We're more than halfway through the season and tiers are beginning to form in each conference. We have the elite teams, the contenders, the playoff bubble teams, the pretenders, the bad and the really bad. The majority of teams have an idea of whether they'll be competing deep into the NHL playoffs, but every now and then there's a team that catches everyone by surprise in the second half of the season. Of the teams currently on the outside of the playoff picture, which team is most likely to experience a winning streak and take the other teams in the league by storm?
Toronto Maple Leafs
(15-23-9, 14th place in Eastern Conference)
Unlike this season's other disappointments, the Toronto Maple Leafs probably aren't as bad their record indicates. Despite being 28th in the standings, they have the 2nd best shot differential in the league, at +4.1 per game, and at 5-on-5 they're practically even in goal scoring. Statistically, overtime/shootout hockey is a coin toss but the Maple Leafs are 1-9 in such situations, suggesting that they've also ran into some bad luck.
I'm not claiming that Toronto will be a great hockey team in the 2nd half, or that they should cancel their mid-April tee times, I'm just saying that they can redeem themselves in 2010. With more Phil Kessel, less Vesa Toskala, improved penalty killing and just a little bit of luck, the Leafs are likely to finish closer to the middle of the pack with a 2nd half that eclipses their 1st by 10+ points.
- Robert Vollman
(22-21-4, 9th place in Eastern Conference)
As it may likely take 95 points or more to capture the eighth seed in the West, teams like St. Louis and even improving Anaheim (.594 win percentage over the last month, 9-6-1) likely have too big of a hill to climb unless multiple teams in their conference collapse. Too little, too late, as they say. Out East, you might be surprised to find out that the NHL's doormat this season, Carolina, is 5-2-1 in their last eight games, including a 6-3 win over Washington. But while the bar is set significantly lower in the East--look for 91 points to punch a postseason ticket--that kind of monumental run is clearly out of the Hurricanes' reach - and thankfully, as the league's oldest team needs a housecleaning. So where to go for the second half breakout?
The Flyers have found their prodigal offense again, scoring at a 4.5 goal clip over the past 10 games. But that kind of output won't last, and soon you'll remember that you have Ray Emery or Michael Leighton--the mortal version--in net. Sure, they'll make the playoffs, but they won't continue playing this well. No, my choice for the second half breakout team goes to the Montreal Canadiens--ranked 10th by VUKOTA in the preseason--who are benefiting from the return of last season's scoring leader, Andrei Markov; the amazing defenseman has 13 points and 3.9 GVT over 12 games, and the Canadiens are 8-4 with him in the lineup. Another great strength for the Habs is their league leading power play, scoring virtually 25% of the time. With Ottawa and Atlanta already fading, look for Montreal to make it into the playoffs at the expense of the Rangers or Bruins.
- Timo Seppa
Detroit Red Wings
(23-16-6, 9th place in Western Conference)
The Detroit Red Wings lost three key players this past offseason in Marian Hossa, Jiri Hudler and Mikael Samuelsson, so it was hard to picture Detroit repeating as Western Conference champions this year. But, even with those departures, VUKOTA still viewed the Red Wings as a top five team. So, why has Detroit struggled? One word: Injuries. Detroit has gone through a fluke period of injuries, starting with Johan Franzen's torn ACL at the beginning of the season that has sidelined him up until this point. VUKOTA pegged Franzen as the third best forward on the team with a 13.3 GVT, and with "The Mule" coming back after the Olympic break, the Red Wings should be poised for a breakout in second half.
It didn't help that Henrik Zetterberg missed a couple weeks worth of games to a shoulder injury and they're still without their elite shot blocker Niklas Kronwall, as well as Jonathan Ericsson, Andreas Lilja and Jason Williams. Lilja and Kronwall may be out for some time, and with Lilja's post-concussion syndrome he could be out until next season, but the returns of Ericsson and Williams are on the horizon. The Red Wings might have been outscored 115 to 116, but they have outshot their opponents 1,461 to 1,320 and have a solid + 3.1 shot differential per game. This is definitely a team to look out for in the coming months.
- Andrew Rothstein
This column was authored by the staff of Puck Prospectus.