The Ottawa Senators and the Edmonton Oilers will be the first two NHL teams to officially hit the midpoint of their respective schedules on Saturday, and both will be looking for fresh starts once the season heads into the home stretch.
Let’s face it: Collectively, it’s been another undistinguished start for Canada’s seven NHL teams. In the ultra-competitive Western Conference, where it will likely take 100 points to make the playoffs, the Oilers, Calgary Flames and Winnipeg Jets all entered the Christmas break with losing records. Only the Nashville Predators, who’ve been without starting goaltender Pekka Rinne for most of the season, are keeping them company at the bottom of the conference standings.
Ottawa, meanwhile, isn’t faring much better, with only 15 wins in their first 39 games, going into Friday night’s game against the Boston Bruins, last year’s Stanley Cup finalists. About the best thing the Senators they have going for them is the singular mediocrity of the Eastern Conference, which means even the lowly 13th-place Florida Panthers aren’t completely out of the playoff race. The Panthers’ 33 points at the break left them just five points behind the Philadelphia Flyers in the standings.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are clinging to a playoff berth, despite a serious second-quarter lull, leaving only two real bright spots in Canada – the Montreal Canadiens and the Vancouver Canucks, both of whom are on pace to make the playoffs, if nothing else.
Montreal had a breakthrough season in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 campaign, edging out the Bruins for top spot in what was then the Northeast Division, but there were questions going into the season about whether they’d be a one-year wonder, or had made real quantitative progress in turning the franchise around. Happily, they’ve received offensive contributions from different parts of their lineup at different times this season, and solid work from goaltender Carey Price throughout. Price faltered in the latter stages of last season, but has been a model of consistency thus far and is now considered leading candidate to tend goal for Canada during the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.
Price’s main rival for the starting job is the Canucks’ Roberto Luongo, who has made a relatively seamless return to the No. 1 position in Vancouver, after last year’s soap opera of a season that saw him relegated to backup duty behind Cory Schneider. That the Canucks have essentially held their own despite the coaching change to John Tortorella and the need for Luongo to get his head around the fact that he was staying in Vancouver is nothing short of remarkable.
The second half of the season will be punctuated by an 18-day break in the middle of February and means the regular season won’t end until mid-April. The last possible day for the 2014 Stanley Cup final is June 18.
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