Biggest surprises in NHL can be found in Eastern Conference standings

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As the NHL season reaches its midway point, the biggest surprises so far can be found in the Eastern Conference standings.

Few would have guessed the Boston Bruins would be leading the way and no one was predicting that the last two Eastern representatives in the Stanley Cup - Pittsburgh and Ottawa - would be outside the playoff picture.

The Penguins situation might be the most puzzling of all. Sure, last year's Stanley Cup finalists lost some players to free agency and suffered some key injuries on defence; but they still have two of the league's top scorers in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.

Pittsburgh lost for the sixth time in seven games on Thursday night and currently sits ninth in the conference. Coach Michel Therrien summed up the situation quite succinctly.

"I'm disappointed," he told reporters Thursday. "I'm disappointed with a lot of guys."

First-year Senators coach Craig Hartsburg can certainly identify. His team has just dropped seven of eight on the road, culminating with a loss in Boston that had him calling out star forwards Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza.

Ottawa has essentially been on the decline since last year, but they've fallen particularly hard in recent months. With 43 games left to play, the Sens are a distant 13 points behind Buffalo for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Many have speculated that Hartsburg and GM Brian Murray could be fired as a result, although owner Eugene Melnyk tried to quash that notion this week.

"I have made no decisions with respect to any personnel changes within the Senators organization," Melnyk said in a statement. "Winning remains our No. 1 priority and there is a collective focus by our management, our coaching staff and our players to deliver this to our fans. ...

"This is crunch time. We don't surrender halfway through the season."

There has been nothing but good news in Beantown.

Just like Chicago in the Western Conference, the up-and-coming Bruins are enjoying a resurgence. The team qualified for the final playoff spot in the East last season and is lapping the field so far this year.

Boston is 30-7-4 at the halfway point - its best start since 1929-30 - thanks in part to some solid contributions from secondary sources. While it's no surprise that Marc Savard leads the team in scoring, Phil Kessel (24 goals), David Krejci (43 points) and a revitalized Michael Ryder (15 goals, 29 points) are also chipping in.

It's all added up to a bunch of wins for the Bruins.

"I think a lot has to do with how close we are as a team," Kessel said recently. "I think everyone gets along really well on our team. We all would do anything for another guy on our team."

A similar feeling seems to have enveloped the Blackhawks - another of the league's feel-good stories midway through the year. Chicago has quickly gone from worst-to-first in attendance, with a once-dormant market finally getting excited about a young team that appears headed for a playoff berth.

There are fewer surprises overall in the West, where San Jose and Detroit again lead the way.

The Dallas Stars have been the biggest disappointment after making it all the way to the conference final in the spring. Poor goaltending and defensive play has plagued the Stars - not to mention the distractions Sean Avery brought to Texas after joining the team in the summer.

However, Dallas is 9-6-1 since Avery last played a game and might make a playoff push down the stretch.

Of the six Canadian teams, Montreal and Calgary appear to have the best shot to end the country's 16-year Stanley Cup drought. Both teams would start the post-season on home ice if it began today.

The Vancouver Canucks also hope to find themselves in that mix now that Mats Sundin has officially joined the fold and goaltender Roberto Luongo appears close to returning from a groin injury.

As expected, Edmonton sits right on the playoff bubble in the Western Conference. The Oilers spent a fair bit of time on the road in the opening months of the year and will get a little more time at Rexall Place in the second half.

Barring big turnarounds in Ottawa and Toronto, there will be no playoff hockey in Ontario for the first time since 1992.


Matty Beniers

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