With All-Star endeavors finished, NHL playoff race heats up

LOS ANGELES (AP) The NHL playoff race doesn't really get rolling until after the All-Star break, and almost every team still harbors postseason hopes - some more realistic than others.

The division races only determine playoff seeding in the NHL, and it's almost considered a weakness to ascribe too much importance to the regular season. But you can't win the Stanley Cup if you can't make the postseason tournament, which makes the next 9 1/2 weeks vital for everybody.

Most of the leading contenders in the division races have already emerged.

The Washington Capitals have opened a formidable 15-point lead in the Metropolitan Division and an 11-point lead on Atlantic Division leader Florida for the top overall seed in the Eastern Conference.

The defending champion Chicago Blackhawks lead the West thanks in part to a tremendous 12-game winning streak, but Dallas, Los Angeles and San Jose aren't letting the Hawks get away from the pack.

The race for eighth is even more vital in each conference, and only a handful of teams aren't in that peloton.

The individual statistical races are also well underway, and a skinny American goal-scorer in Chicago is threatening to skate away with it all.

Here are five races to watch in the second half of the NHL season:

CROWN THEM: The Los Angeles Kings have won two Stanley Cup titles in the past four seasons, but this Second Six franchise has won only one division title in its 49-year history. The Kings have been alone atop the Pacific standings since Nov. 25. A recent stumble in Los Angeles' consistent play allowed San Jose to pull within seven points at the break, but the Kings openly acknowledge the Pacific title as a goal for a team that has won everything else.

BIG NUMBERS: Patrick Kane has never won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's top scorer, but the Blackhawks star is turning this race into a laugher with 73 points in just 53 games. Kane hit the All-Star break with a 15-point lead on Dallas captain Jamie Benn, who won the Ross Trophy last season with a mere 87 points - which Kane might have by March. Kane also leads the Richard Trophy race with 30 goals, two more than Benn.

PANTHER PUNCH: The Panthers are another franchise with just one division title in their history, but the BB&T Center rafters might have some more drapery this spring. Florida is the feel-good story of the NHL season, and coach Gerard Gallant's club hit the All-Star break with a five-point lead over Tampa Bay and Detroit in the Atlantic. The Panthers won the Southeast in 2012 but haven't won a playoff round since 1996. Holding off the star-studded Lightning in the regular season would be good practice to end that 20-year drought.

ON THE EDGE: Some big-name players must rally their clubs soon just to make the postseason. League MVP Carey Price has been out since late November with a lower-body injury, and Montreal has dropped precipitously in its goalie's absence. The Canadiens are tied with top defenseman Erik Karlsson's Ottawa Senators in fifth place in the Atlantic. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin hit the break with their Pittsburgh Penguins clinging to the final playoff spot in the East. Edmonton's Taylor Hall, Winnipeg's Blake Wheeler and Calgary's Johnny Gaudreau are all top-10 NHL scorers, but they face uphill climbs to make the postseason.

RACE FOR LAST: There's another race going on, and the prize isn't the Stanley Cup. It's Auston Matthews, the 18-year-old center from Scottsdale, Arizona, currently playing in Switzerland's top league while he waits to be the probable No. 1 pick in the upcoming NHL draft. Toronto, Columbus and Edmonton hit the All-Star break in a three-way tie for the NHL's fewest points, but Buffalo, Philadelphia, Winnipeg and Calgary are still contenders for a shot at Matthews. This competition is wide open - although if the Oilers get the No. 1 pick for the fifth time in seven years, the rest of the league might riot.

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