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NHL review: Panthers, Kraken, Jets make big statements

We're about halfway through the NHL season. With half the league between 40 and 50 points, it's setting up to be a dramatic playoff race.

The Winter Classic was a big highlight of the first week of the year, while the NHL unveiled their 32 selections for next month's All-Star Game with the fan vote opening to finish off the roster.

The Christmas break allowed a little rest and recuperation for the playoff battle ahead, and there is plenty of work still to do for a lot of teams with high expectations to secure one of those all-important top-eight places.

Here are some storylines from the first round of games in the new year.

Winter Classic rivals trending in opposite directions

The Seattle Kraken were one of the surprise packages of last season but made a slow start to 2023/24 and still find themselves down in fifth place in the Pacific Division. 

However, their form is certainly on the up as they have now stretched their point streak to 10 games, winning eight including all of the last six.

The first of those was a 3-0 shutout victory over the Vegas Golden Knights in the 2024 Winter Classic in Seattle, which they followed up with a 4-1 win over the Ottawa Senators.

The Kraken are one of the hottest teams in the NHL right now, although their 16-14-9 record still leaves them five points behind the third-placed Los Angeles Kings in the Pacific. 

However, they are level on points with the Edmonton Oilers in the last Wild Card place in the Western Conference and have been building momentum.

The same cannot be said of the Winter Classic losers, with the Golden Knights going 3-7-0 in their last 10 games and losing two of their games last week. 

Vegas were beaten by another hot team in the Florida Panthers on Thursday, before stopping the rot with a 4-1 win over the New York Islanders on Saturday.

Although there appears little to be concerned about in terms of securing a place in the playoffs with the Golden Knights holding a 10-point advantage over the last Wild Card place, any such fears will only increase if their losing trend continues.

Panthers catching up to Boston

Seemingly like a lot of teams, the Florida Panthers made a slow start to the season but have been more than making up for it of late. 

They are enjoying the hottest streak in the league, winning all three games this past week to make it seven victories on the bounce.

Florida's current run includes wins over the Golden Knights (two), the Tampa Bay Lightning, the New York Rangers and, most recently, another form team in the Colorado Avalanche.

Matthew Tkachuk has been a key player for the Panthers this past week, contributing eight points (three goals, five assists) in three games, ably supported by Carter Verhaeghe (four goals, three assists) and Sam Reinhart (five goals, one assist) in particular.

Florida have moved to within two points of Boston at the top of the Atlantic, although the Bruins remain -105 favorites to win the division with the Panthers at +200. Both are listed at +1000 to win the Stanley Cup.

Read more: 2023/24 NHL Stanley Cup odds

Soaring Jets taking control of Central

The Winnipeg Jets are showing no signs of wilting in the Central Division title race, and they have hit the summit on the back of a five-game winning run, which includes all four games in a busy last week, as part of a franchise record-setting point streak of 11 games.

The Jets perhaps lack the firepower of some teams - they are ranked 13th for goals scored - but they more than make up for it with their defensive strength, second only to the Kings for goals conceded, and that is having played three games more.

Vladislav Namestnikov was their leading pointscorer over the last week with six (one goal, five assists) but one of their greatest strengths continues to come in net with Connor Hellebuyck ranking fourth with a 2.28 goals against average and sixth with a .921 save percentage. 

The 30-year-old improved those stats to 1.51 and .952 in his two games last week, while his number two, Laurent Brossoit, managed to better those with 1.50 and .953 in his two starts.

Hellebuyck is now the +325 favorite to win the Vezina Trophy this season, marginally ahead of Thatcher Demko at +350, and he remains vital to any success Winnipeg may achieve this season.

The Jets lead the betting to win the Central Division this season at +150, with the Avalanche at +160 and the Dallas Stars at +220. Winnipeg are now joint-favourites with the New York Rangers at +950 to go on and win the Stanley Cup.

Read more: 2023/24 NHL Power Rankings

Oilers continue to rise under Knoblauch

The Edmonton Oilers are seemingly a different beast under Kris Knoblauch and although they remain on the streaky side, most of those streaks are winning ones. 

Having enjoyed an eight-game victory run early in Knoblauch's reign, the Oilers have stretched their latest to seven consecutive wins with three victories last week. 

There is a good chance that will improve further with games against the Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens coming up over the next seven days.

There is no surprise in seeing Connor McDavid topping the pointscoring in the Oilers' latest three games with seven (one goal, six assists), but Zach Hyman bagged another five goals (plus two assists), including a hat-trick in the 3-1 win over the Senators to take his season tally to 25, tied for fourth the in the NHL.

The Oilers' dismal start seems a distant memory and, although they currently occupy the last Wild Card place in the Western Conference with a 20-15-1 record and 41 points, they have played fewer games than all teams barring the Kings and Senators. 

MacKinnon maintains Kucherov points pursuit

Colorado's Nathan MacKinnon enjoyed another productive week with nine points (three goals, six assists) - matched by Dallas' Mason Marchment - as he looks to chase down Nikita Kucherov at the top of the pointscoring standings.

MacKinnon now leads the assist category with 43, but remains two points off Kucherov in terms of points. The Tampa Bay ace racked up eight (three goals, five assists) to lead the way with 67 points.

Auston Matthews had a quiet week but the one goal he scored in his three games meant he became the 10th player in history with at least eight successive 30-goal seasons from the start of their NHL career. 

Matthews is two goals clear of Kucherov and Reinhart in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy.

Read more: 2023/24 NHL Hart Trophy odds

Bedard on IR after All Star confirmation

With the Chicago Blackhawks languishing down in 31st place in the NHL, it surprised no one when Connor Bedard was given the All Star nod last week as his team's representative.

The number one draft pick leads both his team and all rookies with 15 goals, 18 assists and 33 points - and he is the -225 favorite to win the Calder Memorial Trophy.

Bedard is the youngest player in history to be named an All Star, although the news was tempered by him suffering a fractured jaw in the 4-2 loss to the New Jersey Devils on Friday. He has since been placed on injured reserve.

Bedard is not the only All Star to be suffering on the injury front with New Jersey Devils' Jack Hughes facing time on the sidelines after an awkward fall against the Blackhawks, with the extent of his injury still to be determined.

Goaltender Jake Oettinger at least appears to be improving since a lower-body injury sustained on December 15 as the Stars' - who also have defenseman Miro Heiskanen week to week with a similar problem - now consider Oettinger day to day.

The fan vote for the remaining All Star players runs through until January 11, while NHL All Star Weekend takes place from February 1-3.

Read more: NHL All Star Game

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