With the entire National Hockey League around the 41-game midway mark, it's safe to say teams and fans alike can begin preparing to buckle up for the usually wild ride that is the second half of the National Hockey League season.
The holidays are usually classified as the "dog days" of the season - December and January drags along for the majority of players, many of whom are running low on gas after being run ragged through the first three months of the season. Up until at least the All-Star game, except the majority of games to be sloppy, a bit slower than usual, and generally uninteresting.
Once the "stretch run" begins, though, everything gets ramped up a notch.
As the playoff race truly begins, teams will catch their second wind, and players will be revitalized by the upped importance of every game, period, and shift (unless you're a cellar-dwellar like Edmonton or Carolina).
Over the next few months of the season, the contenders will be separated from the pretenders, and a lot of questions about certain players from around the league will be answered. Will the surprise producers of the first-half continue their runs, or will they fade as the games get tighter and tougher? Will slumping stars hit the reset button and finish off the year strong, or will they continue to disappoint their team and their fans?
While we often try to predict what entire teams will do during any particular segment of the NHL season, we often ignore the impact one player can have on his team - especially during the most important part of the regular season.
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15 Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Lightning
It's highly doubtful that anyone expected Tyler Johnson to even be in the top 20 in scoring at the midway point of this season, let alone in the top 5 - if anyone on Tampa's roster was going to be ranked that high, it would be Steven Stamkos, right? Despite the doubts, Johnson has followed up a solid rookie season with an incredible first-half of 2014-2015. He's tied for fourth in league scoring with 45 points. If he can keep up his torrid pace, the Lightning could enter the playoffs as the Beast of the East.
14 Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils
The legendary Jaromir Jagr is one of the few players in the league today who already has the "future Hall of Famer" label despite still being productive - even at his advanced age. Jagr is worth keeping an eye not because he's going to drag the Devils into a playoff spot, but because there's a chance he'll be flipped to a contending team at the deadline in a move that could seriously impact this season's playoff race - and the playoffs themselves.
13 Aaron Ekblad, Florida Panthers
We don't blame you if you haven't watched a single minute of Florida Panthers hockey this season. You didn't have much of a reason too - until recently. The Panthers, a perennial cellar-dwelling franchise, has come on strong this season. They currently sit a mere three points out of a playoff spot and have four games in hand on the teas currently in front of them (Boston). A lot of their success can be attributed to a stabilized defense that has surprisingly been led by last summer's first overall pick, Aaron Ekblad. With 23 points, he sits 3rd in rookie scoring and is ahead of names like Alex Pietrangelo, Ryan Suter and Mike Green in overall scoring. If Ekblad can keep up his rock-solid rookie season, he could be the key piece, along with Roberto Luongo, to squeeze the Panthers into a wild-card playoff spot.
12 Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars
Jason Spezza was brought to Dallas during the offseason to continue to be the game-breaking playmaker he was in Ottawa, but without the pressure of the captaincy and being expected to carry the load. Spezza is playing behind Tyler Seguin now and should be producing much more than he has been, considering he doesn't have to deal with top defensive pairings anymore. Not much has gone well in Dallas up to this point, but if Spezza can turn up his offensive production in the second half of the season, the Stars may yet make a push for a wild card spot in the crowded Western Conference.
11 Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens
Alex Galchenyuk has been somewhat of a "project" player in Montreal over the past two and a half seasons. He was drafted as a center, but spent at least 95% of his time in Montreal manning the wing - until now. Galchenyuk has finally been cast as the team's number one center, and if he expects to keep the role, he'll have to be productive. His time at center started off with a bang, thanks to a quick connection with sniper Max Pacioretty and a natural hat-trick against the Carolina Hurricanes, but he has cooled off since then. If the Habs want to contend in the East - especially against the high-scoring Lightning - then Galchenyuk will have to pace the offense the way he was expected to when he was drafted 3rd overall in 2012.
10 Dustin Byfuglien, Winnipeg Jets
Winnipeg Jets fans have officially ended the team's honeymoon - they were content with having a team for a few years, but not they want a winning team that produces results. Winnipeg currently sits precariously in a wild card spot in the Western Conference, but they are going to need more offensive production from Dustin Byfuglien if they hope to keep themselves in the playoff discussion. He's been moved back to the right wing, so he's going to have to do better than his current 22 points in 41 games if the Jets are going to keep up in the Wild Wild West.
9 Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs
To say that it's been a tumultuous start to the season for the Toronto Maple Leafs would be a bit of an understatement - but then again, when is it not tumultuous in Toronto? While there is plenty of blame to go around, and plenty of concerns that need to be dealt with, the Leafs are currently clinging to the second wild card spot in the East. That can change very quickly if certain players don't step up their game, and it starts in goal with Jonathan Bernier. Bernier was brought to Toronto to finally end the franchise's goaltending carousel, but Bernier has been a bit of a disappointment since arriving in TO. It's time for him to take the job and run with it, or it might be time for Brendan Shanahan to restart that goaltending carousel (because James Reimer isn't the answer, either).
