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Islanders, Maple Leafs among Eastern Conference teams on break

 

Carolina Hurricanes

Record: 24-20-6, 54 points, fifth place in Metropolitan

MVP: Sebastian Aho. The forward started the season with a 12-game point streak and hasn’t slowed down. He leads the Hurricanes in goals (22), assists (35) and points (57). On a team that struggles at times offensively, Aho has been a consistent contributor.

Unsung hero: Curtis McElhinney. The goalie, claimed off waivers from the Toronto Maple Leafs on Oct. 2, has taken over what began as a three-man rotation with Petr Mrazek and Scott Darling. The 35-year-old’s 11 wins are one off his NHL career high of 12 in 2014-15. He had a 2.30 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in his first 17 games before allowing six goals and injuring his knee in a 6-2 loss to the New York Rangers on Jan. 15.

Player to watch: Justin Williams. The forward and Hurricanes captain has scored six goals in his past 12 games after scoring seven in the first 38 games. The 37-year-old and three-time Stanley Cup champion welcomes big moments, and now his focus is on helping Carolina reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time since 2009.

Second-half prognosis: The Hurricanes are trending the right way, going 9-3-1 and averaging 3.77 goals per game in 13 games before the All-Star break. The key will be maintaining it for the final 32 games of the season to make a postseason return a reality.

Video: NSH@CAR: Aho records his second career hat trick

 

Detroit Red Wings

Record: 19-25-7, 45 points, seventh place in Atlantic

MVP: Dylan Larkin. The center leads the Red Wings in goals (21), points (48) and average ice time per game (21:55), and he plays big roles on the power play and penalty kill. The 22-year-old continues to be the centerpiece of Detroit’s rebuilding effort.

Unsung hero: Jimmy Howard. The goalie is having one of his better seasons, including a .931 even-strength save percentage that’s the best of his NHL career for a full season. The Red Wings allow 33.2 shots on goal per game, fifth most in the NHL, but the 34-year-old has given them a solid effort just about every game.

Player to watch: Gustav Nyquist. The forward has 43 points (11 goals, 32 assists) in 51 games after he had 40 points (21 goals, 19 assists) in 82 games last season. The 29-year-old, who can become an unrestricted free agent July 1, could be used to gather assets ahead of the NHL Trade Deadline on Feb. 25, or the Red Wings could attempt to re-sign him and make him part of their core with Larkin.

Second-half prognosis: The key for the Red Wings, who could miss the playoffs for the third straight season, is the continued development of some of their younger players, among them center Michael Rasmussen, 19, and defensemen Dennis Cholowski, 20, and Filip Hronek, 21.

Video: NSH@DET: Larkin scores beauty to win it in overtime

 

Florida Panthers

Record: 20-20-8, 48 points, sixth place in Atlantic

MVP: Aleksander Barkov. The center is on pace for 80 points, which would be an NHL career high. He also continues to play more than any other NHL forward; his 23:00 of ice time per game is the highest among forwards since Ilya Kovalchuk averaged 24:44 for the New Jersey Devils in 2012-13 and includes 2:03 per game killing penalties. With all that ice time, Barkov has taken one minor penalty.

Unsung hero: Frank Vatrano. The center has 26 points (16 goals, 10 assists) in 47 games in his first full season with the Panthers, already surpassing his previous NHL career highs in each category. Florida controls 52.29 percent of shot attempts when Vatrano is on the ice, third best on the Panthers (minimum 20 games).

Player to watch: Roberto Luongo. The 39-year-old remains the Panthers’ best option in net, but his 3.18 GAA is 43rd among the 50 NHL goalies to play at least 15 games, and his .896 save percentage is 41st. Luongo must be better if the Panthers are going to make a push for a playoff spot.

Second-half prognosis: The Panthers entered the break winners of three straight. They were the best team in the NHL after the All-Star break last season, going 25-8-2. Can they do it again?

Video: TOR@FLA: Barkov completes hat trick with OT winner

 

Montreal Canadiens

Record: 28-18-5, 61 points, third place in Atlantic

MVP: Max Domi. The forward was acquired in a trade from the Arizona Coyotes on June 15, shifted to center, and leads the Canadiens with 44 points (16 goals, 28 assists). He’s a big reason Montreal is in the running for a playoff spot.

Unsung hero: Antti Niemi. The goalie was waived twice in the first five weeks of the 2017-18 season before ending up in Montreal, where he has provided solid play when Carey Price has been injured or needed rest. Niemi is 8-5-1 in 14 games.

Player to watch: Jesperi Kotkaniemi. The center has two goals in his past six games after he scored four in his first 45. His 57.80 shot attempts percentage leads NHL rookies (minimum 20 games). The 18-year-old is the youngest player in the NHL, but his development is pointed in the right direction.

Second-half prognosis: The Canadiens have won with speed and a balanced attack that features seven players with at least 10 goals. They’ll need to stay at that level while they compete with the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres for third place in the Atlantic or one of the wild cards into the postseason from the Eastern Conference.

