Before the season, each writer of the ESPN.com NHL crew predicted who would win the Stanley Cup. Now that half the season is in the books, they tell us if they want to change their minds.
@ESPN_Burnside: The Phoenix Coyotes won't hit the midpoint of their schedule until Saturday, but as of this writing, the Yotes have played in six straight extra-session games (2-0-4) and, although the wins might be in short supply, the points collection sees Phoenix sitting in the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference. We figured the Coyotes to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the Pacific Division, but they'll have to be better defensively in the second half (they rank 25th in goals allowed per game at 2.97 and are 24th on the penalty kill) or else just getting into the playoff tournament will be in question, let alone winning the Cup. Still, we remain nothing but confident Dave Tippett's squad will rediscover its defensive identity and settle into the top eight in the Western Conference, which as anyone who watched the Los Angeles Kings in 2012 can tell you, that's all you can ask for in this NHL. It's a significant disappointment in Phoenix that defenseman Keith Yandle wasn't selected to the U.S. Olympic team, but having him rested and super-motivated to prove the selection committee wrong might not be a bad thing. The Coyotes are a surprising sixth in goals per game and have six players in double digits in goals scored, which bodes well for the second half when depth on both sides of the puck is always tested.
@CraigCustance: So I'm coming to terms that the team I picked to win the Stanley Cup might not even be one of the top two in its own state. But that says more about the San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks than it does the Los Angeles Kings, my pick to win it all. I still feel good about the Kings' chances. I'm not sure how many other teams could lose a goalie of Jonathan Quick's caliber for the length of time the Kings did and still keep pace with the league's elite teams (we'll ignore their current four game losing streak for the sake of this argument). And now, Quick is closing in on a return and will be itching to prove he deserves to be the starting goalie in Sochi, not Ryan Miller. The Kings have only allowed 83 goals, a ridiculously low number. The Bruins are currently the only other team to hold teams to a goal total in the 80s. The Kings also have balanced success on the road and at home, which will come into play in the postseason if they can't win the division. They're still one of the five best teams in the league at even strength, a strong indicator for postseason success, as is their top-10 penalty kill. The fear of a monster first-round opponent for the Kings in the playoffs is a real one, but I'm still not sure there's a team in the league outside of Chicago I'd pick to beat the Kings right now.
@Real_ESPNLeBrun: Stanley Cup hangover? "Ha, hogwash," they're saying in Chicago these days. Halfway through the season and the Blackhawks are making a mockery of the next-year malaise that seems to have hit other Cup winners over the past decade -- including themselves in 2010-11 -- but not this year's edition. I picked the Hawks to be the first repeat Cup champs since the 1997 and 1998 Red Wings in part because I felt the lockout-shortened season wouldn't have taken as much out of them as a normal year, but also because this time around, the Blackhawks largely kept their team together. And they certainly haven't disappointed, vying for the first overall and looking just as deep and dangerous as they ever have, leading the league with a whopping 3.67 goals per game average as of Thursday morning. Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp have all been sensational, but just as impressive has been a supporting cast as deep as any in the league. The West is the toughest road back to the Cup, and the likes of St. Louis, Anaheim, San Jose, Los Angeles and Vancouver will have a say in whether the Blackhawks can get back to a Cup finals. But they're certainly capable.
@KatieStrangESPN: OK, so the San Jose Sharks have cooled off a little since the first-quarter mark, but they're still among the top four of a dominant Western Conference, and that's no easy feat. The 26-9-6 Sharks trail the third-place St. Louis Blues by just three points and remain within striking distance of powerhouses Chicago and Anaheim, so suffice it to say I'm not abandoning my Stanley Cup pick just yet. But inconsistency has been an issue in years past and we've seen glimpses of that in the last month. The Sharks followed up a six-game winning streak with a four-game skid in early December, though they recovered quickly as they neared the halfway point. Heading into the new year, the Sharks rattled off four wins in five games, including three straight shootout victories. However, the team suffered a particularly unfortunate loss when rookie forward Tomas Hertl underwent knee surgery to repair a damaged PCL and MCL. Without the electrifying young Czech, the Sharks will be missing key offensive production. Hertl led all rookies with 15 goals and 25 points in 35 games before going under the knife. Even without Hertl, the Sharks are still a dangerous offensive team with impressive depth down the middle, although one of their shining stars -- Logan Couture -- is still trying to shake a frustrating slump. The 24-year-old pivot, who just recently snapped a 11-game goalless drought, managed only five points in all of December. With Hertl out and Couture struggling, look for key veterans Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski, Patrick Marleau and Dan Boyle to lead the way in the third quarter, with perennially underrated goaltender Antti Niemi a steadying presence in net. (The 31-year-old Finn is second in the league with 21 wins.) The Sharks might not be lumped in with the big boys out West just yet, but I still feel good about their chances come playoff time, given their breadth of offensive talent, strong goaltending and veteran experience. I still believe this season will be different for these Sharks.