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The hits keep on coming …

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The first half of the NHL season gave us surprises, emerging new stars, teams on the rise, and promise that the second half will feature races for playoff positioning and spots that will be contested until the final day of the regular season.

The first half also revealed that try as the league might to reduce head injuries, the culture is changing a lot slower than the NHL would like you to believe. Recent hits against Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby(notes) and Detroit’s Brad Stuart(notes) prove the new penalty and a threat of suspension still isn’t enough to convince players to have more respect for each other.

And the real scary thing is there are some who don’t see anything wrong with the kind of hits applied by Washington’s David Steckel and Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman(notes) to sideline Crosby, and by Calgary’s Tom Kostopoulos(notes) that broke the jaw of Stuart.

Or maybe you didn’t catch Mike Milbury’s take on Hockey Night in Canada’s telecast on Saturday? His macho, old-school stance represents what the league is trying to change. But there are still many like Milbury who are too stubborn to jump on board. The way Milbury sees it, it’s OK to keep knocking the stars out of action. Heck, who cares that fans are paying top dollar to see half the lineup they expect. There’s no refund coming.

1. Detroit Red Wings (27-11-5, Previous: 2) – Stuart’s injury is the latest to test the Wings’ depth. Touted prospect Jakub Kindl(notes) will likely get a chance to show what he’s got. Don’t be surprised if Detroit is a better team in the end for again facing the adversity.

2. Philadelphia Flyers (26-10-5, Previous: 4) – Three reasons this team isn’t suffering a Stanley Cup hangover (hey, you don’t have to win the Cup to feel the short time off): Andrej Meszaros(notes) (NHL-best plus 26), rookie goalie Sergei Bobrovsky(notes) and two-way threat Claude Giroux(notes).

3. Vancouver Canucks (27-8-6, Previous: 8) – The Canucks sure wish the playoffs started tomorrow, but they don’t. And my money says, without a hint of disrespect intended, there’s no way they’ll be playing as well once mid-April arrives as they’re playing now.

4. Pittsburgh Penguins (26-14-4, Previous: 3) – Plain and simple, Sidney Cosby was cheap-shotted twice and the league is turning a blind eye to not take action. Ridiculous. Look how much the league has leaned on Crosby to sell the game since the season lost to a lockout, and now they treat him like this?

5. Washington Capitals (24-12-6, Previous: 1) – Who cares if Alexander Ovechkin’s goal production is down, so is Washington’s goals against, and that’s a more significant development as it relates to better postseason chances. Ovie will turn it on, don’t worry.

6. Los Angeles Kings (23-18-1, Previous: 12) – How silly is this? The Kings led 2-0 in the second period against Nashville in a game last week that would have moved L.A. into fourth place in the conference if they held on for a regulation win. But after surrendering the lead during an eventual loss, the Kings finished the night in 11th place in the West.

7. Tampa Bay Lightning (25-13-5, Previous: 7) – The Lightning open a 12-game homestand on Jan. 23. We’re not kidding. It ties the longest in NHL history set by the California Seals from Nov. 26 to Dec. 28 in 1975. Know what happened to the Seals?

8. Chicago Blackhawks (23-18-3, Previous: 6) – Potential bad news for a Blackhawks team already looking shaky in terms of defending their Cup triumph: No one has fewer second-half home games remaining on their schedule than Chicago’s 18.

9. Dallas Stars (25-13-5, Previous: 11) – Just when you least expected it, the Stars are proving there is life after Mike Modano(notes), Sergei Zubov(notes) and Marty Turco(notes). Too bad no one goes to their home games, or have you not noticed those empty grey lower-bowl seats all season?

10. San Jose Sharks (21-17-5, Previous: 18) – Memo to GM Doug Wilson – time to make a deal, and we’re not talking about nibbling around the edges. What does it tell you that Ryane Clowe(notes) is the one speaking out after a recent loss? Why isn’t one of his higher-ranking lettered teammates?

11. Nashville Predators (22-13-6, Previous: 22) – The best goalie in the NHL since mid-November? How about the Preds’ own Pekka Rinne(notes), who has sported a 1.54 goals-against average and .941 save percentage since Nov. 18.

12. Boston Bruins (22-12-7, Previous: 13) – There’s one reason, and one reason alone Tim Thomas(notes) is enjoying a rebound season. It’s not the offseason hip surgery, it’s the fact he was thrust back in the role of not being the starter at the outset of the season. He’s always at his best when he’s battling and scrapping to prove everyone wrong.

