Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Around the NHL at the All-Star break

Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011
Posted 8:38 p.m.

By Kevin Kurz
CSNPhilly.com

The first half of the NHL season has featured some surprising developments, some unsurprising ones, and another comeback attempt by Peter Forsberg.

Heres a quick look around the league as it shuts down for its annual Olympics-or-All-Star break.
Biggest surprise (team): Tampa Bay Lightning

When your biggest offseason acquisition is in the front office, its usually a sign that your team is in for a long season. Thats not the case in Tampa Bay, though, as NHL legend Steve Yzerman has turned the Lightning into a contender right away. It helps when you have the next NHL superstar (and leagues leading scorer) in Steven Stamkos, of course, but fellow forward Martin St. Louis is having a resurgence as the Lightning enter the break with a five-game winning streak and a four- point lead on Washington for first place in the Southeast Division. Veteran goalie Dwayne Roloson was a savvy pickup by Yzerman, and dont be surprised to see the Lightning make some noise in the postseason.
Honorable mention: Dallas Stars

You have to feel for the Dallas Stars, who are quietly leading the ultra-competitive Pacific Division yet struggling to fill their beautiful arena. No matter to Brad Richards and Kari Lehtonen, though, as the forward and goaltender look like they are primed to help end a two-year playoff drought for Texas only NHL team.
Biggest disappointment (team): New Jersey Devils
This ones easy. The Devils signed prized free agent Ilya Kovalchuk to a 100 million contract in the offseason and looked like a strong contender for their fourth Stanley Cup, but they have been anything but instead entering the break with the fewest points in the league. The team has gotten a little bit better now that Jacques Lemaire has returned and re-installed his sleep-inducing defensive system, and even Kovalchuk is starting to produce, but their season is essentially over.
Honorable mention: San Jose Sharks
The Western Conference regular season champions the last two seasons, the San Jose Sharks are fighting just to stay in the playoff race. A 4-0-1 stretch before the All-Star break offers some hope, but it came only after a six-game losing streak threatened to derail their season altogether. Rob Blakes retirement left a huge void on the blue line that was never filled, and the so-called Big Three of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley and Patrick Marleau are all off of their career scoring averages. There is some hope, however, as rookie Logan Couture looks like a future star and goalie Antti Niemi has played very well for the past two months.

Biggest surprise (player): Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens were roundly criticized for trading playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis in the offseason, thereby handing the reigns to Price between the pipes. Price, though, who previously looked like a victim of the tremendous pressure heaped upon him by playing in the hockey capital of North America (sorry Toronto), has been outstanding. His 2.36 goals-against average and .920 save percentage at the break earned him an All-Star berth, but more importantly, he has the Canadiens in good position to challenge Boston for the Northeast Division crown.
Biggest disappointment (player): Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

Kovalchuk would be the easy pick here, but it already feels like hes old news. Instead, lets go with the Maple Leafs captain, defenseman Dion Phaneuf. The big blueliner was acquired by Toronto last season in the hopes that his defensive presence and leadership skills would lead the Maple Leafs back to the playoffs for the first time since before the lockout. Well, better luck next year. Toronto is on its way to another long offseason, and while Phaneuf can still hit hard and be an effective player in his own zone, he has a paltry one goal and 10 assists in 33 games.
Rising star: Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers

On a team full of offensive stars, the Flyers Claude Giroux may possess the most pure ability. Giroux can do it all shoot, pass, defend and contribute on special teams. He leads the first-place Flyers with 47 points (tied with Mike Richards) and has made a number of dazzling, highlight-reel plays that seem to suggest that the 23-year-old will be an NHL star for many years to come.

Falling star: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey Devils

Martin Brodeurs numbers are obviously somewhat of an extension of how bad his Devils have been as a whole, but he hasnt done anything to help the cause, either. In fact, backup Johan Hedberg has even started back-to-back games for the Devils with a healthy Brodeur on the bench something unheard of in Brodeurs heyday. The future Hall of Fame goaltender make look back upon the second half of last season and subsequent first round playoff defeat last April as the beginning of the end to a brilliant career.

Second half storylines:
Will the defending Cup champs turn it around?

Sure, theyve been hampered by injuries throughout the year, but the Chicago Blackhawks have been a portrait of inconsistency this season. They already had to deal with a huge roster turnover from their championship team, but they still have enough talent on both ends of the ice to make another run this season. With names like Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Patrick Sharp, dont count them out. They could be the one team no one in the West wants to face come postseason time.Will Sidney Crosby return to form after his concussion?

Sidney Crosby has been, undoubtedly, the best player in the NHL this season. But the fact that hes been out of the lineup for most of the month of January with a concussion has to be concerning for the Penguins (and for the NHL, which endlessly promotes his every move while overlooking some of the games other starsbut I digress). Crosby doesnt have any sort of history when it comes to head injuries, so theres not much reason to believe he wont pick up where he left off before he got hurt. Thats the thing when it comes to concussions, though they are terribly unpredictable.

Will Peter Forsberg return?

Its a shame that Peter Forsbergs name has become a punch line in the last few years, what with his multitude of comebacks always falling by the wayside. Hes again attempting to get back into the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, and it might even happen. Even so, it may be painful to watch him try and regain his form from years past, if he ever makes it back into game action (see 2010 Olympics, in which he had one assist in four games).

