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January 26, 2012
Stats and Fury
Kings Should Break Out In Second Half

by Kent Wilson and ESPN Insider

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What goes up, must come down. That's the lesson we explored last week in relation to several teams that seemingly overachieved in the first half of the season. Now it's time to look on the bright side and examine several teams on the rise in the second half, including one that figures to break the 100-point barrier after a slow start out of the gate.

Los Angeles Kings
First half: 47 points Projected second half: 55 points
Surge: 8 points

Like many of the teams on this list, the Kings' underwhelming first half cost their head coach his job. However, thanks to Terry Murray's (and now Darryl Sutter's) focus on defense, along with Jonathan Quick's Vezina-worthy season so far, L.A. has had no problems in its own end of the ice.

The Kings just haven't been able to score goals. They fired 1,008 shots in all even-strength situations in the first half and managed just 57 goals (5.7 shooting percentage). So even with Quick's heroics and the fact that they outshot their opponents by more than 100 shots at even strength, L.A. was actually under water in terms of goal differential (-9) through 41 games.

With a roster including Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Drew Doughty, Justin Williams and Dustin Brown, it's highly unlikely the Kings will continue to shoot blanks. The league-wide average shooting percentage at even strength is about 8 percent, and most clubs will regress towards that over time. Assuming the Kings score on 8 percent of their shots over the latter half of the year, we can expect LA to score 80 goals rather than the 57 they managed through the first 41 games -- a 23-goal increase, or nearly four wins.

Columbus Blue Jackets
First half: 27 points Projected second half: 38 points
Surge: 11 points

The woeful Blue Jackets hit the half-season pole with the by far the worst record in the entire league. Even without going into particulars, it's easy to bet on some sort of rebound by Columbus, since no NHL squad has a true talent level of just 54 points over a full season. That would be 8 points worse than the last-place Edmonton Oilers in each of the last two seasons. The worst season for a team since the lockout was the Flyers' 2006-07 debacle (56 points).

Ironically, the Blue Jackets aren't a terrible team by a number of measures. They have a positive shot differential (+1.2/game) and the 10th-best possession rate with the score close in the league. The primary reason for their struggles to start the year was goaltending. More specifically, Steve Mason, who in 24 appearances posted a putrid .882 save percentage, including a .896 save rate at 5-on-5 and a ghastly .800 short-handed. The league-wide average save percentage is .880 while penalty-killing. That means this year Mason allowed goals at even strength at nearly the same rate most other goalies allow while down a man. As such, the Blue Jackets' skaters were (figuratively) on the penalty kill during Mason's 24 appearances.

While Curtis Sanford isn't an ideal starter, he has been far better than Mason, with a .912 overall save percentage. If we assume Sanford plays the majority of the games going forward and that Mason's save rate regresses towards his (still terrible) career average of around .901, the improvement in goaltending alone should save Columbus around 23 goals, or about four wins (8 points).

Add in some improved shooting percentages for guys like Rick Nash (a career-low 9.4 percent), Antoine Vermette (7 percent, down from 12.6) and R.J. Umberger (career-worst 6 percent), and it could add as much as 10 or more goals to the Blue Jackets' bottom line, which is worth about a win and a half.

Of course, the question then becomes whether an improved second half will take them out of the top spot in terms of draft lottery positioning. Because 65 points isn't going to crack the postseason.

Anaheim Ducks
First half: 30 points Projected second half: 38 points
Surge: 8 points

After the Ducks' fourth-place finish in the West last year and Corey Perry's MVP season, some are probably surprised by Anaheim's fall from grace this season; after all, the team has three of the best forwards in the West in Perry, Ryan Getzlaf and Bobby Ryan, and that seemed to be enough to propel them up the standings last year.

In truth, the Ducks' Cinderella season was largely a fluke, as we previously discussed this season.

Everything that went right for the Ducks last season went wrong for them in the first half this year. Nevertheless, the reason Anaheim is in line for an aggressive surge is Jonas Hiller. The Ducks' starter has consistently been excellent to elite since breaking into the NHL in 2007-08. In fact, before this season, his lowest overall save percentage was .918, and his even-strength save percentage had never fallen below .930.

