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HELENE ELLIOTT / ON THE NHL

Second half of NHL season should bring plenty of excitement

After Vancouver, Detroit and Dallas, nine teams in the West are separated by six points. Chicago looks to become first repeat champion since 1998.

January 31, 2011|Helene Elliott
  • Kings center Anze Kopitar tries to score on Ducks goalkeeper Jonas Hiller and right wing Corey Perry during a game in December.
Kings center Anze Kopitar tries to score on Ducks goalkeeper Jonas Hiller… (Christine Cotter / Los Angeles…)

Now comes the fun part.

The NHL season resumes Tuesday following a five-day All-Star break, careening toward the Feb. 28 trade deadline and the playoffs.

In the West, Vancouver, Detroit and Dallas have separated themselves from the pack, but merely six points separate fourth-ranked Nashville and 12th-ranked Calgary. The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks, who have been in and out of a playoff position, reached the break ranked seventh but face a road-heavy schedule and only 12 home games.

To have a chance to become the first repeat champions since the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998, the Blackhawks will have to tighten up defensively, improve a penalty-killing unit that ranks 26th and continue to develop the grit they lost when salary cap concerns forced them to trade many key role players.

"It's been an adjustment for everybody. Losing pretty much half our team is going to hurt you a little bit," team captain Jonathan Toews said. "But we've got a great group of guys. I think by this point everyone has found their place and it's just a matter of us competing every single night. If we can do that, we've shown we can be one of the best teams in this league."

San Jose won four of five games before the break, enough to push Colorado out of a playoff position. But Minnesota and Calgary have surged and are playing well. The Kings, bouncing from one extreme to another, lost 10 of 12 and then won three straight games to climb to within a point of eighth. But they must play their next 10 games on the road, a tough test.

"It's an up-and-down season for us so far. Heading into the break, we won a few games and that was good," center Anze Kopitar said. "You just want to keep it going and find that consistency throughout the rest of the season and just really bear down on it, and hopefully we'll be there at the end of the year."

For that to happen someone would have to fall out of the top eight. The Sharks, though lacking heart, are too talented to miss out altogether. The Phoenix Coyotes, younger and more mistake-prone than last season, could drop. So could the Ducks, who rank fifth but have played more games (52) than anyone in the West.

Still, by winning 10 of 13 before the break the Ducks put pressure on rivals to win those games in hand. In addition, center Ryan Getzlaf is expected to return next week after suffering facial fractures when he was hit by a puck Dec. 28.

"We've got to play the same way we've been playing. We can't stumble out of the gate after this break," right wing Corey Perry said.

The East standings aren't likely to change much. Toronto, Ottawa, the New York Islanders and New Jersey are out of contention. The Buffalo Sabres won seven of 10 before the break, but their depth is thin. Florida has had some good spurts but won only four of 10 before the break.

But it's possible there will be a switch between Atlanta, which is clinging to eighth, and Carolina, which trails the Thrashers by a point and has played two fewer games.

Defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta's top scorer and a Norris Trophy contender, has gone 10 games without a point and is minus-5 defensively in that span. Goaltender Ondrej Pavelec has a sensational .927 save percentage, but he needs more help than he's likely to get.

Carolina, led by rookie scoring leader Jeff Skinner (18 goals, 40 points) and center Eric Staal (25 goals, 52 points) has better balance. The experience of goalie Cam Ward, who won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player in the Hurricanes' 2006 Stanley Cup run, could make the difference if the race stays close.

Slap shots

Sidney Crosby, out of the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup since Jan. 5 because of a concussion, was cleared to resume light workouts this week. He will have to remain symptom-free before he's allowed to practice.

The Red Wings expect to regain forwards Pavel Datsyuk (broken wrist) and Dan Cleary (fractured ankle) Wednesday at Ottawa.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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