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First half of NHL season features surprises -- some pleasant and some ugly

VANCOUVER - The lockout-shortened NHL season has featured several surprises as it nears the midway point—some pleasant and others downright ugly.

Here's a look at some highlights and lowlights, and what to expect in the second half of the abbreviated campaign.

Highlights

1. Chicago Blackhawks—The Blackhawks (19-0-3) have put together a record season-opening run after facing questions about their goaltending and character. Chicago has yet to lose in regulation. Starting goaltender Corey Crawford, whose future with the club was in doubt at the outset of the season, has posted a 1.41 goals-against average. Meanwhile, Patrick Kane ranks among the league's top scorers with 11 goals and 15 assists.

2. Montreal Canadiens—The Habs, sitting in top spot in the Eastern Conference, have made a resurgence in coach Michel Therrien's second stint behind their bench. Last season's dismissal of coach Jacques Martin and complaints about replacement Randy Cunneyworth have been all but forgotten. Max Pacioretty, announced Monday as the NHL's first star of the week, has averaged better than a point per game with 8 goals and 12 assists in 18 contests. He produced seven points in four games last week. Rookies Brendan Gallagher (6-7-13) and Alex Galchenyuk (3-9-12) have helped ignite a Montreal offence that was often dormant last season.

3. Other Canadian Teams—Don't look now, but the Toronto Maple Leafs are sitting in the middle of the Eastern Conference pack—and have a chance to make the playoffs for the first time since 2004. The Leafs have competed despite the unexpected and potentially disruptive pre-season dismissal of former president and general manager Brian Burke and an injury to nominal No. 1 goaltender James Reimer. The Vancouver Canucks, Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets are also positioned well. Ottawa is playing at a high level despite key injuries and Winnipeg is in the race to win the Southeast Division.

4. Anaheim Ducks—After missing the playoffs last season, the Ducks have a firm hold on second place in the Western Conference. Coach Bruce Boudreau, who took over from Randy Carlyle last season shortly after being fired in Washington, has made the Ducks appear mighty again. Captain Ryan Getzlaf ranks among the league's top scorers after struggling last season, and 38-year-old Saku Koivu is also among the NHL's top producers.

5. Sidney Crosby and Steven Stamkos—The two young stars were battling for the league scoring lead. Pittsburgh's Crosby is clearly back in top form after missing most of the past two seasons with concussion issues. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's Stamkos is demonstrating that he will not surrender the goal-scoring title that he won last season without a fight.

Lowlights

1. Injuries—Prior to the season, many players and coaches anticipated that there would be several groin and muscle issues as a rest of the lockout-induced layoff. But the health issues have been much more serious. Ottawa defenceman Erik Karlsson's season-ending torn Achilles tendon injury, cut by Pittsburgh winger Matt Cooke's skate, was the most glaring example. A number of other players have suffered concussions.

2. Infractions—Some injuries were unavoidable, but others have resulted from ugly infractions, including several checks from behind. Buffalo's Patrick Kaleta was suspended for five games after he sent New York Rangers forward Brad Richards head-first into the boards Sunday. That play came a day after Philadelphia's Harry Zolnierczyk earned a four-game suspension for charging Senators defenceman Mike Lundin, who suffered a concussion.

2. Underachievers—The bottom-feeding Columbus Blue Jackets failed to get any immediate benefits from former captain Rick Nash's trade to the New York Rangers and fired general manager Scott Howson. Meanwhile the young Buffalo Sabres do not appear likely to fulfil owner Terry Pegula's dream of turning into a powerhouse squad any time soon after coach Lindy Ruff was fired early in his 15th season at the helm.

4. Rick DiPietro Demotion—Goaltender Rick DiPietro's demotion to Bridgeport of the AHL from the New York Islanders showed how far the NHL's top draft choice in 2000 has fallen in an injury-marred career. DiPietro did not help his cause when he said he had contemplated suicide as a result of the demotion and then backtracked, saying he was only joking.

5. End of Manny Malhotra's Season—Vancouver general manager Mike Gillis' decision to end Manny Malhotra's season might also have ended the 32-year-old forward's career. Gillis said he was concerned about the risk of permanent injury to Malhotra, who has never been the same player since he suffered a serious eye injury in March 2011.

What to Watch

1. Playoff Battles—The lockout set the stage for high-stakes hockey in the shortened season, and battles for final playoff spots in both conferences should go right down to the wire.

2. Trades—GMs must decide whether they can afford to make trades as the end of the short season draws near. Vancouver goaltender Roberto Luongo has stayed longer than expected after being displaced as the starter by Cory Schneider in last spring's playoffs. Centre Ryan Kesler's latest injury has heightened Vancouver's need for a proven second-line centre. The future of Calgary captain Jarome Iginla is also in question with his contract due to expire and the Flames needing an injection of young talent.

3. Fighting—Fighting is back in vogue, with heavyweights being among the few players to be traded thus far. It will be interesting to see to what degree bouts increase during the stretch drive.

4. John Tavares and Thomas Vanek—The Islanders' Tavares (13-12-25) and Buffalo's Vanek (12-15-27) are defying their teams' poor records by remaining in contention for the NHL scoring title.

5. Minnesota Wild—The Wild have gotten back in the playoff race after adjusting to the arrival of new high-priced stars Zach Parise and Ryan Suter.

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