Preds, Sharks will duke it out for Western crown
The Predators rode out injuries to Jason Arnott and Tomas Vokoun, among others, to emerge as the NHL's top team at the break after an 8-2 run. Deep on defense and bigger and more potent up front, the Preds are quietly now the team to beat in the West.
First-half surprises: The play of netminding understudy Chris Mason, who is 20-8-2 and leads the league with a .930 save percentage.
Second-half questions: A season ago, GM David Poile gave up a first-round pick for veteran defenseman Brendan Witt. Does Poile look to add a little experience to a very good, homegrown blue-line corps? Can Vokoun regain his all-world form before the playoffs?
Where they'll finish: The Preds are the real deal, and they'll prove it by winning the Central over hard-charging Detroit and topping all teams in the conference.
Detroit Red Wings
While people always predict decline for the Wings, all they do is win. They may not be a Presidents' Trophy winner as they were last season, but the Wings will chase the Predators down to the wire for the Central crown. Assuming Detroit remains healthy, it will be a dangerous playoff foe.
First-half surprises: The inspired play of Dominik Hasek, who will turn 42 before the end of the month and is 25-8-3 at the break.
Second-half questions: Can Hasek stay healthy leading up to the postseason? Is there enough leadership, given the absence of Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan, to get the Wings back into Cup contention once the playoffs start? Will GM Ken Holland add some veteran toughness up front?
Where they'll finish: The Wings will fall short of the Predators and end up with the fifth seed in the conference, just behind Anaheim, setting up a dandy first-round clash between Detroit and Anaheim.
St. Louis Blues
Credit new president John Davidson for having the moxie to fire coach Mike Kitchen and replace him with X's and O's taskmaster Andy Murray. Too bad Davidson didn't make the move in July. If he had, the Blues, who hit the break on a 7-2-1 run, might be thinking "playoffs" instead of "next season."
First-half surprises: The team's inspired response to Murray, whose unyielding style wore thin in Los Angeles before the end of last season. And who knew Bill Guerin had 20 goals left in him, let alone 20 by the break?
Where they'll finish: The Blues' consistency and work ethic keep them third in the division and 12th in the conference.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Even bringing in Ken Hitchcock as coach for the overmatched Gerard Gallant couldn't hide the myriad problems that affect this long-suffering team. Talent? Yes, there's some. Work ethic and commitment? Not so much.
Second-half questions: Who does GM Doug MacLean prune from his roster at the trade deadline? More to the point, who's running the show come draft time this summer?
Where they'll finish: Thanks to Chicago, the Blue Jackets will stay out of the division cellar but will miss the playoffs for the sixth straight season with a 13th-place conference finish.
For one brief, flickering moment, the Blackhawks looked like they'd turned a corner with the arrival of former sniper Denis Savard as coach. But a 1-7-2 free-fall into the break has the lovable Hawks just where you'd expect them to be -- drifting aimlessly.
First-half surprises: The stellar production of Martin Havlat, when he's been healthy (32 points in 26 games, plus-13), and the lack of production and leadership from the rest of the lineup.
Second-half questions: The Hawks look destined for another lottery pick, and GM Dale Tallon will be trying to move some of his excess baggage (veterans Martin Lapointe, Bryan Smolinski and Adrian Aucoin) for even more young resources.
Where they'll finish: The Hawks failed to keep pace with the rest of the division and will once gain finish at the bottom of the Central (14th in the conference).
The Flames have overcome a couple of rough patches and are starting to produce offense to complement the impeccable netminding of Miikka Kiprusoff. Even an injury to their best skater, Jarome Iginla, hasn't slowed the Flames, who hit the break on a 7-3 run.
Second-half questions: Will Iginla be hampered by his knee injury down the stretch and into the playoffs? Can the Flames improve on a 27th-ranked road record and middling special teams?
Where they'll finish: The Flames will earn the top spot in the ultratight Northwest Division and start the playoffs with the third seed.
One of the biggest surprises in the conference, the Canucks got over a rough start and have turned themselves into a very difficult team to play against. Roberto Luongo (his 27 wins lead the West) has established himself as a Vezina Trophy candidate as the Canucks enter the break as the NHL's hottest team (8-1-1 through their last 10).
Second-half questions: Can the Sedin twins continue to shoulder the offensive load with Markus Naslund in a long-term free fall?
Where they'll finish: The Canucks won't be able to keep pace with the Flames, but will finish third in the division, sixth in the conference.
The Wild have established themselves as one of the most dominant home teams in the league with a 17-5-3 record. They hit the break 28th on the road, a dynamic that could cost them a playoff berth if they can't correct it.
First-half surprises: The Wild stayed in the hunt without the services of star Marian Gaborik for 2½ months.
