Tight divison races highlight NHL second half

Kaitlin Santanna

As the NHL enters the last third of its regular season, division races are tightening up, and the playoff picture is starting to come into focus. Throughout the season’s first five months, some teams have surprised, some have disappointed and some have lived up to expectations. Here’s a look at how the Eastern and Western Conferences currently stand and who is in contention for a long run at the Stanley Cup come June.

Eastern Conference

The Boston Bruins are the story of the season thus far, both in the Eastern Conference and the Northeast Division. The Bruins currently hold the best record in the league with a winning percentage over .700. Currently leading their division by about 20 points and the conference by over 10, Boston has the perfect combination of offensive ability and defensive presence. Marc Savard is presently ranked number five in the league in points, and veteran defenseman Zdeno Chara continues to play strong at both ends of the ice, posting 32 points and boasting a plus-25 ranking. Backstopped by a talented duo in goal of Manny Fernandez and Tim Thomas, the Boston Bruins look to be the favorite to win the Eastern Conference and make a strong push for the Stanley Cup.

While Boston is exceeding preseason expectations, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a far cry from the team that reached the Stanley Cup finals last season. The Penguins were a big question mark in the East at the beginning of the season after losing major players Marian Hossa and Ryan Malone to free agency over the summer. Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby continue to dominate the league in points, currently ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in the league, respectively. Outside of these two forwards, however, the Pens have failed to produce much offense.

With this lack of offense and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury’s average season, the Pens currently find themselves in fourth place in the Atlantic Division, fighting for a playoff spot with less than 30 games to go. Although the Pens are flailing, a bright spot in the Eastern Conference and Atlantic Division is the New Jersey Devils.

When All-Star goaltender Martin Brodeur suffered a major arm injury at the beginning of November, the Devils’ playoff future was significantly in doubt. The Devils certainly didn’t take to feeling sorry for themselves, instead pushing on to have the third best record in the East. Backup-turned-starting goalie Scott Clemmensen has stepped into his role nicely, carrying the Devils since Brodeur’s departure. Clemmensen’s play combined with the offensive prowess of wingers Zach Parise and Patrik Elias have kept New Jersey at the top of the standings for much of the season. The projected return of Brodeur for the end of the month will only add to the Devils’ success and put them on the path for some strong postseason play.

At the beginning of the season, the Southeast Division was projected to be one of the weakest in the league. While this is the case for the majority of the teams, it is in this conference that one of the conference’s strongest teams resides. The Washington Capitals currently hold the No. 2 spot in the East and one of the best home records in the league at 22-4-1. Predictably, superstar Alexander Ovechkin is putting up outstanding offensive numbers, currently holding the number one spot in the league in goals and the number three spot in overall points. Despite his prowess, the Capitals are possibly one of the most balanced scoring teams in the league. Washington currently has eight players with 25 or more points, including Mike Green who leads the league among defensemen in both goals and points.

Western Conference

After just one glance at defending Stanley Cup Champion Detroit’s roster on opening day, anyone could have predicted another strong season for the Wings. At the two-thirds mark, Detroit has lived up to all the hype. These Red Wings have it all: veteran leadership, offensive scoring ability and strong netminders. Forward Hossa ranks among the top five in the league in goals, and offensive-defensemen Brian Rafalski and Nicklas Lidstrom provide strong poise at both ends of the ice. Goalies Ty Conklin and Chris Osgood have successfully shared time in goal, with Conklin ranked among the best in the league in goals against and shutouts.

The only Western team better than Detroit is the San Jose Sharks. San Jose sunk its teeth into the conference lead early in the season and has never looked back. Joe Thornton leads the team in points and is among the league leaders in assists, and the Sharks boast a lineup that includes a balanced mix of offensive threats. Goalie Evgeni Nabokov is also having a fantastic season, currently holding the number two spot in the NHL in wins (27). Another plus for San Jose is its success at the Shark Tank during the ’08-’09 season, going 23-2-3 at home through 50 games.

Strong seasons were expected from Detroit and San Jose, but a pleasant surprise out West is the Chicago Blackhawks. Currently ranked fourth in the West and second only to the Red Wings in the Central Division, the Hawks have put together a successful blend of youth and experience to produce an exciting brand of hockey. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews have followed up their spectacular rookie seasons with strong sophomore numbers, and newly acquired Brian Campbell has provided a scoring touch for Chicago as well. Campbell, who signed with the Blackhawks over the summer, currently leads the squad in assists. Also adding to Chicago’s success this season is the goaltending tandem of Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet. Both goalies have split time between the pipes and are in the league’s top 15 goalies in goals against average.