Will the Capitals start scoring again?

The NHL leaders for most of last season thanks to a non-stop attack on offense, the Washington Capitals have inexplicably struggled to find the back of the net. That includes Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, who have a combined 10 goals in the last 25 games heading into the break (nine by Ovechkin). Its safe to say that no one expected the Caps to be tied for 17th in the NHL at this point in the year, with just 2.71 goals per game.

Can the Flyers and Canucks keep up their torrid pace?

Stanley Cups arent won in January, and thats likely the message that coaches Peter Laviolette and Alain Vigneault will give their respective clubs coming out of the break. Right now, however, theres little disputing that these are the two best teams in hockey right now. Philadelphia has arguably the deepest offense and deepest defense in the Eastern Conference, while the Canucks are led by Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who are in the prime of their careers and are nothing short of magical on the ice together. Seeing these two teams battle in the Stanley Cup Finals is a distinct possibility.

TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

TSN coaches poll: Wild favored to win West over Blackhawks

The Blackhawks have won three Stanley Cups since 2010, and have eliminated the Minnesota Wild from the playoffs three times from 2013-15.

But it's the Wild that NHL coaches believe will win the Western Conference this season as we approach the trade deadline.

In his annual midseason poll, TSN's Bob McKenzie surveyed 25 of 30 coaches to vote on multiple categories, such as the league's best player and the team most likely to win it all.

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According to the survey, 11 coaches predicted the Wild will win the West while the Blackhawks and Sharks tied for second with four votes.

As for winning the Stanley Cup, the Washington Capitals are the favorite, earning 10 votes, followed closely by the reigning champion Pittsburgh Penguins with eight. The Wild and Blackhawks rounded out the poll with three and two votes, respectively.

Joel Quenneville earned one vote as the NHL's best coach, which is three fewer votes than he had last year, despite this year being arguably his most challenging — and best — coaching job since arriving in Chicago, given the youth on the roster.

Extra incentive fuels Tanner Kero in second stint with Blackhawks

Extra incentive fuels Tanner Kero in second stint with Blackhawks

Incentive. For many young prospects trying to latch onto an NHL roster, there's already plenty of it there. It's a chance at playing on a bigger stage, a bigger opportunity for a career and, if you're on a two-way contract, a bigger paycheck.

Tanner Kero already had that incentive but in November, received an even more special one: he and his wife welcomed their first child, a boy. Now when Kero plays, it's not just what it means for him. It's what it means for his family.

"It's been a fun experience. It's something a little extra special that you play for," Kero said. "You get your mind away from the game when you go home. You just relax and enjoy that part of life. It's just something extra to play for and it's been special."

Kero has been making the most of his second shot with the Blackhawks, recording two goals and two assists on the Blackhawks' dads trip. That included a three-point night against the Colorado Avalanche and a building chemistry with line mates Vinnie Hinostroza and Marian Hossa. 

Coach Joel Quenneville likes what he's seen thus far.

"He did a great job for us," Quenneville said. "Defensively, we like his availability in his own end. We like his positioning offensively. He had a nice couple of games to finish the dads trip but he's been good for us. I like the consistency."

Rockford coach Ted Dent said Kero started playing better in November, not long after Kero became a dad. Whether or not that had anything to do with it Dent didn't know, but the results were there nonetheless.

"I think he'd be the first to say his season started off slow with us and he finally caught his stride, maybe 15-20 games into our season," Dent said. "He was skating better, skating stronger, he had more confidence with the puck and things just came together."

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Kero's line is a good blend of familiarity, defense and skill. Kero and Hinostroza are good friends who played together plenty in Rockford. Hossa is... well, Hossa, and pretty much benefits any line mate.

"It's been good," Kero said. "We've been trying to continue, get some secondary scoring. But we also want to be relied on defensively, be counted on to play in big situations, a defensive draw, at the end of a period or end of a game. We're trying to focus on being good defensively, being simple and hard to play against. We're getting fortunate enough to contribute offensively as well."

Hossa, whose game-winning goal in Boston came off a Kero feed, said the 24-year-old is adapting well.

"Since they called him up he took it to his advantage. Right now he's playing the 200-foot game, [he's] real smart in our zone, doesn't panic, makes the right play at the right time, and he's showing more offensive abilities," Hossa said. "It seems like things are going well for him and we're glad we can help as a third line right now in scoring some important goals. With young players, that's definitely big."

Kero's made an impact and an impression with the Blackhawks. Quenneville said on Sunday that, even when Marcus Kruger returns from his injury, Kero will likely remain where he is – "I don't see too many things that would change his positioning because he really helped himself," Quenneville said.

"That comment tells you the trust level he's gained in Kero," Dent said. "I knew over time that Kero was a player that Q was going to love. I've gotten to know Q over the years and in talking to him I know what he likes in players and it was just a matter of time because Kero's a responsible two-way player. He doesn't cheat the game and he's very aware of his defensive responsibilities and that's what Q loves, first and foremost. A lot of us coaches love that."

Kero is making strides in his second stint with the Blackhawks. He already had plenty of incentive to make an impact on this roster. Now a new father, he has that much more of one.