How short is this lockout-abbreviated NHL season? After seven weeks, it is half over, and the homestretch is about to begin. Here is a look at the best and worst of the 48-game schedule so far, and what to look for in the second half.
The lockout did not alienate fans. Instead, they came back in droves, as they did after the NBA lockout in 2011. Television viewership so far is up from last season’s overall figures in the United States. NBC reported a 37 percent jump in viewers for NHL telecasts on its main network and a 34 percent rise on cable. In Canada, TSN’s Wednesday telecast leaped 30 percent compared with last season’s overall figure, and CBC’s early Saturday game is up 16 percent from this point last year.
Average attendance entering the weekend was 17,662, up from 17,455 for all of last season, a significant increase given that many NHL teams regularly play to full rinks. League estimates reported to the players’ association put revenue on a pace to reach $2 billion to $2.4 billion this season, the equivalent of $3.4 billion to $4.1 billion for an 82-game schedule. Last season, the NHL earned $3.3 billion.
Those numbers seem to be a sign that fans care more when every game matters, and that they are eager to watch what was kept from them. That is a strong argument for reducing the schedule permanently to a more meaningful 70 games or so, but the league will probably never do it.
Any team that goes through half the season, even a reduced season, with one regulation loss has to qualify as a huge surprise. The remarkable Chicago Blackhawks had only four defeats, three of them in shootouts, through their first 25 games. What is the key to their success, beyond the excellence of Jonathan Toews and a newly focused Patrick Kane? Their league-best team defense, giving up fewer than two goals a game, allowed them to win 13 of 21 games by a single goal, also tops in the NHL. That bodes well for playoff success, as long as the team stays healthy.
The Montreal Canadiens, cellar dwellers in the Eastern Conference last season, topped the conference at the 24-game mark. A rebuilt hockey department, led by the rookie general manager Marc Bergevin and the recycled coach Michel Therrien, has revived the club’s winning culture. The Canadiens have had a balanced attack, an unexpectedly deep defense, and solid goaltending from Carey Price and Peter Budaj.
When the Ottawa Senators lost to injury their top center, Jason Spezza; the game’s best defenseman, Erik Karlsson; and their star goalie, Craig Anderson, most expected them to vanish from playoff contention. Instead, they have stayed in the picture with an inspiring team effort and a sterling home-ice record.
Signing the marquee free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter for 13 years and $98 million each, the Minnesota Wild seem poised to finally become a power in the Western Conference. But Parise and Suter have been unable to lift the club from mediocrity.
The Edmonton Oilers have collected high draft picks for years but have always languished near the bottom of the West, promising fans that better days are coming. Barring a second-half turnaround, Edmontonians will have to remain patient. The Oilers specialize in developing offense-minded players (Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz, Magnus Paajarvi), but they lack the ability to shut down opponents and are not scoring much, either.
Whither New Jersy? After the Devils, last year’s Stanley Cup runners-up, lost Zach Parise, less was expected from them. But coach Peter DeBoer had them playing typical Devils hockey, and they flourished through their first dozen games. Goalies Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg seemed to turn back their personal clocks, and David Clarkson looked like Rocket Richard. Then they plummeted. The defense broke down, Brodeur sat out with a back injury, Hedberg slumped and Clarkson stopped scoring. So who are the real Devils?
Best bets to make a late charge
The Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings had a rough start, with goalie Jonathan Quick struggling and injuries sidelining three regular defensemen. But through Saturday, they had won 10 of their past 13 and appeared to be recapturing their swagger.
Coach Adam Oates hoped to revive the Washington Capitals with a new system and with Alex Ovechkin moving to right wing. The short camp and Ovechkin’s struggle to adjust hampered their start, but they won eight of 12 through Saturday and could claw their way back into the postseason discussion.
Boston and Anaheim each had only three regulation losses and three defeats in extra time going into the weekend. The Bruins may have the best depth in the East, and Tuukka Rask has replaced Tim Thomas in goal with barely a hiccup. The Ducks will not catch Chicago, but their offense is just as potent — they signed Ryan Getzlaf, their top scorer, to an eight-year extension Friday — and they should continue to run a strong second.
The New York Rangers, with a kinder, gentler John Tortorella behind the bench, seem ready to live up to their potential as contenders after a mediocre first half. Rick Nash is a clutch-scoring revelation, Henrik Lundqvist is still superb in goal, and Marian Gaborik and Brad Richards are strong bets to improve their lackluster numbers.
Worthiest Hart Trophy contender
Not Sidney Crosby or Steven Stamkos or Toews, but Scot L. Beckenbaugh, the federal mediator whose marathon work in January put the league and the players’ association in the same room and paved the way to a lockout settlement. Without Beckenbaugh, there would be no NHL season.