Can Atlantic capitalise on Lightning start?

The NHL All-Star Game is symbolically recognised as the midway point of the season with the pressure set to ramp up from here on in as the teams try to nail down a play-off place.

One team has stood out in the first half of the campaign and it is no surprise to see Tampa Bay Lightning cut into 3.60 favouritism to win the Stanley Cup, having opened up a five-point advantage in the race for the Presidents’ Trophy with two games in hand on Calgary Flames. They also head the market to win the Eastern Conference at 2.40, having forged 13 points clear of next best New York Islanders.

Understandably the Lightning will be represented at the recently revamped All-Star Game with three sides looking to end one Division’s early dominance.

Home advantage a factor?

Gone are the days of East v West or Team A v Team B as the NHL has set on a four-team, three-on-three Divisional match-up of knock-out hockey, which should at least be fast and entertaining, with plenty of goals to keep the spectators buzzing.

The 2019 NHL All-Star Game will be held at SAP Center, the home of the San Jose Sharks, so the Pacific Division might well feel they have the early advantage.

Not that they have needed that in the past with the Pacific Division having won two of the three All-Star Games in this format, while they were narrowly beaten by the Metropolitan Division in the one they didn’t win in 2017.

Tampa’s Atlantic Division may well feel they are due one, having reached the final twice before, while they of course have been the standout team in the season leading up to this point.

Atlantic due a success

Nikita Kucherov holds a four-point lead in the NHL’s point standings and was a shoo-in for this game, and he will be joined by team-mates Steven Stamkos and Andrei Vasilevskiy – third in save percentage – with Brayden Point perhaps unlucky to miss out, having outscored Stamkos thus far.

Throw in the likes of Toronto’s star duo of John Tavares and Auston Matthews and it certainly looks a talent-loaded squad capable of landing the spoils – but the same could be said of any of the four teams, given the nature of the game.

What is perhaps most interesting in three-on-three hockey is the fact that the Atlantic Division, along with the Central, will go in with just two defensemen, while the Metropolitan and Pacific squads both have three.

Ovechkin a miss for Met

The Metropolitan’s chances have taken a blow after the NHL’s top goalscorer, Alexander Ovechkin – who has a seven-goal advantage in the standings – has opted to miss the action as he wants to be fully rested for the Washington Capitals.

His goals will obviously be missed while his experience could have been a factor with four first-timers now in Todd Reirden’s squad.

Recent form might not work in the Central Division’s favour as Patrick Kane’s Chicago Blackhawks have struggled this term, in spite of his points, while Colorado Avalanche – who have three in the squad – have been in free-fall of late and are now down in fifth in the division standings.

Pacific chasing a treble

Which certainly points to some Pacific joy as, coupled with “home advantage”, they have the widely recognised best player in the league, Connor McDavid – surely a man to thrive in this environment.

He will be ably supported by Jonny Gaudreau, who has fired Calgary six points clear in the Western Conference, having matched McDavid’s 73-point haul to share third place on the points leaderboard.

With Brent Burns the leading points scorer for defensemen and Marc-Andre Fleury the winningest goaltender thus far, the Pacific could well be celebrating a third win come Sunday morning.