The race to the Stanley Cup Playoffs is officially taking off

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, celebrates after scoring during an NHL All-Star hockey game against the Atlantic Division at Staples Center, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby, of the Pittsburgh Penguins, celebrates after scoring during an NHL All-Star hockey game against the Atlantic Division at Staples Center, Sunday, Jan. 29, 2017, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

By Bry McDermott | Asst. Photo Editor

There are only two months left until the NHL’s top 16 teams begin the battle for the oldest, most coveted trophy in all of sports — the Stanley Cup. As things start to heat up in the quest for a chance to lift Lord Stanley, let’s look back at what the first half of the 2016-17 season has brought so far…

Eastern Conference

Teams to beat: Metropolitan Division

It’s hard to pick just one team from the Eastern Conference that can really make a run for the Cup in the final months of the season, especially when it features a Metropolitan Division which saw an epic battle between the Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the division.

While the Caps currently hold that title as of Feb. 7, the division is up for grabs by any of the teams mentioned above.

Washington also leads the NHL and for good reason. The Capitals are firing on all cylinders, putting up strong defensive effort with goaltender Braden Holtby as the backbone, and an unyielding offense. The squad holds the lowest goals against average in the league (2.05) and has the best goal differential (64).

After a disappointing showing as coach for Team USA in the World Cup of Hockey, John Tortorella led the Blue Jackets to a 16-game win streak, just one victory shy of tying the NHL record of 17 consecutive wins set by the 1992-93 Penguins. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky is making a strong case for a second Vezina trophy, posting 28 wins and a .926 save percentage as the Jackets continue to surprise the league.

The Penguins are a favorite to repeat as Stanley Cup champions. Pittsburgh lost two games in a row in regulation in a game on Jan. 12, ending its streak which spanned 90 consecutive regular-season games without back-to-back losses, dating back to Dec. 14-19, 2015. However, the Pens still post a league-best 182 goals and goals per game average of 3.6. With a red-hot Sidney Crosby and a spectacular one-two punch with goalies Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens are set for another long playoff push.

Standout Player: Sidney Crosby

Eleven years after entering the league, ‘Sid the Kid’ has proved he hasn’t skipped a beat. The 29-year-old missed the first three games of the 2016-17 season due to a concussion, but returned to light the lamp in every way possible, producing a highlight reel to add to an already impeccable career.

Crosby currently leads the league in goals (30), despite playing eight less games than the Kings’ Jeff Carter, who sits in second with 27. The reigning Conn Smythe winner also ranks second in points (59), behind Edmonton superstar Connor McDavid (60), who has played 10 more games than Crosby.

Western Conference

Team to beat: Minnesota Wild

The Western Conference seems to have fallen into the upside down world of Stranger Things. While the San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks continue their usual strides toward the playoffs, underdog teams like the Wild and Anaheim Ducks have been making waves.

Minnesota in particular had an impressive first half of the season, which included a 12-game win streak that was ended by the Blue Jackets on Dec. 31. The Wild lead the Western Conference, primarily thanks to some incredible goaltending by Devan Dubnyk. The 30-year-old netminder went 22-7-3 in 32 starts with a 1.77 goals-against average and a .940 save percentage while posting five shutouts. Forwards Jason Zucker and Eric Staal are also leading the charge with a combined 32 goals and 70 points in 51 games played.

Standout Player: Connor McDavid

McDavid was predicted to be the next Sidney Crosby when the Edmonton Oilers drafted him first overall in 2015, and he’s making a case for that title. In his second NHL season, McDavid currently sits one point ahead of Crosby in points to lead the league.

The truth is, McDavid raises the level of play for the Oilers. Edmonton sits in third place in the Western Conference, bidding for its first playoff appearance in 10 years. The 20-year old plays an average of 21:16 per game, the fifth-most minutes of any NHL forward. When he isn’t on the ice, the Oilers Corsi For Percentage, which depicts shot attempt differential at even strength, is the same as the Colorado Avalanche, the league’s worst team.

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