Though many view the Christmas Break All-Star Game as the halfway point of the NHL season, the middle of the schedule is actually today. What did we learn in the first half of the season? What can we expect in the second half?
1. Vegas Golden Knights
24-15-6 (54 points) / Goals For: 144 (5th of 31) / Goals Against: 133 (18th of 31)
After an up-and-down start to the season, the Golden Knights are finally putting things together and playing to their potential. They’re currently on a four-game winning streak and have gained a slight lead at the top of the Pacific Division.
Vegas’ success has come from their deep, potent offence hitting its stride. They’ve scored five goals in three consecutive games and they haven’t been limited to fewer than three goals in a game in nearly a month. All six of the Golden Knights’ top-six forwards have at least 10 goals while veterans Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone are leading the way with 43 and 41 points respectively. On paper, the Golden Knights likely have the strongest forward group in the division. It’s taken some time, but they’re finally reaching expectations.
The key for Vegas doing something down the stretch and into the playoffs will be Marc-Andre Fleury. The Golden Knights rank 18th in the league in goals against and Fleury has a modest .910 save percentage. There’s no backup plan behind him, so the Golden Knights will go as far as Fleury can take them.
2. Arizona Coyotes
24-16-4 (52 points) / Goals For: 128 (19th of 31) / Goals Against: 112 (5th of 31)
This season has been a long-awaited breakout party for the Arizona Coyotes and general manager John Chayka has gone all-in on it. Arizona currently sits second in the Pacific Division, two points behind the Golden Knights with one game in hand.
Arizona has been steadily solid all season. They haven’t had a prolonged losing streak at any point, as their two worst stretches were three-game skids that came in early November and late December. The Coyotes’ success has been the result of excellent team defence and strong goaltending. They rank fifth in the league in goals against, they have one of the league’s best penalty kills, and Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raantta have .929 and .921 save percentages respectively.
The difference between being a good team and a great team for Arizona is scoring goals. Their plan to address this issue was diving into the rental market well before the trade deadline by acquiring Taylor Hall from the New Jersey Devils. Hall has six points in nine games as a Coyote so far and the team will need more from him if they’re going to make noise this spring.
3. Vancouver Canucks
23-15-4 (50 points) / Goals For: 141 (7th of 31) / Goals Against: 125 (11th of 31)
The Canucks have been all over the grid this season and they perfectly paint the picture of just how much of a crap-shoot this division is right now. After dropping out of the playoffs a few weeks before Christmas, the Canucks now sit in third in the Pacific with 50 points and three games in hand on the Golden Knights.
Vancouver got off to a good start to the season, putting together an 8-3-1 October behind a deep offence and some strong goaltending. In November, they started to implode due to a wealth of injuries to depth players and sat 13-10-4 at the end of the month. Their cold skid rolled into December but the Canucks have put all of it behind them with a seven-game winning streak. They’re getting scoring from up and down the lineup and Jakob Markstrom is playing some of the best hockey of his career.
The key for Vancouver the rest of the way will be consistency. Is this version of the Canucks we’re seeing right now the real thing? Or is it the team that struggled back in November and early December? We’ve seen Vancouver go from red hot to crashing back down to earth before this year. Will it happen again?
4. Edmonton Oilers
22-17-5 (49 points) / Goals For: 131 (16th of 31) / Goals Against: 138 (23rd of 31)
Despite a miserable December in which they won just five of 14 games, the Oilers are still clinging to a playoff spot. The team’s hot start is still propping them up in the standings, but there isn’t much room for error left for the Oilers the rest of the way. Since kicking things off with a five-game winning streak, Edmonton has gone 17-17-5, which is pretty much on par with what they’ve done in each of their past two seasons.
Last season, the Oilers sat in a playoff spot at the beginning of December thanks to a nice streak that started after Ken Hitchcock was hired. But a losing skid in late December had them on the outside looking in at the turn of the New Year. The slide continued in late January and early February, ultimately ending the team’s season. The Oilers had their cold snap in December, and now the key to avoiding last season’s fate is now having another one.
The interesting thing will be how Ken Holland handles the trade deadline. Adding a good player could be the difference for this team.
5. Calgary Flames
21-17-5 (47 points) / Goals For: 118 (22nd of 31) / Goals Against: 130 (16th of 31)
It’s safe to say this season hasn’t gone anywhere near according to plan for the Flames. After finishing with the best record in the Western Conference last year, nothing has gone right. The Flames are currently on the outside of the playoffs looking in and will be battling for a spot down the stretch.
Shortly after firing head coach Bill Peters, the Flames went on a seven-game winning streak that appeared to resurrect their season. But since then, the Flames have won just two of their last nine games, effectively erasing the aforementioned winning streak.
The Flames boasted one of the most potent offences in the league last season, with elite scoring at the top of the lineup and plenty of depth beyond that, but it’s completely dried up this year. Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau are having uncharacteristically bad seasons while depth contributors like Sam Bennett and Mark Jankowski have completely disappeared. The season isn’t over yet, but after 43 games, it’s hard to imagine the Flames randomly finding their game.
6. San Jose Sharks
19-21-3 (41 points) / Goals For: 115 (24th of 31) / Goals Against: 143 (28th of 31)
The Sharks have been the biggest disappointment in the league this season. After coming just two wins from the Stanley Cup Final last year, the Sharks look like they aren’t even going to make the playoffs. They had a major exodus of key talent over the off-season and it seems they haven’t been able to recover.
San Jose’s defence has been mediocre, their goaltending has been poor, and, most surprisingly, their offence hasn’t been able to compensate at all. They fired Peter DeBoer after an ugly start and Bob Boughner hasn’t been any better. It might be time to stick a fork in the Sharks.
7. Los Angeles Kings
17-22-4 (38 points) / Goals For: 110 (27th of 31) / Goals Against: 136 (21st of 31)
Probably the most predictable thing about the Pacific Division has been the Los Angeles Kings, who have been as bad as everybody expected they would be. They have 38 points, putting them on pace to be slightly better than they were last season when they finished second-last in the league. A trade-deadline-fire-sale could help push them down the standings in the Alexis Lafreniere tank battle, though.
8. Anaheim Ducks
16-20-5 (37 points) / Goals For: 105 (30th of 31) / Goals Against: 128 (13th of 31)
The Ducks were an interesting case heading into the season as a potential rebound case. They were decimated by injuries last season and a fully-healthy squad injected with young talent looked like it could be poised for a solid season.
That hasn’t been the case. The Ducks were in the mix for the first few weeks of the season but have imploded since. They went on a five-game losing streak in early November and haven’t won back-to-back games since.
What does it all mean?
At the middle point of the season, we can determine which teams are going to be in the mix the rest of the way and which ones aren’t. Nobody is running away with the Pacific Division as first and fifth place are separated by just seven points. As the Vancouver Canucks showed, a winning streak can bring you from the bottom of that group right to the top very quickly. We’ll be seeing a lot of movement among these teams down the stretch.
The Oilers hold their destiny in their own hands. Their good start to the season has played a massive role in where they are right now, which is sitting in a playoff spot in the middle of the season. Nearly half of the team’s remaining schedule is against Pacific Division teams and many of those will be four-point games. Winning those divisional games and avoiding another cold streak will get this team into the playoffs.