It's therefore completely aberrant that through his first 35 starts in 2011-12, Hiller's save percentage was a ghastly .899. Unless his health concerns (a severe bout with vertigo) have altered his abilities permanently, Hiller is almost guaranteed to improve drastically over the second half.

Even if no other player improves for the Ducks, Hiller's return to form alone should boost the Ducks' record by about four wins or eight points. In fact, the reversal may already be happening; since Jan. 10, Hiller has started six games and posted a .946 even-strength save percentage.

Carolina Hurricanes
First half: 33 points Projected second half: 41 points
Surge: 8 points

The Hurricanes' struggles came on the back of two of their most important players: Eric Staal and Cam Ward. Both guys had terrible opening segments to start the season, but both also have a long history of quality play and are huge bounce-back candidates.

With just nine goals and 25 points through 41 games, Staal was on pace for 18 goals and 50 points over a full season. That would be his worst total since his rookie season in 2003-04. Part of the problem was a shooting percentage of 6.3 percent, well below his career average of 11.0. If Staal's shots start going in at his average rate in the second half, expect him to pick up at least 16 markers over the final 41 games.

Of course, what really sunk the Hurricanes in the first half was Ward. A .923 overall goaltender last year in terms of save percentage. Ward's current .903 save rate is nowhere near what was expected from him.

More specifically, Ward consistently stopped more than 92 percent of the even-strength shots he faced in the three seasons before this one: .926, .924 and .927 from 2008-11. In 40 games this year, however, he's hovering at just .906. If we assume a true talent around .925 and 35 more games for Ward, we can expect about a 19-goal improvement.

Montreal Canadiens
First half: 37 points Projected second half: 42 points
Surge: 5 points

Typically a strength for the organization, the Habs' power play has really let them down this year. Although they are firing 52.2 shots/60 minutes of ice with the man advantage (11th-best rate in the league), they nevertheless boast the lowest-ranked PP in the NHL (12.2 percent). The reason is a league-low shooting percentage of just 7.0 percent at 5-on-4 -- a rate that is actually lower than what most teams typically manage at even strength.

Currently there are 16 teams shooting at or above 12 percent on the PP. If Montreal manages to be league average for the rest of the year, it should improve their second-half goals-for total by at least six, or at least one extra win.

Like the other first-half underperformers, a finger can also be pointed in net. Carey Price hasn't been nearly as bad as Ward or Mason, but his .915 save percentage at even strength is still south of league average (.920) and well below his .931 save rate last year. If we assume improvement to .925 in the final 35 games, he could save the club at least eight goals against.

Other teams of note

Pittsburgh Penguins: The Pens boast some of the best shot and possession rates in the league, even though players like Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal, Kris Letang, Tyler Kennedy and Zbynek Michalek have missed significant amounts of time. In addition, Marc-Andre Fleury was worse than average in net through the first half, stopping about 91.4 percent of the shots he saw at even strength. If Pittsburgh ever gets healthy or if Fleury's save rate improves beyond mediocre, they are likely to climb back up the standings.

Buffalo Sabres: Buffalo is struggling in part because Ryan Miller is having one of the worst seasons of his career. While he's a good bounce-back candidate, the team itself isn't: They get outshot on average by 2.6 shots per game, which means they surrendered 100 more shots than they took through 41 games. Although Miller isn't a true 90.9 percent goalie at even strength (his rate through the first half), it's unlikely that even a return to form from him will save Buffalo's season.

Washington Capitals: A team many picked to be Stanley Cup favorites this year, the unfortunate truth is they are likely as mediocre as they look. Although Tomas Vokoun marginally underachieved in the first half and will likely be a bit better to finish the season, the Capitals just aren't very good from most angles. They were outshot by a small margin at even strength in the first half and were outperformed in terms of goal differential despite an above-average shooting percentage (9.2 percent). In other words, they may get worse, not better, in the second half.

A healthy Mike Green might help things, but unless guys like Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin start driving the play like in years past, don't expect any big leaps forward by Washington.

A version of this story originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

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