Monday, January 9, 2017

Weekend wrap: Halfway home

Give yourself a pat on the back, everyone. We’ve made it to the halfway mark.

Well, some of us have. A few teams actually hit the midway point last week, while others arrived over the weekend. Others still have a few games to go, and won’t make it until the end of this week. The NHL schedule is weird this year.

But still, enough teams are there that we can go ahead and say it's close enough. So we're halfway home. Great. What does that mean?

For one, it means we should expect to see the standings start to solidify somewhat, as the constant churn of the early going gives way to something slightly more stable. There are still plenty of teams fighting for playoff spots, and three of the four division titles remain up for grabs. But we can at least start to draw some firm conclusions about the teams at the top. And while nobody's going to mathematically clinch anything for a while now, the top six or eight teams can already start looking ahead to the playoffs.

Hitting the halfway mark also means that it's officially acceptable for teams at the bottom of the standings to throw in the towel. Struggling teams like the Avalanche, Coyotes and Islanders made it this far while still looking like they were trying, so nobody can accuse them of going full tank mode. But there comes a point where a good dose of realism can do a franchise some good, and any team that finds itself facing a double-digit playoff gap can safely throw in the towel any time now.

And that leaves the third group of teams—the ones who are stumbling around in the middle of the standings, winning about as often as they're losing and bouncing in and out of a playoff spot. In the age of parity, that's going to be the biggest group, and there aren't enough post-season slots for everyone.

That means it's time for pre-season favourites like the Lighting, Stars and Panthers to figure out exactly what they are, where they should realistically expect to end up, and what moves they need to make to get there. Early in the season—we're constantly reminded—is no time to panic. But once you've hit the halfway mark, time isn't on your side anymore, and it's time to stop kicking the can down the road and make some tough decisions.

On that note, we're now just 50 days away from the trade deadline. With a tight playoff race and a looming expansion draft, it's going to be a tricky one for general managers to navigate. Some will find a way, and others will find excuses. Which category your favourite team's GM falls into may go a long way to determining how the rest of the season plays out.

We'll be back tomorrow to hand out some mid-season mark awards. In the meantime, on to this week's power rankings.

Road to the Cup

The five teams that look like they're headed towards Stanley Cup favorite status.

5. New York Rangers (28-13-1, +38) – They're still tied for second in the Metro, but the Pens and Caps will finally get to make up some of those games in hand over the coming days as New York gets its bye week.

4. Chicago Blackhawks (25-12-5, +12 true goals differential*) – Coming out of the Winter Classic, the schedule served up four straight home games against non-playoff teams. So far, they're 3-0-0, moving back into top spot in the Central.

>> Read the full post at Sportsnet

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