Signs of life

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The holiday season means different things to people everywhere. For NHL veterans like Jason Blake of the Toronto Maple Leafs, "Christmas marks the unofficial halfway point of the season. You hope your team is set in its identity and playing well, because the second half becomes tougher and harder to earn points."

Blake can only hope that the first half sets him up for a better finish. Diagnosed with a form of leukemia in training camp, Blake has dealt with that personal trauma daily while scoring just five times on 140 shots on goal. He did manage to light the lamp in back-to-back games this past week, and the Leafs have won six of their last eight games to get back into the Eastern Conference playoff derby while currently in the midst of a season-long seven game road trip.

Blake's first half/second half assessment was interesting to consider when applied to other teams around the East. Think of how your favorite team has done so far and project forward. Did they secure a healthy share of "easy" points that are historically more difficult to procure in the second half? Or did your team hang in the mix while getting its game together, whether the issue was overcoming injury, integrating new players, or adapting to a new coach? Which teams can you see having success in the second half based on their current state of affairs?

Conference front-runner Ottawa seems to be back in form after a 0-4-3 stretch. Coach John Paddock talked about finding the right balance of "puck possession and straight line pressure" -- something the Senators have done while winning five-straight. That mix up front extended to the second line once Paddock shifted captain Daniel Alfredsson to the wing with center Mike Fisher. The move ignited Fisher, who had a four-game point streak before exiting early in Saturday's game with an abdominal injury.

Blending puck possession with straight line aggressiveness is "why we like our team," Paddock explained, "and is something the Flyers have done well this season with their forwards." While the Flyers have had a strong first half in the ultra-competitive Atlantic Division, I'd offer that the Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres in the ridiculous Northeast may also be ready for second-half success.

The Bruins stand second overall in the Conference despite key injuries at every position. They've also played the fewest home games in the NHL. They are playing such an organized game under new coach Claude Julien, with a little health and home ice mojo, that it isn't inconceivable to picture the Bruins remaining in the top four all season long. Julien says he has defenseman Zdeno Chara back in top form by "not doing more, doing better." Julien contends that last season Chara was trying to do too much, simultaneously pushing to live up to his new free agent deal and carry the weight of the captaincy. Now, he is leading his Bruin teammates by playing controlled and committed hockey.

Meanwhile, the Sabres find themselves at the bottom of that very same Northeast. Yet, their recent play seems to indicate that they are slowly coming to terms with who they are rather than who they aren't without free agent defectors Daniel Briere and Chris Drury. The Sabres, 6-10-1 on Nov. 15, are now two games above .500 and have scored 11 more goals than they've surrendered. Consider that outside the Northeast; only two of the other 10 teams have tallied more than they've yielded.

Interestingly, or maybe pointedly, no team in the Southeast has scored more than it has allowed, including the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes. Currently, though, only the Florida Panthers seem to have settled into any kind of consistent identity, due largely to the fine recent play of goaltender Tomas Vokoun. With the relative strength of the Northeast and Atlantic, and considering that the Southeast's spread top to bottom is only nine points, the scramble for a playoff spot in the South may come down to winning the division.

If so, that's certainly no holiday cheer.

As we pointed out last week, the Calgary Flames were poised for a winning trip as they headed east to play the Southeast. They manhandled the division with their marauding style, winning five-straight. The Flames wrap up their road swing on Tuesday with a stop in Columbus. The Phoenix Coyotes likewise try to finish with a flourish on Tuesday in Philadelphia after impressive back-to-back road wins in the east over the New Jersey Devils and New York Rangers.

Meanwhile, the Atlanta Thrashers try to emerge from a four-game slide and remain in touch with the aforementioned coveted top spot in the Southeast. Their topsy-turvy season continues with a hectic four-game slate this week before the mini-break in the league's schedule on December 24-25.