8 Rick Nash, New York Rangers
Many thought that Rangers we're going to take a massive step back this season - myself included - after a massive roster overhaul this offseason, but they've managed to stick around in the Eastern Conference playoff race, thanks in large part to the resurgent Rick Nash, who's refound his old scoring touch with 25 goals so far (second to only Tyler Seguin). If the Rangers are going to get a shot at returning to the Cup Finals, they're going to need Nash to stay hot until the end of the season - the next closest scorer on the Rangers is Martin St.Louis with 13, so it's clear that Nash will have to offensively carry a team that hasn't had Henrik Lundqvist at his very best for most of the season.
7 Frederik Andersen, Anaheim Ducks
The Anaheim Ducks currently sit atop the league standings - to the surprise of few - and a large amount of credit should go to the revelation in goal, Frederik Andersen. Andersen flat out wrestled away the starting goaltending job in Anaheim and has been excellent all season. He's tied for second in wins and has a solid 2.32 GAA, but he's a guy to keep on eye on for the simple reason that young goalies can sometimes fade as the season goes along. Andersen has already played 34 games, and barring a catastrophe will be the man for Anaheim going into the playoffs. Can Andersen solidify himself as a legitimate number one in the NHL? The second half of the season will give us a good indication of whether or not he can.
6 Phil Kessel, Toronto Maple Leafs
As was mentioned in the Jonathan Bernier paragraph, there's been a lot that has gone wrong this season in Toronto, even though they are still very much in the playoff discussion. A lot of what happens going forward rests on the Leafs top forward, Phil Kessel - perhaps the most polarizing player in Canada this year, if not throughout the entire league. We've seen what Kessel can do when he's on - but is he always on? He's faced a ton of criticism this past week with the firing of Randy Carlyle; will he continue to go through the motions or will he take the opportunity to show the hockey world that he can carry a team offensively, and into a deep playoff run?
5 Jaroslav Halak, New York Islanders
The Curious Case of Jaroslav Halak would be a bestseller if someone decided to write a book on the up-and-down career of the Slovakian netminder. After fighting and clawing his way up the Canadiens depth chart, he gained national notoriety by stealing series against the vaunted Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals during the 2010 playoffs. He was traded to St. Louis and was expected to be the team's long-term answer in goal, but fizzled out and has bounced around until finally landing in Long Island this summer. He's been excellent for the upstart Isles, but will Halak be able to keep it up for an entire season for the first time in his career? His career-high in games played is only 57, and he's already shown signs of wear-and-tear this season. The Isles will need Halak healthy and in top-form down the stretch if they expect to lock down a Metropolitan Division playoff spot.
4 Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers
If someone had told you that Jakub Voracek would be leading the NHL's scoring race at the midway point of the season, you probably would have laughed in that person's face and walked away. Voracek has always been a decently productive forward, but he's never been considered among the league's elite point-producers - today he sits ahead of superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, Steven Stamkos, and teammate Claude Giroux. The Flyers have had a rocky start to the season, but they still have time to turn things around - it would help if their defense wasn't putrid, but if the backend can figure out what ails them, and Voracek keeps up his incredible pace, then the Flyers might just put a scare into the teams currently ahead of them in the playoff race.
3 David Perron, Pittsburgh Penguins
A couple of weeks ago, David Perron was an afterthought - a good player buried on a horrible roster that was stuck in last place and losing games incessantly. Fast-forward to today, and Perron is playing on Sidney Crosby's wing and is a prime candidate to breakout during the second half of the year. He scored in his first game playing alongside Crosby; if those two can click, and Perron finds his old scoring touch, the Penguins could go from respected to feared in a matter of weeks.
2 John Tavares, New York Islanders
Unfortunately for John Tavares and the Islanders, a promising start to last season was derailed when Tavares was injured during the Olympics, ending his season and effectively ending the Isles playoff hopes at the same time. This year, Tavares has been his usual productive self - but now it's time for him to take his game to the next level. The Isles have only made the playoffs once during Tavares time with the team, and that was during the lockout shortened year. The Isles sit comfortably in second place in the Metropolitan Division and just one point behind Pittsburgh. Expect Tavares to take his game from "productive" to "dominant" during the stretch run and finally prove that he can lead his team to playoff success.
1 Victor Hedman, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning were scary enough without their top defenceman manning their blueline - but with Victor Hedman back, they immediately become the Eastern Conference's biggest threat right now and during the playoffs. Hedman was injured early in the season, but it hasn't slowed him down - he has 20 points in 24 games, and you can expect him to keep that pace up considering he's got plenty of offensive firepower to outlet the puck to every night. Hedman is worth keeping an eye on not only because he will help the Lightning push for top spot in the East (and perhaps the Presidents' Trophy), but also because he's still very much in the Norris Trophy discussion.
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