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Sidney Crosby’s return has apparently been worth the wait. Crosby has 25 points in 15 games, a point-per-game ratio of 1.666, and his best ratio in his career. But why has Crosby’s return been so successful? Several responds to his dominance have been that the amount of time that the Penguins staff and doctors took with him really helped him be just as good, if not better, than he was when he first went out injured. If this is the case, it is a very important point. This extended absence in the name of recovering from concussions could set precedence for other players recovering from concussions. Indeed, Crosby is not the only star player to have sat out this year for long periods of time (though he admittedly is probably the best). Nicklas Backstrom has not played since January 3rd, when he was injured by Calgary’s (then Calgary, since moved to Montreal) Rene Bourque. Nathan Horton was concussed by Philadelphia’s Tom Sestito and Boston as a team has certainly felt the effects of that. Jonathan Toews has not played since February 19th as a result of a concussion. Even at the ripe old age of 37, Chris Pronger was statistically having the best season of his career before he suffered a concussion which has limited him to 13 games. Alexander Steen has missed 39 games this season but has since returned, and like Crosby, has also been very successful. Clearly the concussion issue is still playing a huge role in today’s hockey world.
Another answer to why Crosby’s return has been so successful is the general success of the team this year. Even while missing Crosby for all but 15 games, the Penguins, led by Evgeni Malkin, already have 100 points and could quite possibly overtake the Rangers for 1st place in the east. Crosby’s success could be pointed to the fact that many of the Penguins are having great seasons. Evgeni Malkin will certainly be an MVP candidate, if not the winner of it. James Neal has broken out with 35 goals and over 70 points. Kunitz, Dupuis, Sullivan, Staal, and even Matt Cooke have had very productive seasons. I know Crosby does not normally play with Neal or Malkin, but he does on the power play and there is still something to be said for players playing better and with more energy stemming from teammates, even if they are not linemates.
There are several playoff teams that are (or should be) thinking about who their starting goaltenders should be come April. Chicago has rotated between Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, both of whom have had struggles and streaks of genius. On the whole, Emery has probably been better, but Crawford has played fairly well recently. The Washington Capitals brought in Tomas Vokoun to be their goalie this season, but Michal Neuvirth has played just as well as Vokoun has, and more and more it seems like he will start for the Caps (provided they make the playoffs). Not all goalie controversies involve two underproductive goalies. In an odd case of two goalies playing incredibly well, the St. Louis Blues have two goalies who are both in the top 6 for save percentage, GAA, and shutouts. Jaroslav Halak has six shutouts and a save percentage of .927. He has had an amazing season, only partially stuck in the shadow of his counterpart and teammate Brian Elliott. Elliott is leading the league with an unheard of .941 save percentage, a GAA of 1.52, and 8 shutouts (making the Blues as a team have 14 shutouts). This begs the question of who should start in the playoffs. Since Halak has played more games than Elliott, his numbers probably hold more truth of the player as a whole, someone a team would want to go down the stretch with. Coupled with the fact that St. Louis originally picked up Halak straight off of his incredible playoff run with Montreal in 2010, they know how good he can be in the playoffs. However starting Halak would mean sitting the guy who currently leads the league in several goaltending categories, someone who has showed time and time again how good he is, and make no mistake, Brian Elliott is not a guy who got lucky with “good team play” and being “well-rested”. All in all, I would have to go with Elliott. Could you imagine St. Louis losing with Halak? People all around the league would point to the fact that St. Louis, interestingly enough, did not start the goalie that went to the all-star game, and led the league in shutouts, GAA, and save percentage? It would be insanity.
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Surprises and disappointments:
There are several things that caught many fans and teams attention throughout the season. First off, the Ottawa Senators are most likely going to be a playoff team this year. Though when looking at their team on paper and seeing guys like Erik Karlsson, Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson, Milan Michalek, and Sergei Gonchar, it’s hard to see why we thought that they would not even be a contender. Their younger players have stepped up for some secondary scoring and their goaltending has been decent (albeit somewhat roller-coaster-y). The Florida Panthers are another team in the east that has surprised people. The Cats currently lead the southeast division and have had a very productive first line of Fleischmann-Weiss-Versteeg coupled with puck-moving defenseman Brian Campbell for some potent offense, and have also enjoyed the resurgent goaltending of Jose Theodore. Though I expected the St. Louis Blues to be a good team (I had them winning the Central), I did not think they would be as dominant as they have been this season.
As far as disappointments go, the Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, and Columbus Blue Jackets (not that I thought they would make the playoffs, but I did not expect them to be last in the league) come to mind. Tampa Bay and Columbus both fell to horrible goaltending (guess who called Roloson being a flop?). The Ducks lost their star power and could not make up for a lack of team defense.
By: Jonathan Bloom
ProHockey-fans.com Staff Writer