With the 2011 NHL All-Star Game now history, here's a look at the 10 most notable storylines over the remainder of the season. -- Spector
NHLI via Getty ImagesGregg Forwerck
The Heritage Classic
The NHL's second outdoor game for this season will take place in Calgary, where the resurgent Flames will meet the Montreal Canadiens at McMahon Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 20. The league is obviously hoping to cash in on another outdoor game, this time involving all-Canadian teams, being as successful as the first Heritage Classic in Edmonton between the Oilers and Canadiens in November 2003. That game was a huge success both at the gate and in the Canadian television ratings, but it remains to be seen if the novelty of two Canadian teams playing a regular-season game outdoors will match the success of the first one.
Getty ImagesRichard Wolowicz
Can the Atlanta Thrashers hold on?
Early this season the Thrashers were among the league's more surprising teams, holding onto a playoff berth thanks to the solid goaltending of Ondrej Pavelec and a good offensive attack led by Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom and Andrew Ladd. In recent weeks, however, the Thrashers struggled, winning only three of their last 10 games before the All-Star break. The need for an experienced top-six forward combined with a woeful defensive game (only the Edmonton Oilers have given up more goals) and a recent injury to Enstrom threaten to scuttle the Thrashers' playoff hopes. Management could be in the market for an experienced scoring forward but if their overall game doesn't improve, they could find it tough to hold off the surging Carolina Hurricanes.
Tight race in the West
By the All-Star break, only 12 points separated the second overall Detroit Red Wings from the 12th overall Calgary Flames, while the St. Louis Blues (13th) and Columbus Blue Jackets were five points out of a playoff berth. Sandwiched between Detroit and Calgary are the Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators, Anaheim Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes, Chicago Blackhawks, San Jose Sharks, Colorado Avalanche, Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings. Only one team, the Edmonton Oilers, is truly out of the playoff race. It could take until season's end to fully separate the playoff contenders from the pretenders.
At this time last season, the Washington Capitals were the runaway leaders of the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference, en route to leading the league in scoring and winning the Presidents' Trophy as the league's overall points leader. This season, the Capitals entered the All-Star break fifth overall in the Conference and second in their division, tied with the Anaheim Ducks for 16th overall in goals scored. Some observers blame the Capitals offensive decline on their struggle to adapt to a more defensive style. Others suggest opposing teams have figured out how to contain Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin, who is currently on pace for 30 goals and 81 points, the worst totals of his NHL career. It'll be interesting to see how Ovechkin and his teammates perform over the remainder of the regular season.
NHLI via Getty ImagesMitchell Layton
Staying on top
By the All-Star break, the Philadelphia Flyers had a four-point lead over the Tampa Bay Lightning atop the Eastern Conference while the Vancouver Canucks were five points up on the Detroit Red Wings for first in the West. Both clubs must now solidify their hold on those berths over the remainder of the season. The Flyers are very deep at forward yet they could use a little more depth on right wing, and there's some concern about rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky maintaining his strong play. The Canucks have been riddled by injury this season yet their overall depth has served them well so far. Plus, goalie Roberto Luongo has overcome a slow start to provide his team with solid netminding.
Flames and Hurricanes back in the chase
Slow starts to this season by the Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes appeared to put their playoff hopes in jeopardy, but in January both teams made steady progress in their respective conference standings. The Flames, led by team captain Jarome Iginla, climbed to 12th overall in the Western Conference, only one point out of the eighth and final playoff berth. The Hurricanes, meanwhile, entered the All-Star break only two points out of eighth in the East. Both clubs cannot afford to slack off down the stretch and would need at least one of the teams currently holding a postseason berth to slump. But if they keep playing well, they'll be in good position to battle for a playoff spot.
NHLI via Getty ImagesGregg Forwerck
The NHL took action during the offseason to address concussion injuries by implementing new rules penalizing blindside hits to the head, but it hasn't led to a significant reduction in concussions. Notable players currently sidelined include Boston's Marc Savard, Colorado's Peter Mueller, Nashville's Matthew Lombardi, Edmonton's Ales Hemsky, St. Louis' David Perron and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. While the league is taking the issue more seriously, it's obvious that more needs to be done.
After being sidelined by a concussion since early January, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was cleared this week to begin light workouts. It could be another two or three weeks before Crosby, who was leading the league in goals and points prior to his injury, can return to action. It remains to be seen how long it'll take for him to return to his high-scoring form or if the injury impacts his style of play. The Penguins have played well during Crosby's absence, winning six of their last 10 games prior to the All-Star break, but they're obviously a better team with their captain in the line-up.
NHLI via Getty ImagesBrian Babineau
Defending champs in trouble
The defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks continue to feel the effects of last summer's cost-cutting trades that adversely affected their depth at center and on defense. Combine that with injuries to key players like Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa earlier in the season and the Blackhawks face the real possibility of missing the playoffs only a year after winning the Cup. Management hopes to address depth issues leading up to the trade deadline and a healthier line-up could bolster their playoff chances, but the Blackhawks could face a real battle to clinch a berth.
Getty ImagesJonathan Daniel
Trades have already created some changes in the NHL, such as Ben Eager's move to San Jose. But with the NHL's trade deadline on Feb. 28, expect rampant rumors about which clubs will be "buyers" or "sellers" and which players could be changing teams. Currently only six clubs -- Edmonton, New Jersey, Ottawa, Toronto, Florida and the New York Islanders -- could be considered sellers, but that list will grow as more teams fall out of the playoff race. Columbus, Buffalo and St. Louis are among the bubble teams that could become sellers very soon. Players rumored to be potential trade bait include New Jersey's Jason Arnott, Ottawa's Chris Phillips, Toronto's Francois Beauchemin and Florida's Tomas Vokoun.