With compression of the schedule caused by the World Cup and the Players Association bye week, there's been almost no time to breathe this season. The Sabres have another four-game week coming up, starting with Monday's matinee here against Dallas. As hard as it might be, it's good to try to take a moment for a step back.
That's what we'll do here. Five months away from the NHL handing out its actual awards, here's a look at how some of the major ones have trended through the first half of the season.
Hart: Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are still stars and Connor McDavid has quickly blossomed into one. No surprise on all three counts. The pick here is Crosby, who is on a career-high 56-goal pace at age 29 and has simply carried his momentum from the Stanley Cup final and World Cup. But he better start sneaking these awards in before McDavid makes them an annual rite now that No. 97 is no longer a teen-ager. Others to watch inclue Artemi Panarin, Devan Dubnyk, Brent Burns and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Norris: Like with Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, it often takes getting to a Cup final for a player's profile to grow and that's what has happened with Burns in San Jose. He's simply a beast, and that's not a reference to the beard or the wild suits. He entered the weekend with 17 goals, 44 points and was plus-16. With apologies to the likes of Shea Weber, Victor Hedman or Erik Karlsson, this looks like a runaway.
Calder: Patrik Laine might be out a while with his concussion suffered here last weekend and that may end his hopes. Still, it's hard to believe Auston Matthews isn't going to pull away anyway. The kid is on a 43-goal pace and is rapidly emerging as a two-way center who can be a No. 1 guy for years in Mike Babcock's scheme. The Sabres may be dealing with some sobering reality in the Tank Wars come Tuesday night in Toronto. Huge props so far also go to Columbus' Zach Werenski and Calgary's Matthew Tkachuk.
Vezina: Carey Price is going to get his standard love, especially in Canada, but the best goalie of the first half really comes down to two men: Minnesota's Dubnyk and Columbus' Sergei Bobrovsky. More than any other players on their teams, they're the reasons the Wild and Blue Jackets put together win streaks of 12 and 16 games, respectively. Bobrovsky hit the weekend 26-6-2/2.00/.931 while Dubnyk was 22-7-3/1.77/.940. Remarkable numbers. Story for the second half: Are they sustainable? More props to Boston's Tuukka Rask and Washington's Braden Holtby.
Jack Adams: Nice job in Minnesota, Bruce Boudreau. Barry Trotz is getting it done again in Washington. Babcock is working magic in Toronto. Randy Carlyle's return to Anaheim is going well and Joel Quenneville is Joel Quenneville. But they can all step aside. The Torts show is the talk of the season.
Columbus' John Tortorella was openly laughed at during Team USA's collapse at the World Cup. He was a dinosaur, part of the neanderthal method of picking a team with grit over skill. He's showing all of us. At the halfway point last season, the BlueJackets were 15-23-3 and last in the NHL with 33 points. A year later, they've gone from 30th place to first with a 29-8-4 mark and 62 points.
Tortorella's team has speed and skill and a devastating power play. They have great goaltending. Who ever thought the Lightning would win a Stanley Cup in 2004 but they did with Torts at the helm. The Jackets have never won a playoff series in their 16 years. They've only played in two! They're going to have a real chance this year.
Flyers grounding after streak
The Flyers may have put 40 shots on goal but they looked decidedly ordinary here Tuesday night during their 4-1 loss to the Sabres. They hit the weekend just 3-6-3 since their 10-game winning streak and certainly a candidate to become the first team in history to miss the playoffs in a year with a double-digit run of victories.
Until breaking out some in Thursday's 5-4 win over Vancouver, the Flyers had scored just 19 goals in the previous 11 games. When they got home from Buffalo, General Manager Ron Hextall was clearly not happy.
"It's driving me nuts," Hextall told Flyers reporters after practice Wednesday. "I hope it is for everybody else, too.
"We need to get to the net. To me, we made it easy on their goalie," Hextall said of Sabres netminder Anders Nilsson. "We all know where most goals are scored -- and they're in tight. And we need to do a better job as a group getting there."
Asked if moves were in the offing, Hextall said, "I'm not going to make a trade to send a message. I'm only going to make a trade to make us better."
Lindy wants more from Seguin
The Dallas Stars make their annual trip to town Monday and Lindy Ruff's fourth visit to Buffalo as the coach in Big D comes with the backdrop of his team struggling to stay above .500 in the final season of the 56-year-old's four-year deal.
Goaltending has been a major issue for the Stars and, like he famously did here with the likes of Thomas Vanek and Derek Roy, Ruff is pushing his top players to give even more. He revealed he had a pretty in-depth conversation with leading scorer Tyler Seguin last week.
Seguin entered the weekend eighth in the league with 41 points in 43 games but only 15 goals. He's had three straight 30-goal seasons but is only on pace for 27 this year.
"My conversation with him was: ‘Do you have another gear? I’ve seen you with another gear, and I want to see it,'” Ruff said, according to the Dallas Morning News. “There’s more there, I know there is. I get to watch games sometimes two or three times, and you see situations that turned to gold, and now they’re silver or bronze. I think he’s missing that little gear that I think he can find still.”
When you see the elaborate jersey retirement ceremonies held last month for Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa and Friday for Martin St. Louis in Tampa, it renews the urge to scratch your head and wonder just what the heck the Sabres put on for Dominik Hasek when No. 39 went to the rafters two years ago Saturday.
No grand stage, no light show, no this-is-your-life parade of former teammates. Not even any family members. It seemed like a slapped together situation that was too understated, but one the team maintained was the way The Dominator wanted it. No pomp and circumstance. Frankly, it was a shame.
Speaking of St. Louis, Thursday's Sabres-Lightning game was the first NHL contest he had attended since retiring from the New York Rangers nearly two years ago. He's busy coaching three boys ages 8-13 in hockey in Fairfield, Conn.
"People ask me if I miss hockey. I'm around it more than I was before," St. Louis told the Tampa Bay Times. "I don't miss playing at all. I was done. Mentally, I was done. I was missing so much of the good stuff. I was done. Mentally, I just felt terrible not being there for them."
Around the boards
---The ice storm in Kansas City that prompted the NFL to move the Chiefs-Steelers game to Sunday night got the NHL an unplanned national telecast. The Flyers and Capitals will play at 1 on NBC, in the time slot originally slated for the football game.
---The Blackhawks got four players picked for the All-Star Game but the biggest snub in the Central Division, and maybe the entire game, was Artemi Panarin. Chicago keeps moving guys due to the cap and still has the deepest group of star talents in the league.
---Even without Steven Stamkos, you better be ready to play some 78-rpm hockey when you head to Tampa Bay. With the likes of emerging star Nikita Kucherov, Ondroj Palat and others, pace is the name of Tampa's game.
Said Sabres coach Dan Bylsma: "The challenge of the Lightning was getting the speed of my computer to be right for watching the pre-scout game. I kept thinking my game was in fast-forward mode how fast it was being played."
---A stick tap to old friend Pete Weber, who broadcast his 2,000th game for the Predators last week. Weber, the Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer best known in these parts for his work on Bisons games from 1983-1995, has been the original voice of hockey in Nashville since it landed in the NHL in 1998. This year, a bar opened in Bridgestone Arena named after Weber and former broadcast partner Terry Crisp.