The halfway point in the 2017-18 National Hockey League (NHL) season has come and gone, marking a perfect time to reflect on the season so far, and consider how the intriguing postseason will shape up.
Biggest Surprise: Vegas Golden Knights
No expansion team—in any of the four major North American leagues—has ever finished their inaugural season with a winning record. No one thought an inexperienced squad like the Vegas Golden Knights would be any different. Then, after the Knights won their first three games, people started to take notice. Despite losing each of their top three goaltenders, their record is currently 36-15-4, tied for the league’s second-best mark as of Feb. 13. No one could have possibly predicted it, but this rag-tag band of outcasts looks to be contenders.
Biggest Disappointment: Edmonton Oilers
This season was supposed to be the one for the Edmonton Oilers. After last spring’s push to the Western semi-finals and their first playoff appearance in nine years, the Oilers seemed primed to make a run for the Stanley Cup. Then-20-year-old superstar Connor McDavid had just won the scoring race, Cam Talbot had established himself as a top goaltender, and several rookies were looking to make an impact. However, the Oilers got off to a poor start, and haven’t had a sniff of the playoff picture ever since. With two months remaining in the regular season and at 23-28-4, most analysts are counting them out. Whether they will be able to recover is anyone’s guess.
Hart Trophy (Most Valuable Player): Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche have made an impressive leap this year—moving from the worst record in the last 15 years to playoff contention—and MacKinnon is the reason why. He leads the team in scoring with 24 goals and is near the top of the entire league. MacKinnon carries the team, and while he likely won’t be winning the scoring race this season, he is still extremely valuable. Without MacKinnon, the Avalanche would likely be doing worse than they did last year, making him more impactful than any other player in the league this year.
Vezina Trophy (Best Goaltender): Andrei Vasilevskiy, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning have been absolutely dominant this year, thanks in part to their high-octane offence. But, even with their success up front, no team can be powerful without a good goalie. Vasilevskiy has most definitely played the part: Among starting goalies, he’s first in wins, first in save percentage, second in goals against average, and has backstopped his team to first overall. These are the makings of a Vezina winner.
Calder Trophy (Best Rookie): Mathew Barzal, New York Islanders
Barzal and Vancouver Canuck Brock Boeser, two 2015 first-round picks, have both had impressive first seasons. They are one and two on the rookie points board and have dominated the Calder conversation. Boeser leads in goal-scoring by a wide margin despite playing for the struggling Vancouver Canucks, but Barzal has been better all-around, particularly as a playmaker. Ultimately, that versatility gives Barzal the edge—at this point—for a race that will come down to the wire.
Stanley Cup Final: Tampa Bay Lightning vs. Nashville Predators
With stellar scoring, defence, and goaltending, the Lightning have been dominant this season, on top of the league for all but two days. Tampa Bay will be playoff favourites all the way through the Eastern Conference, but the West is a tighter battle. Vegas should be a playoff favourite, and the Winnipeg Jets could make a deep run should their players stay healthy; however, the most likely Western Conference champions are the Nashville Predators. Nashville went on an improbable run to the finals last season, and have only improved since—particularly after captain Mike Fisher returned from retirement. They’ve held steady near the top of the Western Conference and will look to ride that to the final. This matchup would be a very tough series for either team, but the Lightning’s supremacy in almost every department prevails over seven games.