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SECOND HELPINGS
TIGHT RACES, GOALIE INTRIGUE SPICE MENU FOR A MEMORABLE NHL FINISH

When the NHL season resumes after the All-Star break, fans often offer a silent prayer of thanks that the first "half" of the hockey year is over. Even the most devout follower of all things icy has to admit that, in the average season, the real action doesn't start until after the goalies finish weeping over the annual No Defense Fest.

Well, this is no average season.

Today, the NHL faithful are once again full of post-All-Star gratitude, but not because 50 games are behind them - they are grateful that 30 games still lie ahead in La Saison du Lemieux.

Mario's latest comeback is, as you know, the story of the year - it might well shape up to be one of the greatest feel-good stories in hockey history - but it's not the only thing NHL fans have had to cheer about this season. Think back to October, when a Mario Lemieux goal seemed as likely as a Bills Super Bowl victory, and you might recall that this was also the season in which Patrick Roy became the NHL's all-time winningest goalie. Somewhat less significant, though no less hyped, was Mark Messier's tearful return to the New York Rangers, a homecoming that stood in stark contrast to Ray Bourque's exit last season from the Boston Bruins to the Colorado Avalanche.

For once, the second half of the season is not guaranteed to outshine the first. Still, smart money says it will do just that. Here's why:

Race to the finish: Everyone can admire the All-Star laden Avalanche and the depth and discipline of the defending Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils, but the rest of the regular season is all but meaningless for such powerhouse teams. While they spend two months jockeying with conference rivals for playoff position, the hottest second-half contest could turn out to be the Southeast Division sweepstakes, in which the Washington Capitals (58 points) and the Carolina Hurricanes (54 points) battle for what could - and probably should - be the division's only playoff berth.

Washington, now complete with recently re-signed sniper Peter Bondra, looked like a lock for the division title and accompanying home-ice advantage until Carolina put together a nine-game unbeaten streak (7-0-2) starting on New Year's Eve. The Hurricanes have lost four of their last seven, but goalie Arturs Irbe continues to look sharp, so another string of wins could be right around the corner.

If both the Caps and the 'Canes make the postseason, it will be because either the Buffalo Sabres (56 points) can't come out of their vexing January skid or the Boston Bruins (55 points) can't maintain the energy they've shown since NHL Svengali Mike Keenan took over behind the bench. With winger Bill Guerin fresh from an All-Star MVP performance, a Beantown letdown at this stage seems unlikely.

In the Western Conference, the Nashville Predators (55 points) and Los Angeles Kings (54 points) pose real threats to the Phoenix Coyotes and Edmonton Oilers (59 points each). Tommy Salo has been little more than average in goal for the Oilers, whose fall from Gretzky-induced grace wouldbe cruelly punctuated by the loss of a playoff berth to third-year franchise Nashville. The Predators won their last three heading into the break, including road victories over Phoenix and L.A., and might draw a little extra incentive from the fact that Nashville was one of just six teams not represented at the All-Star Game.

Before the Emperor Penguin's return to the ice, Pittsburgh was a .500 team with some offensive punch but little by way of defense; now, the Penguins are comfortably above the breakeven line, with a singularly dazzling offense and little by way of defense.

Before, ESPN2 lived on a steady diet of Rangers and Avalanche, and hockey reporters counted the days until they were off to San Jose or Tampa Bay; now, the glamour trip is to Pittsburgh, but if you can't make it, you can always catch the Pens on the tube.

Before, Jaromir Jagr was considered the best player in the NHL, but he was ill-tempered, underachieving and asking for a trade; now, Jagr is a human smiley-face who seems destined for another scoring title, even though he no longer qualifies as the best player in the league - or even on his own line.

The Penguins, who two months ago had all the crackle of a wet dishrag and looked like a good bet to miss the playoffs, suddenly are one or two players away from being a legitimate Cup contender. Mario or no Mario, Pittsburgh still could still benefit from the services of at least one hard-checking defenseman, and the Penguins will have to import a goaltender to mount a playoff run. The tandem of Garth Snow and Jean-Sebastien Aubin made sense backstopping the mediocre Pens of November, but it just won't be enough for the potentially miraculous Pens of May. Potential trade bait could be center Jan Hrdina, who has seen his ice time plummet since Lemieux bumped him from the first line. Which brings us to . . .

