Team USA beat Canada for gold medals at the World Junior Championship and the World Under-17 Challenge in the last few days. With the goaltending it has, Team USA could make it three for three at the Vancouver Olympics next month.
You never know with hockey. In the meantime, 10 other story lines to follow in the second half.
The future of the Thrashers: It's really tied to Ilya Kovalchuk's decision about re-upping with the team. The captain has to re-sign by the trade deadline, or Atlanta, which thinks it still has playoff hopes, has to deal him. No ifs, ands or buts. Obviously it wouldn't help a franchise desperate to make the playoffs, unless Atlanta scores a remarkable return in a deal. But time is running out and Atlanta can't really afford to be pushed against a wall at the deadline. That happened with Marian Hossa. And the Thrashers can't wait until Kovalchuk is eligible for unrestricted free agency July 1. This is a major time in franchise history.
|Atlanta is hoping to keep captain Ilya Kovalchuk, who becomes an unrestricted free agent. (Getty Images)|
Run-up to the trade deadline: Could you see Scott Niedermayer staying close to home in Vancouver after the Olympics as a member of the Canucks? Or maybe Ray Whitney sparking some contender's offense down the stretch run? They're both set to be UFAs and they are on bad teams. That means they'll head up the league-wide chatter that will intensify as the deadline draws near. But there will be plenty of other vets in similar situations out there -- think Paul Kariya if he stays healthy, or Pavel Kubina, as well as types like Tomas Plekanec, who may have priced himself out of Montreal. No matter what happens, the rumor mill is one of the most entertaining parts of the season.
The Cinderella stories: Be honest, did anyone anywhere think the Phoenix Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche would make the playoffs this season? How about the L.A. Kings? Not likely, but all of these upstarts could be there at the end. Or not. The Western Conference has the best teams, but Phoenix, the Avs and the Kings are long past the fluke stage and start the second half holding down postseason seeds. Staying there is the challenge.
The demise of Detroit: No one in Detroit will use it as an excuse, but the injuries there this season have been ridiculous and obviously a factor in the Red Wings being a possible outsider at playoff time. That's not a given even though Detroit was five points shy of a spot after 41 games. Considering the circumstances, that might be seen as an accomplishment by those with glass-half-full tendencies. Still it's a gap that is more difficult to close than it seems because so many games are three-pointers. But Detroit is a veteran team and it is getting players back these days. They should be at full strength, and probably better rested than usual at playoff time. If they get there.
The President and Chicago: Seems like a natural association, but for the Blackhawks' case, winning the Presidents' Trophy would be particularly meaningful. The Blackhawks are trying to make a statement this season, and running away with the Central Division will be part of it. But it's about the big prize in this all-in season, and it won't hurt Chicago to play as many homes games as possible. The Blackhawks will probably go down to the wire in this race with the Devils and Sharks for first place overall, but winning it will be worth it because no team has been so dominant at home this season as Chicago.
Sharks bite: San Jose's problems in recent years have come in the playoffs, almost always after excellent regular seasons. And the Sharks could be headed in the same direction because they have played so well this season. This may be the best Sharks team of all in fact, with the addition of Dany Heatley to a line of Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau giving San Jose the most lethal combination in the league. They've been so good, all three were chosen for Team Canada's Olympic roster. And five other Sharks were added to their respective countries, the highest total of any NHL club. That's a lot of hockey for a lot of key players on a team that has not shown an ability to go long in the past.
Flyers high or low: You have to make it seem like you're joking when you say getting Chris Pronger means you'll be a Stanley Cup Finalist, but no doubt Philadelphia believed it. And Pronger has more or less done his part with a respectable first half. But the Flyers as a group have basically tanked, forcing a coaching change and putting them in a position where a playoff position isn't a given. That's a big step back for a team that has a lot of high-end talent on its roster. They should be too good to miss the playoffs, but they may not be.
Ken Hitchcock's future: By the time you read this, he may be gone as coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Hitchcock has to be on thin ice even if GM Scott Howson continues to give him votes of confidence. The Blue Jackets have little shot at the playoff race, and haven't been able to find their way out of the tail spin under Hitchcock. That tells you the players are looking for a new voice. What it doesn't say is that one wouldn't be needed if goalie Steve Mason's Rookie of the Year follow-up season hadn't been so miserable.
Head shots: It's the subject de jour at some point in every season, but this time there are potential changes to the way the league approaches them. Several of the traditionalist hard-liners expressed softening views on regulating them at the last general managers meeting, and the next gathering in March is expected to take a big step forward in doing so.