Video: WSH@MTL: Domi, Armia set NHL record for fastest goals

 
New York Islanders

Record: 29-15-5, 63 points, first place in Metropolitan 

MVP: Mathew Barzal. The center has 45 points (14 goals, 31 assists) in 49 games, putting him behind his pace as a rookie last season, when he led the Islanders with 85 points (22 goals, 63 assists), one more than center John Tavares, who signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1. Without Tavares there to play against the toughest competition, what Barzal is doing this season is that much more impressive.

Unsung hero: Robin Lehner. The goalie arrived in New York with a healthy outlook on life and hockey, and has been a huge reason the Islanders have gone from the worst defensive in team in the NHL last season (3.57 goals-against per game) to the best (2.41). Lehner’s 2.02 GAA leads NHL goalies who have played at least 16 games, and his .931 save percentage is tied for first with Jack Campbell of the Los Angeles Kings.

Player to watch: Devon Toews. The defenseman, recalled from Bridgeport of the American Hockey League on Dec. 19, has scored three goals and is averaging 17:55 of ice time in 15 games. Each number could go up with the season continuing.

Second-half prognosis: The Islanders have been one of the biggest surprises of the season, and they show no signs of slowing in their push to stay atop the Metropolitan Division.

Video: NYI@TOR: Barzal scores three in 2nd for natural hatty

 

Ottawa Senators

Record: 19-26-5, 43 points, eighth place in Atlantic 

MVP: Mark Stone. After a tumultuous offseason that included defenseman Erik Karlsson being traded the day before the start of training camp, the forward has stepped into more of a leadership role on and off the ice. He’s on pace for his first 30-goal season in the NHL.

Unsung hero: Ryan Dzingel. His 20 goals, including three game-winners, are tied for second on the Senators with center Matt Duchene, behind Stone’s 22. The 26-year-old, selected in the seventh round (No. 204) of the 2011 NHL Draft, is emerging as a forward the Senators could build around.

Player to watch: Brady Tkachuk. The No. 4 pick of the 2018 NHL Draft, the forward arrived with a swagger that belies his age. The 19-year-old willingly goes into all the hard areas of the ice to produce and is strong at both ends of the rink. As Tkachuk continues to adjust to the NHL pace, it looks like he’ll be a big-time scorer following in the footsteps of his father, Keith Tkachuk, and brother, Calgary Flames forward Matthew Tkachuk.

Second-half prognosis: The biggest question surrounds the future of Stone and Duchene, who each can become an unrestricted free agent July 1 and could be moved before the NHL Trade Deadline.

Video: MTL@OTT: Stone rips home OT winner off the iron

 

Toronto Maple Leafs

Record: 30-17-2, 62 points, second place in Atlantic 

MVP: John Tavares. Signed to a seven-year, $77 million contract (average annual value $11 million) on July 1, the center has been everything the Maple Leafs could have hoped for. He leads Toronto with 30 goals, and his linemate for most of the season, Mitchell Marner, is on pace for his first 100-point NHL season.

Unsung hero: Kasperi Kapanen. The forward has played up and down the lineup, producing wherever he has been. The 22-year-old has scored 13 of his 15 goals at even strength (one on power play, one shorthanded).

Player to watch: Frederik Andersen. Goalie is the thinnest organizational position for the Maple Leafs, so Andersen’s health will be paramount in the drive toward the postseason. Toronto went 4-4-0 when Andersen missed eight games with a groin injury from Dec. 23-Jan. 12.

Second-half prognosis: Center Auston Matthews scored his second goal in 14 games, and forward William Nylander had three assists, his best game of the season, in a 6-3 win against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday. If they can get back to their usual high level of productivity, Toronto could push the Tampa Bay Lightning for the top spot in the division.

Video: ARI@TOR: Tavares nets 30th goal off the draw

 

Washington Capitals

Record: 27-17-6, 60 points, second place in Metropolitan

MVP: Alex Ovechkin. Winning the Stanley Cup last season has done nothing to diminish the forward’s drive. He leads the NHL with 37 goals and the Capitals with 57 points. He’s on pace for his eighth 50-goal season, which would put him one behind Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for most in NHL history.

Unsung hero: Jakub Vrana. The forward has set an NHL career high with 15 goals, and the 22-year-old’s 28 points in 50 games are one more than what he had in 73 games last season. His production is being rewarded with more playing time, 14:08 per game this season, up from 12:30 last season.

Player to watch: Andre Burakovsky. The forward provided solid secondary scoring last season but hasn’t been able to find his groove in 2018-19. He has 12 points (six goals, six assists) in 44 games and has been a healthy scratch six times. If Burakovsky can get back to producing at previous levels, it will further enhance the Capitals’ attack.

Second-half prognosis: Despite going into the break with a seven-game losing streak (0-5-2), their longest since they were also 0-5-2 from Jan. 12-24, 2014, the Capitals are healthy and have all the pieces in place for another deep postseason run.

Video: SJS@WSH: Ovechkin earns his third hatty of the season

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