Darren Eliot
Tuesday January 22nd, 2008

With this week culminating in the All-Star festivities in Atlanta, I thought it appropriate to look at the top performers thus far this season.

In the Eastern Conference, Martin Brodeur (25-15-2, 2.10 GAA, .920 save pct. for the Atlantic co-leader Devils) remains the standard bearer of excellence. Sure, challenges have come from the Islanders' Rick DiPietro (19-16-5, 2.53 GAA, .913 save pct.) and, early on, the Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. But the fact remains that if you were looking to win a single game, Brodeur is still the choice.

Out west, Roberto Luongo has had another stellar campaign (21-15-4, 2.09 GAA, .926 save pct.) He gives the Canucks their identity and is the main reason the team is such a tough opponent on a nightly basis. The Sharks' Evgeni Nabokov (2.19 GAA, .911 save pct.) is a worthy challenger as the Pacific Division's best. His 43 consecutive starts underscore his durability and consistency as the go-to guy in San Jose, and his 25 wins as of Jan. 21 were tied with Brodeur for the league lead.

Honorable mention goes to Pascal Leclaire (17-9-3, second-ranked 2.06 GAA) in Columbus. His first-half exploits mark a breakthrough as a legitimate starter for the improved Blue Jackets -- something they've hoped for during the past several seasons.

The Eastern Conference doesn't have a dominant defender -- someone who plays physically while also adding to the offense. The best in that regard has been Zdeno Chara for the Bruins (32 points, +6). Struggling after his move from Ottawa to Boston a season ago by trying to do too much and live up to the hype and his hefty pay raise, Chara has returned to performing at his previously set standard. As head coach Claude Julien put it, "We asked him not to focus on doing more, but on doing better." It's working adn the Bruins are a solid playoff contender.

The Western Conference, by contrast, is all about dominant play from the blueline. From Chris Pronger in Anaheim to Dion Phaneuf in Calgary to rookies Tom Gilbert in Edmonton and Erik Johnson in St. Louis, defense is de rigueur. Still, the master of playing both sides of the game is Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom. He tops out in every imaginable category -- time on ice (27:17), points (44) and plus/minus (+37) -- and more than anything is the force that makes the league-leading Red Wings run so smoothly. If ever a team has taken on the persona of its captain, it is Lidstrom's Red Wings.

The Eastern Conference is loaded with outstanding offensive-performers up front -- many of them with a skilled foil on the same team: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh; Vinny Lecavalier and Marty St. Louis in Tampa; Dany Heatley and Jason Spezza in Ottawa; and Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa in Atlanta. Throw in the Capitals' dynamic Alex Ovechkin and you get the picture -- lots of forwards to choose from. But the nod in the first half goes to Kovalchuk as the most exciting goal-scorer in the game (league-leading 37, including a streak of 16 in 11 games). He has single- handedly carried the Thrashers from the brink of an early season abyss to vying for a postseason berth.

The Western Conference plays tighter, tougher D that makes open ice harder to come by. Other than Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk in Detroit, and Marion Gaborik in Minnesota, the Western scorers are typically power forwards. Rick Nash in Columbus, Ryan Getzlaf in Anaheim and Joe Thornton of the Sharks come to mind as big bodies who use their size to create space in the offensive zone. Jarome Iginla of Calgary, though, authored the best first half (32 goals, 63 points, +18). Not exactly a man alone in the Flames' attack, but Iginla is the focal point and he is delivering -- again. He leads the NHL with six game-winning goals and if his post All-Star performance matches his first-half production, Iginla would get my nod as the NHL's MVP.

But that's a debate we'll save for the appropriate time.

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