at Calgary. The Flyers have 50 and host the stumbling Canadiens, who have 52.
Aside from runaway Eastern Conference leader Washington who lead the NHL with 73 points, everything is in play. That includes the Atlantic Division-leading Panthers, who are five points up on the surging Lightning and the Red Wings. Wild card leader Boston has 57 which means only six total points divide first from fourth. Montreal and Ottawa each have 52 and need strong finishes.
While the chaos ensues over the next four weeks with teams positioning themselves for the special trade deadline in a Leap Year on Feb. 29, plenty will be decided by the games. As with any deadline, there are buyers and sellers. Right now, with so much parity, there aren’t many teams out of it in either conference. Outside of the Sabres, Oilers, Flames, Blue Jackets, Maple Leafs and Jets, everyone else is still alive.
That includes the Coyotes and Devils who are two of the biggest surprises. Arizona is in third in the Pacific due to the play of rookies Max Domi, Anthony Duclair and January Rookie of the Month Louis Domingue. Coach Dave Tippett has also gotten big contributions from Norris darkhorse Oliver Ekman-Larsson, grizzled vet Shane Doan, Mikkel Boedker and Tobias Rieder. He’s always been one of the league’s best coaches. If he gets them in, he’ll win the Jack Adams easily.
Under first-year coach John Hynes, it was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the Devils. Instead, the brilliant play of All-Star goalie Cory Schneider has carried them into playoff contention. Leading scorer Mike Cammalleri has been the offensive leader along with key pickup Kyle Palmieri, who GM Ray Shero stole from Anaheim. Together along with Adam Henrique and bargain basement vet Lee Stempniak, they have scored and setup big goals. Hynes has also gotten more out of Travis Zajac. There’s even hope for the kids with Reid Boucher and Joseph Blandisi showing promise. Adam Larsson and Andy Greene do most of the heavy lifting on the blue line.
Meanwhile, across the Hudson the Rangers have been unpredictable. Since Henrik Lundqvist carried them to a strong start over the first 20, they’ve yet to put together a real winning streak. Two in a row doesn’t count. Even with coach Alain Vigneault insisting they were playing better having won three of four at the break, there’s been little consistency. Will Derick Brassard’s breakout game spark them? Is Chris Kreider finally hitting his stride? Has Derek Stepan finally discovered how to win faceoffs consistently and now that he has, is he in for a big finish? What about Ryan McDonagh, who seems to have found his form? Mats Zuccarello had a good first half but probably needed the time off to recover. J.T. Miller is the one Blueshirt who has improved evolving into a top six forward Vigneault can lean on. He still doesn’t trust Oscar Lindberg and Kevin Hayes doesn’t play as much as thought due to inconsistency.
There are a couple of big questions surrounding the Rangers. How long will Vigneault stick with Dan Girardi and Marc Staal while keeping Dylan McIlrath in the press box? How serious is Rick Nash’s injury? It was thought the time off would allow him to be ready from the bone bruise he suffered. Instead, even with no structural damage, he still isn’t skating making him out for tomorrow. When will he return? Without him, it hurts a offense that has under performed. It also means Vigneault will continue to juggle his top lines with the exception of the slow and plodding fourth line.
Whatever happens remains to be seen. This month is sure to be a emotional roller coaster ride for most hockey fans. February should separate the pretenders from the contenders.