Desperately seeking stoppers: This is the time of year when teams that are serious about competing for the Cup pick off talent from those who already have given up, and this year's have-nots do have an intriguing selection of goaltenders to offer. The New York Islanders (John Vanbiesbrouck), Tampa Bay Lightning (Kevin Weekes and Dan Cloutier) and Florida Panthers (Trevor Kidd) have eminently movable goalies and nothing to lose.

Meanwhile, back in the playoff picture, the Predators could benefit from trading a solid goaltender (either Thomas Vokoun or Mike Dunham) for a scoring threat, and the Dallas Stars have to be considering ending their rocky relationship with mad genius Eddie Belfour. But even with such a wealth of goalies potentially available, it's always a seller's market when it comes to playoff-ready keepers, and Pittsburgh isn't alone among the prospective buyers.

The Kings are starting to get better production out of Jamie Storr, who shut out the high-powered Stars on Jan. 30, but the 26-year-old's on-again-off-again performance in the first half makes any surge suspect (witness the Kings' 6-4 loss to the Predators two days later). The experienced Stephane Fiset has been injured. The Kings, who appear to have lost confidence in backup Steve Passmore, can't afford to keep rolling around the playoff bubble. With defenseman/captain/all-around righteous dude Rob Blake set to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, the Kings must either trade Blake while they still can, or commit to making one last run with the big guy on the roster. Either way, priority one must be finding someone who can man the crease night in and night out.

Elsewhere, the Ottawa Senators need to decide whether Patrick Lalime is for real this time, or if he's just reprising the flash-in-the-pan role he played as a Penguins rookie in 1996-97. Ottawa, the top team in the Eastern Conference, could be playing Russian roulette with the first real shot it has ever had at the Cup if it doesn't bring in a veteran to back up - or, if necessary, replace - Lalime.

Similarly, the resurgent Vancouver Canucks owe it to themselves to upgrade their goalie corps, which currently consists of Bob Essensa and Felix Potvin. Vancouver is the surprise contender of the season, relying heavily on veteran defenseman Ed Jovanovski, high-scoring winger Markus Naslund and a talented group of youngsters. With the St. Louis Blues ravaged by injuries and the Detroit Red Wings' dressing room beginning to resemble the Shady Pines Rest Home, the Canucks could pull an upset or two in the postseason - if they can trust whomever they have between the pipes.

Vancouver's Northwest Division rival, Edmonton, might consider providing Salo with some competition to light a fire under the 30-year-old goalie. Backup Dominic Roussel and his .889 save percentage don't have anyone running scared, and Salo is just scraping by with a .904 save percentage himself.

Most top teams already have their goaltending squared away. The league-leading Avalanche are pretty darn happy with Roy, New Jersey has a gem in Martin Brodeur and the Blues boast the most potent one-two punch in the NHL with Roman Turek and rookie Brent Johnson.

Another rookie, Evgeni Nabokov, has emerged as a superstar for the Pacific Division-leading San Jose Sharks, while former Dallas backup Manny Fernandez has led the expansion Minnesota Wild to the fifth-best goals-against average in the league.

More pleasant surprises: Lemieux might be the only star to emerge from retirement this season, but a number of other players also have re-introduced their names to NHL scorekeepers.

Former Sabre Alexander Mogilny, evidently reenergized after winning a Stanley Cup ring with the reclamation-happy New Jersey Devils (see Arnott, Jason), is on pace for a 100-point season after three drab years in Vancouver. Across the Hudson River, Ranger Theo Fleury has atoned for last year's slump by contributing more than one point for each inch of height. The 5-foot-6 winger entered the break with 67 points, third-best in the NHL.

Pittsburgh forward Alexei Kovalev, formerly known as "enigmatic forward Alexei Kovalev," was having a career year even before Mario's return, notching a personal-best 27 goals in the first half alone. And Kevin Stevens, possibly the luckiest man in the NHL, is back from encounters with the penal system and the Philadelphia Flyers to reclaim his role as Lemieux's linemate.

Out West, Coyotes goalie Sean Burke is making his case for the Vezina Trophy. Burke, late of Florida, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Carolina/Hartford and New Jersey, is working on career-bests in GAA (2.06) and save percentage (.928). The Coyotes have all but forgotten about long-time holdout Nikolai Khabibulin - but then, who hasn't. If a playoff-bound squad doesn't make a play for Khabibulin soon, his once-promising career could be reduced to serving purely as a cautionary tale for Michael Peca.

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