It’s hard to imagine, but Tampa is a hockey town, as last week’s NHL All Star Game proved. While All Star Games across major sports are essentially a game for the athletes to pal around with no sense of competition, the introduction of the 3 on 3 format has given rise to the best play on ice:players wheeling and dealing, scoring ridiculous goals–the best coming from hometown favorite Nikita Kucherov, who ended the first game with a hat trick. The league has also attempted to incentivize the players by awarding the winning team $1,000,000. This year the winnings will be split among the Pacific Division All Stars.
All Star Weekend means the players are midway through their grueling pursuit of Lord Stanley’s Cup. Although many fans would like to see the players over in PyeongChang to pursue another form of immortality, this year is only about the cup. Let’s take a look at the top contenders halfway through the season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Here’s my (un)biased opinion: the Lightning are the best team in the league. They lead the league in wins with 36. Their powerplay is working at 23% for fifth in the league. Victor Hedman has been a stud (per usual) all year with a +25 for fourth in the league in plus/minus, which I think is one of the most important statistics. Andrei Vasilevskiy has grown into a man between the pipes well on pace to break the Lightning single season shutout record. In addition, he boasts a solid .930 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average. Last but certainly not least, Stamkos and Kucherov rank first and fifth in points respectively. This pairing has struck fear in the hearts of their opponents and, as long as they stay healthy, they can continue to lead this team to success.
Vegas Golden Knights
Who the hell saw this coming? This team has come out of the desert to set new standards for expansion teams. With the win against Winnipeg, they set the NHL record for expansion team victories in a season…AT THE HALFWAY POINT. Marc-Andre Fleury is a new man in sin city, currently in second place for save percentage (.939) and goals against average (1.84). Fleury has received help from David Perron and Jonathan Marchessault (snatched from the Lightning in the expansion draft) to give the team a stable offense. This team embodies Vegas Strong with the best home record in the League (19-3-2) and has carried it with them all season.
There is no hotter team in the NHL than the Boston Bruins. From December 14th until January 30th, the Bruins recorded a point in every single contest. This comes from the return of several key players who missed games due to injury, including Charlie McAvoy who leads the Bruin’s defense in assists. The man with the largest nose in sports, Brad Marchand, has also had a nose for the goal and penalty box this season with 21 ginos and 37 penalty minutes. Marchand is currently serving a four game suspension, which he will have to avoid for the rest of the season in order for the Bruins to make a deep run.
If there was a team you did not want to heat up, (unless you’re a Pens fan) it was this one. The Penguins are coming off back-to-back seasons in which they hoisted the greatest trophy in sports. They have the league’s best power play rocking at 27.6%, the league’s best player in Sydney Crosby (yes he’s still the best for now) who seems to have adopted the LeBron James mindset of coasting until the postseason and showcasing his greatness when he feels like it, Evgeni Malkin, who has been lighting the lamp as of recently with eight goals and three assists in his last ten games, and Phil Kessel who’s power play statistics are almost as big as his forehead.
Just like Tampa, you would have never guessed Nashville would go hockey crazy. Last year’s catfish antics in the Stanley Cup Finals showed everyone they are true hockey fanatics. PK Subban is currently in contention for the Norris Trophy, and the signing of former captain Mike Fisher will provide the team with greater leadership and depth at center. With experience from last year’s run, this team has the knowledge and desire to finish what they started.
This is my sleeper team. The Winnipeg Jets have quietly put up an impressive 18-3-1 home record. Patrik Laine has emerged as one of the best shooters in the league in only his second season. The paying of Byfuglien and Trouba provides Winnipeg with grit and goals from their blue line. This one is more of gut feeling from watching them play, but they are young, fast, and hungry.
I want to close by giving a final salute to the man, the myth, the legend Jaromir Jagr. If this is indeed the end, know our hearts are forever yours. Love, Bradley.