Friday December 19th, 2014

Kings of the world again

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For the second time in three seasons, the Kings brought the Stanley Cup to Los Angeles, this time knocking off the Rangers in five games. The Kings first had to survive a thrilling seven-game series against the Blackhawks in the Western Conference Finals that felt more like the Stanley Cup Final than the Final did. Their ultimate victory proved that L.A. could be a marginal regular-season team that comes alive in the spring because it is built for the playoffs and is lead by a coach, Darryl Sutter, who knows how to prepare for games that really matter.

Cup of the world again

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Without revealing specifics that are still in negotiation, Commissioner Gary Bettman made it clear that the NHL is going ahead with plans to revive the World Cup of Hockey that last took place in 2004 when Canada defeated Finland in the final. Not only does the word from Bettman confirm that fans and players will have another tournament to prepare for in the late summer of 2016, but it also makes it more likely that the NHL will not break its season in February 2018 to allow its players to take part in the Pyongyang Olympics. The NHL has participated in the Winter Games since 1998, but bowing out would be no surprise, given the huge time difference between North America and South Korea. With Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan, bidding for the Games in 2022, it is now truly unlikely that the NHL will consider having its players at an Olympics until at least 2026.

Rise of the Islanders

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The timing couldn't be better for this long-struggling franchise to find its feet again. The team that won four straight Stanley Cups to start the 1980s hasn’t been right since. Ownership nightmares and bad contract signings have dragged the Isles down for the past 20 years. Now a talented young team playing with gusto, and a healthy John Tavares at his best, an emerging star in Kyle Okposo, a rejuvenated Jaroslav Halak in goal, two veterans with Cup experience (Johnny Boychuk, above with Halak; and Nick Leddy) on the backline and a pending move to a new building in Brooklyn next season, the Isles are relevant and also fun to watch. A deep playoff run could also serve as a welcome call for prospective free agents who might now look at the franchise in a different light.

Rising star

AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Each year, a player emerges who leaps from the ranks of all-star to superstar before our eyes. It helps if that player has a certain style and flair that makes us appreciate a little more not just his own skills, but the very game he plays because of the way he plays it. Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues has taken that leap during the first half of the 2014-15 season. By the NHL's Christmas break, the 23-year old winger had scored 20 goals, one off his total for last season. And some of his goals are the type of highlight-film displays that Alex Ovechkin put together early in his career. Though few good teams toil in the anonymity that St. Louis seems to afford, Tarasenko has become a rising star who is worth the price of admission.

A wizard's wonders

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Center Pavel Datsyuk has been a joy watch since he came into this league in 2001. His ability to work magic with the puck and even make great defense look like fun sets him apart from the other players in the league. Often dinged up, Datsyuk has been in and out of Detroit's lineup during the past couple of years, so when he started the season on the injured list, it looked like both he and the Red Wings might have seen better days. Instead, since his return, Detroit has climbed up the Eastern Conference standings again and Datsyuk is producing at his usual pace, with 25 points in his first 24 games. His distinctive style makes him not only an elite player, but a fun one.

The great tank battle

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How often is the bottom of the NHL standings as entertaining as the top? When there are two fortune changing prizes waiting for teams that go from bad to really bad. With mega-prospects Jack Eichel of Boston University (left in photo above) and Connor McDavid of the Erie Otters (right) awaiting the season’s biggest losers and luckiest lottery participants—that always means you, Edmonton Oilers—the clubs that position themselves to snag one of the league’s top two draft choices in 2015 could become better faster than in an ordinary draft year. The NHL rearranged its lottery percentages to lower the chances that the four biggest bottom feeders will get the top choice while increasing the odds for teams 5 through 14—though team No. 30 is still guaranteed one of the top two selections—but losing continues to have its rewards.

Marty happy returns

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The goaltender with the most wins in NHL history wasn’t willing to go gentle into that good night. The Devils had no room for Martin Brodeur before the start of the season, so the 42-year-old future Hall-of Famer bided his time, waiting to see which team would have an injury issue or goaltender meltdown in time for him to return to the game so he could play at least one more year and eventually go out on his own terms. Sure enough, the Blues came calling and Brodeur answered the call. After his first four games with St. Louis, his numbers (2-2-0; .882; 3.59) would have been quite respectable given his long layoff but they were inflated by a six-goal meltdown against the Kings. Granted, a healthy Blues team projects to have Jake Allen and Brian Elliott manning the pipes, but it’s fun to have another glimpse of an all-time great before he says his final goodbye.

Gold, Canada

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In what will likely be the last Olympics featuring NHL players for a while, the Canadian men blazed through the tournament to capture the gold decisively at the Sochi Olympics. When they knocked off Sweden, 3-0, in the final game, it almost seemed like an anti-climax. The U.S. team showed great promise in the early part of the tournament, with T.J. Oshie becoming an instant legend for his performance during the shootout in the preliminary game vs. Russia, before being shut out by Canada in the semi-finals and Finland in the bronze medal game.

Seguin's salvation

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Ultra-talented forward Tyler Seguin was tossed out of Boston like the baby with the bathwater after the 2012-13 season, because, well, did we mention the word “baby?” Seguin’s rumored off-ice escapades might have been true, but his trade to Dallas for Loui Eriksson before last season is still turning his game around. Though his Stars are struggling to make the playoffs, Seguin shot to the top of the NHL in goals (25) and points (42). He has become one of the league’s most dangerous forwards, returning to the form that he showed when he helped the Bruins to the Stanley Cup in 2011.

C you later

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The Captain’s C has long been a mark of distinction that every team is proud to bestow on its veteran leader as the acknowledged face of the franchise. But did the honorarium itself take a hit this season when three teams decided to proceed without one? The Canadiens, who honored their longtime captain Saku Koivu (above) on Dec. 18, opted to go with four alternates this season: Andrei MarkovP.K. SubbanMax Pacioretty and Tomas Plekanec. This is an especially significant move because no franchise is more respectful of the game’s traditions than the Habs.

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The Sharks chose to take the A train, too, though that was more a response to the apparent leadership void that the team faced last season. It may have been a slap in the face to its existing captain, Joe Thornton, who often still serves in that role in certain situations, along with Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Marc-Edouard Vlasic. The Blue Jackets also didn’t name a captain before the start of the 2014-15 season. The Rangers anointed Ryan McDonagh, but only after going with three alternate captains for their extended playoff run last spring after dealing Ryan Callahan to Tampa Bay.

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