13. Colorado Avalanche (22-15-6, Previous: 19) – The Avs need to get their house in order. Well, winning in their house, that is. They are 1-4-2 in their past seven games at home and only 11-8-3 where they’re supposed to have an advantage in the Mile-High air.

14. Anaheim Ducks (23-18-4, Previous: 17) – Look for the Ducks to get their L.A. hate on in the second half. They play their SoCal rivals four more times, including a home-and-home series to end the season.

15. Atlanta Thrashers (22-16-7, Previous: 14) – How far has goalie Ondrej Pavelec(notes) come since collapsing in his crease on opening night? Far enough to feature a sparkling 15-8-4 record with a 2.14 goals-against average at midseason.

16. St. Louis Blues (20-15-6, Previous: 9) – Blues have hit a rough patch, four straight defeats. A recent closed-door meeting didn’t change fortunes on Monday, and no team in the West can afford too much of a slide.

17. New York Rangers (25-15-3, Previous: 16) – For those New Yorkers suffering from NFL withdrawal, mark these three matinee dates on your calendar: Feb. 20, March 6 and April 8. Why? All three games are against the Flyers.

18. Columbus Blue Jackets (20-19-3, Previous: 10) – Not sure what kind of advice Mike Commodore(notes) got to go public with a trade request when he is signed through 2012-13 with a $3.75 million cap hit, but it wasn’t a very good idea.

19. Montreal Canadiens (23-16-3, Previous: 5) – At midseason, Carey Price(notes) led all goalies with 2,220 minutes played; was tied for most wins (20) and games (37); was tied for fourth in shutouts (four); and, ranked eighth in goals-against average (2.32). All is good in Montreal when the player between the pipes in the Canadiens’ best player.

20. Phoenix Coyotes (20-13-9, Previous: 15) – Interesting stat: The ’Yotes were an NHL-best 19-1-6 in overtime last year, but are 2-8 after regulation this season and 0-6 in games decided in the five-minute sudden death portion.

21. Buffalo Sabres (18-18-5, Previous: 26) – So if the Sabres miss the playoffs for the third time in four seasons, does the league’s longest-tenured coach, Lindy Ruff, finally come under fire? Or how about longtime and well-respected GM Darcy Regier?

22. Carolina Hurricanes (20-15-6, Previous: 21) – A 5-0-2 stretch to cap the first half has the ’Canes in a much better place than anyone expected, and maybe better than they really are with half-a-season remaining.

23. Minnesota Wild (21-16-5, Previous: 20) – Every time you’re about to give up on the undermanned Wild, they go on an impressive stretch like recently winning in New Jersey, Boston and Pittsburgh to show maybe they can hang in a crowded West race a little longer.

24. Calgary Flames (18-20-4, Previous: 25) – There really isn’t anything else for the Flames to look forward to this season besides the outdoor Heritage Classic against the Canadiens on Feb. 20.

25. Florida Panthers (18-20-2, Previous: 27) – Try as they might with new direction up top, the Panthers are well on their way to missing out on the playoffs yet again.

26. Toronto Maple Leafs (17-20-4, Previous: 28) – The Leafs spoiled the Kings’ hopes to turn recent fortunes on home ice, but coach Ron Wilson has to really be looking forward to Tuesday’s match in San Jose where he was last employed and the prospects of handing the Sharks a fifth straight loss on home ice.

27. Ottawa Senators (16-20-6, Previous: 23) – Has any coach been on the hot seat more in one season than Cory Clouston?

28. Edmonton Oilers (13-20-7, Previous: 29) – We know Taylor Hall(notes) is a talented rookie. Now we know he’s a deep sleeper. Hall didn’t wake up when roommate Jordan Eberle(notes) got up in the middle of the night with an appendicitis attack and drove himself to the hospital, where he ended up on the operating table.

29. New York Islanders (13-21-6, Previous: 30) – Hey, guess what? Rick DiPietro(notes) is having an injured groin checked out. The story never changes, does it?

30. New Jersey Devils (11-29-2, Previous: 24) – Now that the Devils’ fire sale has begun, Jason Arnott(notes) will likely be the next to go – once he waives his no-trade – heading to a team in contention, which is basically any team not residing in Alberta.

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