Winners and Losers In NHL’s First Half

You would think that half an NHL season would be enough to get a sense of how things will play out. But for the 2014-15 campaign, so many teams have defied expectations — good and bad — while injuries and illness have swept through on an almost unprecedented level. The result is a league where the traditional haves-and-have-nots aren't yet set in stone, and almost anything can happen.

Teams that were left for dead have suddenly surged to life. In the case of the Columbus Blue Jackets, a deathly November has been followed by a miraculous December, all while injuries have remained the top story. In fact, the Blue Jackets continue to face mounting injuries, and even the harshest critics have given the team a pass if they miss the playoffs. However, when they've reached a reasonably healthy roster, Columbus has looked strong and given their fans a glimpse of what might have been.

On the other hand, everyone expected the Buffalo Sabres to be looking more at the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft. For the bulk of the season, things certainly went that way, but then the Sabres roared back, much to the dismay of some fans. Given their roster, this will probably all fall to the wayside, but it's added to the uncertainty of the season.

Some teams have had surprisingly strong starts, such as the Calgary Flames. However, advanced statistics pegged the Flames to be paper tigers, and in the last few weeks, they've returned to earth as their stats have regressed to the mean. The New York Islanders and Nashville Predators haven't let up, though, and both upstart teams have played with enough consistency that they should be in the mix come March and April.

Veteran teams have also offered up surprises, though for the wrong reasons. The San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals both faced internal changes — the former focused on locker room culture, the latter with a new coaching staff. Both struggled to mediocre starts, which given the context of their teams, seemed like a disaster. In December, though, both teams found their stride. Not as much could be said about perennial threats Boston and Los Angeles, who've played below expectations despite .500+ records. The Kings have struggled mightily on the road while the Bruins just look inconsistent from game to game.

As for the mumps, we won't even get started on that. But the illness has certainly showed up in enough locker rooms that the league needs a giant can of Lysol.

What does this all mean? Usually, Christmas becomes a turning point where separation emerges between stronger and weaker teams. There is a points gap in the standings between top and bottom, but the problem is that overall records have come with such unpredictability that no one is safe.

For fans of teams that seem on life support, there's hope. For fans of teams at the top of the mountain, it's a precarious position. But perhaps parity and uncertainty are the greatest gift for hockey fans this holiday season, as that means that the importance of just about every game is heightened. Buckle up, because the race for the playoffs starts early this season.

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