Top 10 stories as NHL season approaches the half

That the Ottawa Senators have been one of the biggest disappointments in the first half of the 2013-14 season has been a major focus of attention in the capital, and for good reason.

Top 10 stories as NHL season approaches the half
Washington Capitals right wing Alex Ovechkin (8), of Russia, collides with Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) in the second period of an NHL hockey game, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

That the Ottawa Senators have been one of the biggest disappointments in the first half of the 2013-14 season has been a major focus of attention in the capital, and for good reason.

Casting the net a little wider, here’s a look at the top stories and surprises from around the league since opening night in October.

1. Crosby and Ovechkin thrive again

Over the past couple of years, both Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin lost some of their shine. Crosby dealt with myriad concussion issues, while Ovechkin’s game appeared to have plateaued. But at the halfway point of this season, Crosby leads the NHL in points while Ovechkin was the leading goal-scorer by a healthy margin. The performance of both superstars has re-ignited a dormant, fascinating rivalry heading into the Sochi Olympics.

2. The West is clearly the best

The power in the NHL clearly resides in the Western Conference. The five best teams from the West had a combined 54-13-11 record in their head-to-head meetings with their eastern counterparts. A further illustration of the disparity can be seen in the playoff races, where it will likely take 100 points to make the post-season in the stronger conference. By comparison, the New Jersey Devils were holding down the final playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division this past weekend and were only on pace for 82 points.

3. Roy saves Avalanche

When Patrick Roy was involved in a heated incident with Ducks head coach Bruce Boudreau on opening night, many wondered if the Hall of Fame netminder had the composure and maturity to be a successful NHL head coach. But almost halfway into his first season behind the bench, Roy has guided the Avalanche to a winning record and a fairly firm grasp on a playoff spot.

4. No oil change in Edmonton

While the Avalanche have been the most pleasant surprise, the Edmonton Oilers have once again been a major disappointment. They are sitting in last place in the conference and appear destined to have another lottery selection in the draft. But the club has gone on record to say it would rather trade that pick in 2014 to get some immediate help, as the Oilers appear stuck in a vicious cycle of trying and failing to rebuild with their prospects.

5. Sabre-rattling in Buffalo

The Buffalo Sabres underwent the most significant facelift in the first half of the season. First, they traded away star forward Thomas Vanek to the New York Islanders in a blockbuster deal in October. But when that move did not have the desired effect, they opted for a complete house cleaning of the front office, dismissing head coach Ron Rolston and general manager Darcy Reiger and replacing them with Ted Nolan and Pat LaFontaine, respectively.

6. Harding overcomes adversity

The story of Josh Harding may be the best in all of professional sports — never mind the NHL. The Wild goalie has not let a diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis stop him from being an elite netminder. He is ranked in the top five in the league in wins, goals-against average and save percentage. The club recently placed him on the injured reserve list so he can adjust his medication, but if he can come back soon, he will have a legitimate shot at the Vezina Trophy this season.

7. Steen cashes in on fast start

Alexander Steen is the most surprising name in the list of top 10 scorers in the league. The Blues forward tied his career high in goals for a season before Christmas and just signed a lucrative three-year, $17.5 million contract last week to avoid unrestricted free agency this summer.

8. Lightning survive without Stamkos

When Steven Stamkos suffered a broken bone in his leg on Nov. 11, many assumed the bubble would burst around the Lightning. But instead of crashing back to earth, Tampa Bay has remained in a playoff spot thanks to superior goaltending from former Senator Ben Bishop.

9. Emery vs. Holtby re-ignites fighting debate

The fighting debate continues to rage on in NHL circles and another controversial moment happened in November when Ray Emery won a one-sided “fight” against Braden Holtby. The incident raised questions about why the league allows goalies to fight and what constitutes a willing combatant. Considering a handful of ex-players launched a concussion lawsuit against the NHL shortly thereafter, it makes you wonder if the league will soon start clamping down on fisticuffs.

10. League lands massive TV deal

A year ago at this time, the NHL was mired in a lockout and pessimists wondered if the game would recover from a third major work stoppage in a relatively short period of time. Instead, the league has thrived in the months since the NHL lockout ended, and that point was hammered home when Rogers Communications paid $5.2 billion for a new television rights package for the NHL. The increased revenue will help raise the salary cap to more than $70 million for next season and bring up the floor even higher.

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