The real season for most hockey fans is still five weeks away, but the one that's going on has some pretty good storylines, too. Here are a few to follow as the league heads into the final quarter of its schedule and toward the playoffs.
Lingering effect of the Olympics: About a fifth of all NHL players were in Vancouver and teams were concerned about how the intense tournament would affect them in a compressed run to the finish line. The Rangers already have an idea: Their best player, Marian Gaborik, missed New York's first two games after playing for Slovakia.
|Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin surged from the Olympics to a duel for the Rocket Richard Trophy. (AP)|
Playoff races: The Washington Capitals are running away with their division, the Chicago Blackhawks with theirs, and the San Jose Sharks ... well, let's just say they are nice and comfortable. But the other three divisions and the top seeds they bring are up for grabs, including the Northwest, where the kiddie corps from Colorado continues to defy the odds in a battle with first-place Vancouver.
The Northeast has become a race because Buffalo has been faltering at the same time Ottawa has been surging. The Penguins have reloaded and the New Jersey Devils added Ilya Kovalchuk for their battle for Atlantic supremacy. And at the other end of both conferences, a half-dozen teams are fighting for three spots in each.
The Red Wings' streak: A television interviewer felt compelled to apologize to Detroit GM Ken Holland this week for having to wish him luck on making the playoffs. The Red Wings have been in the last 18 postseasons, but are in jeopardy of seeing that streak end this year.
Detroit has been decimated by critical long-term injuries, many of them early in the season after losing some key players to free agency last summer. In that context, the Red Wings have done an impressive job keeping their heads above water, and they are getting important players back fresh for the stretch run. But Detroit is likely to remain in a battle for the final playoff spot with five other clubs.
Head shots: The subject comes up every season, gets some lip service from the decision makers and then players keep getting hurt. But this season has been particularly nasty in terms of players -- many of them stars -- getting carted off on stretchers.
These repeated incidents have prompted some of the hardliners, who are loath to do anything that might reduce hitting, to re-evaluate things. General managers talked a lot about the issue during their fall meeting; when they meet again in March, they are expected to propose rule changes to protect players who get blindsided or are unaware of an incoming check. Whether it really does any good remains to be seen.
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Pacific upstart battle: No one predicted the precocious Kings would make any real noise this season, even after improving several key parts of their game last year. Some thought that might be enough for Los Angeles to sneak into the playoffs, but instead of fighting just to get in, the Kings are battling to start the playoffs at home. And they are going up against the Phoenix Coyotes, a team that had even less expectations this season.
Neither team is likely to catch Pacific-leading San Jose unless the Sharks go through their annual collapse before the playoffs. But the Coyotes and Kings are jostling for the conference's fourth seed, which brings at least one series of home-ice advantage and possibly a few extra lucrative gates.
Goaltending questions: The big one is, which team -- if any -- will be done in by it? The perception around much of the NHL is that either the Blackhawks or the Capitals might have their Stanley Cup hopes derailed because neither did anything to improve in the net at the trade deadline.
Thing is, there probably weren't any real options in terms of availability and cap hit. Both Chicago and Washington have high-priced veterans and talented younger backups, but all have been less-than reassuring with their work at times, and none has a deep playoff run on its résumé.
Now the Philadelphia Flyers are in a similar situation with Ray Emery shutting it down for hip surgery. The Flyers have deep-run talent up front, but are fighting for a playoff spot and are counting on career backups to get them there and beyond.
Atlanta in the post-Kovalchuk era: The first draft of that history began in early February, when the Thrashers threw in the towel on negotiations and got the best deal they could for their franchise player. But losing the star they built their game around isn't necessarily a bad thing, since Atlanta hasn't been successful anyway.
Kovalchuk was clearly the star of the show because of his elite offensive talents, but that didn't sell any tickets because the team didn't win. With him gone, the Thrashers' game has a much broader focus, and it is allowing the younger talent coming from all the high draft choices to emerge and keep Atlanta in playoff contention.
Rocket Richard race: The title for most goals is supposed to be a gimme every year for super sniper Alex Ovechkin, but suspension and injury have cost him eight games and several scoring chances. In the meantime, Sidney Crosby has evolved from being primarily a dominant playmaker to a dangerous finisher.
Crosby may not have as pure a scoring touch as Ovechkin, but they came out of the Olympic break tied for the goals lead with 42 and their intense rivalry at a new level.