Second-half questions: Can Gaborik stay healthy and push the Wild into the playoffs for the first time since 2003?
Where they'll finish: It will be agonizingly close, but the Wild's depth finally gets them into the postseason with the fourth spot in the division and the seventh spot in the conference.
Relying on a talented, youthful group of players, including top rookies Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski, the Avs have enjoyed a surprisingly successful first half and are just three points out of the eighth spot with two games in hand.
Where they'll finish: Inexperience and injury take their toll on the Avs and they miss the postseason for the first time since 1993-94, when they were the Quebec Nordiques. They finish fourth in the division and ninth in the conference.
Just another wacky, up-and-down year for the defending Western Conference champions, who are either red hot or ice cold. Unfortunately, the latter could spell doom in the NHL's most closely fought division.
Second-half questions: Can GM Kevin Lowe bolster the Oilers' thin back end before the trade deadline as he did a season ago?
Where they'll finish: It might not be until the final whistle of the regular season, but the Oilers simply do not have enough consistency to qualify in the NHL's best division. Fifth in the Northwest, 10th in the conference.
For the first three months of the season, the Ducks looked invincible. They weren't, of course, and injuries to key personnel (defensemen Chris Pronger and Francois Beauchemin and netminder Jean-Sebastien Giguere) have revealed the Ducks' flaws as they hit the break on a 2-6-2 slide.
First-half surprises: The continued dominance of veteran Teemu Selanne, who is tied for the NHL lead in goals with 30, and the play of Giguere, who compiled a Vezina-worthy 23-4-5 record before suffering a groin injury.
Second-half questions: When do Pronger and Giguere return to the lineup and how do they respond to their absences due to injury? Will Scott Niedermayer's stress fracture keep him from freewheeling down the stretch?
Where they'll finish: Injuries will cost Anaheim the No. 1 spot in the West and the division title as San Jose edges past the Ducks. Second in the Pacific, fourth in the conference.
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks' goaltending picture remains in a state of flux with Vesa Toskala re-emerging as the No. 1 guy after winning his last six starts. Jonathan Cheechoo's production has slipped dramatically (16 goals, minus-8), but the Sharks still seem to find ways to fill the void. That's why they're a bona fide Cup contender.
Second-half questions: Can the Sharks avoid the dreaded injury bug, and which netminder, Toskala or Evgeni Nabokov, will be the man between the pipes when the playoffs start?
Where they'll finish: The Sharks surge past the Ducks to win the Pacific and finish second in the conference behind Nashville.
What once looked like a "gimme" postseason berth will become a nail-biter. The Stars have had to muddle along without key players throughout the season, including captain Brenden Morrow and former captain Mike Modano. Neither will be back anytime soon. Of the top eight teams in the West, only Vancouver had scored fewer times than the Stars. That's not a recipe for success, especially with an injured lineup.
First-half surprises: The continued solid team play despite crippling injuries, and Patrik Stefan's now-famous miss of an open net against Edmonton.
Second-half questions: Can GM Doug Armstrong find offensive help via trade, and what does the future hold for Modano, who is closing in on the all-time record for goals and points by an American-born NHL player?
Where they'll finish: It won't be pretty, but the Stars will qualify for the postseason behind the solid play of netminder Marty Turco, finishing third in the division and eighth in the West.
The Coyotes recently made an inspired run, but their awful start (and key injuries) will again keep them out of the playoffs as they sit eight points out of the race. Newcomers Nick Boynton and Jeremy Roenick didn't provide the performances expected, but forward Yanic Perreault and goalie Mikael Tellqvist have been more than pleasant surprises.
First-half surprises: The play of Perreault and Tellqvist, who essentially came out of nowhere to lead the Coyotes into the hunt.
Second-half questions: It's unlikely GM Mike Barnett can afford both Shane Doan and Ladislav Nagy, so one will likely be out the door by the end of February. We guess it's Nagy. Others on the block could include Curtis Joseph and Owen Nolan.
Where they'll finish: The Coyotes will finish fourth in the division and 11th in the conference.
Los Angeles Kings
A team in obvious transition, the Kings are just about where you'd expect them to be -- last in the conference and in the middle of a 2-7-1 slide. And with improvements in Columbus and St. Louis, the Kings look to be in a battle with Philadelphia for the No. 1 draft pick.
Second-half questions: GM Dean Lombardi will be trying to unload veterans, including Craig Conroy and, perhaps, even Rob Blake before the trade deadline. Will netminder Robert Esche, whom Lombardi knows from Philadelphia, make his way west to replace the injury-plagued, inconsistent Cloutier?
Where they'll finish: It would be a minor miracle if the Kings crept out of fifth in the division and last in the conference. There'll be no miracles.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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