During the early part of the 2021 NHL season, COVID-19 dominated the headlines.
Thirty-five games were postponed, and there were 59 players on the COVID-19 protocol list on Feb. 12.
But things have turned around, with no recent COVID-related postponements and the list in the single digits. Fans are returning in limited numbers to many U.S. arenas.
"We’ve been on this every day with the medical experts and enhancing our protocols, and it’s gotten us to a better place," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said.
That has allowed the focus to be back on the ice. Who are the winners and losers of the first half of the NHL season?
Winner: Vegas Golden Knights goalie Marc-Andre Fleury
The Golden Knights held on to both of their high-priced goalies, and Fleury outplayed 2020 acquisition Robin Lehner early. He took off when Lehner was hurt. Fleury is in the running for the Vezina Trophy with a 1.77 goals-against average and .934 save percentage.
Loser: Philadelphia Flyers goalie Carter Hart
He was in the Vezina Trophy equation entering this season after recording 24 wins, a 2.42 goals-against average and a .914 save percentage in 2019-20. But his struggles (3.62, .884) have been puzzling. He was lit up by the Boston Bruins in the Lake Tahoe game. In a start against the Buffalo Sabres, he was pulled after giving three goals on eight shots. He made a couple big saves late in the Flyers' 5-4 overtime win against the New York Rangers on Monday. "I definitely feel better, but I still have a lot of areas I need to keep working at," he told reporters. "It's just nice to get back in the win column."
Winner: Florida Panthers
They had the pieces with three-time Stanley Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville, two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, star forwards Aleksandr Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau and former No. 1 overall pick Aaron Ekblad. They just needed time to jell. Newcomer Patric Hornqvist has provided gritty scoring and former American Hockey League standout Carter Verhaeghe was a good pickup. Chris Driedger's strong play in net gave Bobrovsky time to get back in form.
Panthers left wing Jonathan Huberdeau (center) celebrates his game-winning overtime goal earlier this season with defenseman Aaron Ekblad (right) and center Aleksander Barkov (left). (Photo: James Guillory, USA TODAY Sports)
Loser: Buffalo Sabres
A mess that can't be explained solely by their COVID-19 pause. A team with Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall, Jeff Skinner and Eric Staal should be scoring more than a league-worst 2.07 goals per game. Those four, who combined for 85 goals in 2019-20, have totaled eight, three less than leading scorer Sam Reinhart. . And now Eichel is out for "the foreseeable future." The result is an 11-game losing streak, a league-worst 6-17-4 record and a frustrated general manager Kevyn Adams.
Winner: New York Islanders
Coach Barry Trotz recently passed 1,700 career games, which speaks to his long-term success. The Islanders have followed up a berth in the Eastern Conference final with a nine-game winning streak to the top of the East Division. Trotz has the team playing crisp defense that has helped Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin combine for five shutouts. The offense took a while to get on track but has taken off, including a goal of the year candidate by Mathew Barzal.
Loser: Washington Capitals' Tom Wilson
Wilson lost more than $310,000 in pay when he was suspended for seven games for a hit that sent Bruins defenseman Brandon Carlo to an overnight stay in the hospital. He had reformed his game the past two years, but now he'll have to watch the level of his physical play because any further suspension in the next 18 months will carry a higher per-game cost.
Winner: NHL broadcast deal
The NHL worked out a seven-year deal in which four of the next seven Stanley Cup Finals will air on ABC, and ESPN will become the primary cable and streaming partner starting in October. That will give extra exposure to hockey, especially important with NBCSN going away. The league will later announce a second broadcasting partner in the United States.
Loser: Dallas Stars
Their grade would be an incomplete. It's tough enough for a Stanley Cup runner-up to do well the following season. But the Stars have had to deal with bad luck, too. Their first four games postponed by COVID-19 and four were moved back because of power outages in Texas. They have plenty of games in hand, but they will need a long run to make the playoffs. Alexander Radulov's return from injury will help.
Winner: Toronto Maple Leafs' Auston Matthews
He was generating Hart Trophy buzz when he scored 18 goals in his first 18 games. Then he suffered a wrist injury on Feb. 24 that cost him two games. He went through a five-game goal drought as the sore wrist affected his shot before he got three goals in two games, including an overtime beauty. He'll continue to need to adjust his game because the Maple Leafs are 1-5 when he doesn't get a point.
[email protected] wins it in OT with his 21st of the season! pic.twitter.com/0EAyMWEOVX
Losers: North Division coaches
Canadian teams aren't allowed to have fans yet, so there's extra pressure to make the playoffs. This season's only two coaching changes took place in the division with Dominique Ducharme replacing Claude Julien in Montreal and Darryl Sutter returning for a second stint in Calgary after Geoff Ward was fired.
Winner: Minnesota Wild rookie Kirill Kaprizov
The Kontinental Hockey League player showed he was worth the wait when he scored three points in his NHL debut, including an overtime goal after a steal. His speed, anticipation, moves and shot have made the Wild fun to watch. The Calder Trophy is his to lose.
HE DID IT AGAIN. KIRILL THE THRILL MAKES IT 2-0!! #mnwildpic.twitter.com/tjn4MkSue4
Loser: New York Rangers rookie Alexis Lafrenière
The expectation was the No. 1 overall pick would have more than four goals and seven points after 27 games. But dominance in the juniors doesn't always translate to immediate NHL success. This year's top rookie scorers, Kaprizov, 23, and Ottawa Senators forward Tim Stützle, 19, played against older players overseas before joining the NHL. Lafrenière, 19, is getting chances, but it could take time. New Jersey's Jack Hughes, the 2019 No. 1 overall pick, is improved this season after being limited to seven goals in his first season.
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