x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

It's an even field going into the NHL play-offs

Sam McCaig finds out how the teams are faring ahead of what is expected to be a close post-season.

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby, No 87, is injured and his return for the play-offs is doubtful.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby, No 87, is injured and his return for the play-offs is doubtful.

With the NHL playing out the final week of the regular season, it is time to look at some of the biggest storylines from 2010/11.

As usual, Sidney Crosby is a good place to start. The Pittsburgh Penguins captain was many things this season, from the face of the league to first-half MVP to all-around hockey superhero.

Unfortunately, he was also proven to be a mere mortal, becoming yet another victim of the concussion crisis when he took a head shot in the outdoor Winter Classic on January 1 and another headache-causing hit a few days later.

As a result, the Penguins have been without their best player for three months. His return for the play-offs is doubtful, putting Pittsburgh in the precarious position of vying for the Stanley Cup not only without Crosby, but without Evgeni Malkin, too, who is out for the season with a knee injury.

With Crosby out, the race for the MVP award began anew, and we learnt that Vancouver's Sedin twins are eerily alike.

Last year, while Daniel was injured for 19 games, Henrik claimed the league's scoring title and MVP honours. Now it may be Daniel's turn: he has got a handy lead in the points race, and will probably be the only player to surpass 100 points this season.

Perhaps his only stumbling block will be that the Canucks have several other players (brother Henrik, goalie Roberto Luongo and two-way force Ryan Kesler) who have generated MVP chatter.

We have learnt that the Stanley Cup hangover remains a challenge as the Chicago Blackhawks, the champions, stumbled out of the gate, in part due to a revamped line-up because of financial constraints. The Hawks hit their stride in the second half, but still have not punched their ticket to the play-offs.

What else? Well, we learnt that Philadelphia's run to the cup final last spring was no fluke, as the Flyers have sat in first place in the East for most of the season.

And that Washington's Alex Ovechkin will not score 50 goals every year; he is at a modest 30 this season. We also saw that Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos can challenge for the title as the NHL's most dynamic player - and, sometimes, its most invisible one.

Finally, with the play-offs around the corner, we've learnt that parity rules in the NHL and that any one of the 16 post-season hopefuls have to be considered contenders.


This week in the NHL

Players of the week

• Dwayne Roloson, Tampa Bay. Three wins for the Lightning goalie.

• Patrick Marleau, San Jose. Five points in two tough divisional games and the Sharks centre is flying high.

• Chris Stewart, St Louis. Three goals and seven points to go with six hits show this trade deadline acquisition has it all

Teams of the week

• Tampa Bay. Five wins and the Lightning are threatening to take over fourth place in the East – and home-ice advantage in the first round.

•Toronto. Hope for a play-off spot fades more every day, but the Maple Leafs refuse to go quietly with three straight wins.

• San Jose. The Sharks scored 14 goals in three huge wins this week, including a 6-0 drubbing of Pacific rivals Dallas.

Duds of the week

• Shea Weber, above, Nashville. The reliable defender had an uncharacteristic week with a minus-4 rating and one point.

• Joey MacDonald, Detroit. The Wings netminder surrendered 10 goals in two games.

• Philadelphia Flyers. On the verge of losing top spot in the East, a 1-2-1 record does not inspire confidence heading into the play-offs.

Game of the week

• Chicago at Detroit, Friday. Original Six rivals face off twice in the final weekend with major play-off implications for the Hawks.

• Anaheim at Los Angeles, Saturday. It is back-to-back games for the state rivals, with both jockeying for position in the tight West.

• Montreal at Toronto, Saturday. Not much at stake except pride to finish off the season on a high note for these longtime rivals.