As we hit the all-star break this weekend with the Fantasy Draft kicking things off this evening at 8 P.M., the 2011-’12 NHL season has officially reached it’s mid-point. There have been many surprises — and equally as many disappointments — across the league this season on both an individual and team basis. In anticipation of the second half of the season, slated to begin early next week, I’ve prepared five (bold) predictions for the remainder of the 82-game grind.
5.) Jackets Fail For Nail
– Without question the worst team in hockey through the first half of the season, the Blue Jackets have been an unmitigated disaster all year long. Entering the season most hockey journalists (including myself) had Columbus pegged for their second post-season appearance in franchise history. However, the aforementioned NHL pundits could not have been more wrong. With the acquisitions of Jeff Carter and James Wisniewski not panning out, look for the Blue Jackets to deal one of the two before the deadline. Purely based on Wisniewski’s massive contract, my guess would be Carter moves on for greener pastures elsewhere. The former Flyers’ standout should bring GM Scott Howson a decent haul and will help them continue to build for the future as they trudge along on the “Fail For Nail” campaign.
4.) Kessel Posts 90 Points, Finally Quiets Critics
– Perhaps the most talked about trade in recent Boston sports history, the Bruins–Leafs swap of September 2010 sent crafty winger Phil Kessel to the epicenter of hockey in exchange for three draft selections. Bruins’ GM Peter Chiarelli then used those picks to select forwards Tyler Seguin and Jared Knight as well as defenseman Dougie Hamilton. While Seguin has exploded onto the scene in the Hub, amassing 19 goals and 24 assists through 46 games this season Kessel has truly emerged as one of the league’s most prominent scorers. With 51 points (26G/25A) in 49 games, he and linemate Joffrey Lupul (20G/32A) have completely turned the Toronto franchise around, leading them to a top-eight position in the Eastern Conference. In the second half of this season, I believe that Kessel will easily reach the 40-goal marker and surpass his career high of 64 points to finally justify this trade and quiet the throngs of critics who have harassed the Minnesota native ever since he arrived on the scene in Toronto.
3.) Hitchcock, Blues Continue Magical Run
– Without doubt the biggest positive surprise of any team in the league this season has taken place underneath the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. The Blues, who struggled mightily to begin the season under former coach Davis Payne, have been given new life since the arrival of veteran bench boss Ken Hitchcock. With no players in the NHL’s top-50 scoring leaders, the Blues’ team-first philosophy has shown through this season, leading them to the fifth seed in the Western Conference — a comfortable eleven points ahead of ninth place Colorado –. Captain David Backes seems to have his team — a seemingly perfect blend of youth and experience — poised for a deep run through the post-season. In the shocker of the season, I can see the Blues becoming this year’s NHL Cinderella story, upsetting a team or two and making it to the Conference Finals this spring.
2.) Sabres, Habs Continue Rapid Fall From Grace
– Mired in the basement of the Eastern Conference, this season simply has not gone the way fans in Buffalo and Montreal had once thought it would. Currently sitting eight and ten points out of the playoff picture, the Sabres and the Habs have been absolute train-wrecks on ice the entire season. In Montreal, things went awry immediately out of the gate and have only been trending downwards since then. In a year that’s seen the departure of both an assistant coach and a head coach, an unheard of mid-game trade and continuous public outcry for a French-speaking bench boss, the city of Montreal has been an absolute circus all year long. In Buffalo, fans and players alike had Stanley Cup aspirations after new owner Terry Pegula’s ill-advised off-season spending spree. Unfortunately for the hockey-mad folks in Western new York, it just hasn’t quite worked out this season as their beloved Sabres sit tied for dead last in the Eastern Conference. What’s worse? GM Darcy Regier is handcuffed by the insanely generous contracts of Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino.
1.) Bruins, Rangers Will Battle For Eastern Conference Crown
– Now I could be getting ahead of myself a bit here but right now all signs are pointing towards an Original Six showdown with a spot in the Cup Finals on the line. Without a doubt the two best teams in the East through the first half of the season, New York and Boston have put together the two best records in the Conference through the first half of the season. Armed with gritty, two-way players who aren’t afraid to put the team before themselves, the B’s and Blueshirts almost mirror one another in terms of playing style. After putting together an instant classic earlier this month at TD Garden, it’d be easy for one to expect three more beautifully played contests between these two squads this season. However, I’m going to take it a step further and say that New York and Boston will once again meet in the Eastern Conference Finals this spring for yet another chapter in the Boston vs. New York rivalry.
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Filed Under: Boston Bruins • Buffalo Sabres • Columbus Blue Jackets • Eastern Conference • Featured • Montreal Canadiens • New York Rangers • NHL • NHL Teams • Rumors • St. Louis Blues • Toronto Maple Leafs • Western Conference
About the Author: Boston Bruins writer for Hockey Independent. Have written for The Hockey Guys and SB Nation Boston. Follow me on Twitter @_BWoodward or shoot me an email at BWoodward.HI@gmail.com.