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Five NHL players who could dominate in the second half of 2017-18

Whether hampered in the first half by injury or mediocre play, these five players appear primed to pick it up big-time in the second half of the 2017-18 NHL season.

When the San Jose Sharks came to the conclusion of the first quarter of their campaign, defending Norris Trophy winner Brent Burns had all of eight measly points to his name. Suffice to say, it was a far cry from the type of production that had seen him take home some hardware at the end of last season. But around these parts, we predicted that Burns’ struggles wouldn’t last too long and, sooner rather than later, he would start to come around.

Sure enough, in his 21st game of the season, Burns scored his first goal of the campaign. He followed that up with a run of three more games with at least a point. And with the Sharks a single game away from hitting the midpoint of their campaign, Burns has indeed come alive offensively. Over the past 20 games, dating back to Nov. 24, Burns has seven goals and 22 points. That’s the most among all NHL defensemen iover that span and tied for the 14th-most points among all skaters. Talk about a change in fortune.

But several other players have had their luck turn in recent weeks and appear to be on the verge of a breakthrough or laid the foundation for a monster second half. Here are five players who could be in line for brilliant finishes to their season:

Max Pacioretty, Montreal Canadiens

There’s very little that has gone right for the Canadiens this season, and that includes Pacioretty’s play. One of the longtime offense leaders in Montreal, Pacioretty simply hasn’t been able to hit his stride, which is most apparent in his goal total. Having scored at least 30 goals in each of the past four campaigns, including a 2013-14 campaign that saw him flirt with the 40-goal plateau, Pacioretty has managed only 10 goals in his first 42 games of the campaign. That’s remarkably underwhelming.

But, like Burns in the first half, some of the lack of success can be chalked up to bad luck. Since becoming a full-time NHLer in 2011-12, Pacioretty has been a shoot-first player who has been able to consistently pick his spots, leading to an 11.9-percent shooting percentage across the past six seasons. Well, this season, Pacioretty’s success rate on his shots is about half of his career rate, a mere 6.1 percent. And there’s no reason he should be dealing with such a precipitous drop in shooting percentage. He’s in the same ballpark for shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 as he has been over the past six seasons, yet his shooting percentage at five-a-side has decreased by nearly 6.3 percent.

It would stand to reason that the dam is going to break for Pacioretty at some point. It already has in a way, too. Pacioretty has scored in Montreal’s past two games, the second time all season he has goals in consecutive outings, and he’s riding a three-game point streak. And whether he starts scoring or not, Pacioretty is going to be worth keeping an eye on given the trade rumors that have followed him for the better part of the past month.

Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

Few teams, and we’re including the Tampa Bay Lightning in this, have been able to keep up with the Bruins across the past quarter of the campaign, and driving the bus for Boston has been the top line of Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak. The line has done wonders defensively, especially, preventing 5-on-5 goals and tilting the ice in the Bruins’ favor better than almost any line in the league. And they’ve also been filling the net, too. Especially Marchand who, while he may not be getting the same hype, has been one of the league’s top scorers since he returned from injury in late November.

Matter of fact, while it may seem like Nikita Kucherov is running away with the Art Ross Trophy, Marchand has been trying his darnedest to close the gap since he returned to the Bruins’ lineup on Nov. 29. Get this: when Marchand got back into Boston’s lineup, he was tied for 114th in scoring with eight goals and 15 points, but has since proceeded to pile up nine goals and 25 points in his past 18 games. The result? He’s leapt all the way up to a tie for 24th in scoring and is primed to keep climbing as the Bruins keep racking up wins.

The crazy thing about Marchand’s performance since returning, though, is that if he keeps it scoring at the rate he has over the past month-plus, he could end the season with another 30-goal season and a career-best 92-point season. That could very well put him into the Art Ross — and maybe even Hart Trophy — conversation.

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

By his own estimation, Crosby doesn’t believe he’s an all-star at the midpoint of the season. No, really. On Monday, Crosby said that he doesn’t think he belongs at the showcase in Tampa Bay this season, and, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, added he doesn’t think he’s had “an all-star first half.” And who are we to argue? After all, Crosby is right. His first half hasn’t really been up to his standards. A 1.30 point-per-game scorer for his career, Crosby managed “only” 36 points across his first 41 games this season. Unfortunately for defenders who had any designs on slowing Crosby down, though, it doesn’t appear he has any interest in continuing to be anything less than a point-per-game player.

Consider that since the end of the first quarter of the season, Crosby has fired home nine goals and 28 points, and there are only eight players in the league who’ve found the scoresheet more often since Nov. 16. And Crosby has been a great second-half player throughout his career. In fact, according to Hockey Reference, no player has scored more second-half points than Crosby over the past four seasons. Since the 2013-14 campaign, Crosby has 191 points from Pittsburgh's 42nd game of each respective onward. The next-best second-half contributor over the same span is Jamie Benn, who sits 23 points back of Crosby.

There’s also one more reason we can expect a lot more out of Crosby going forward: it’s hard to imagine a team led by him is going to miss the playoffs on the heels of back-to-back Stanley Cups. It’s hard to doubt the Penguins’ chances at making the post-season when Crosby seems primed to put the rest of the club on his back.

Ryan Getzlaf, Anaheim Ducks

Before the first month of the campaign had concluded, injuries had taken a stranglehold on the Ducks’ season, with one of the most devastating being the facial injury sustained by Getzlaf. Suffered on Oct. 29, the injury kept Getzlaf out of action for nearly a quarter of the season before he made his return on Dec. 11, coincidentally against the same Hurricanes team he fell injured against. That night in Anaheim, Carolina kept Getzlaf off the scoresheet. Others who have come across the Ducks’ captain in the time since, however, haven’t been as lucky.

Across the past dozen games, Getzlaf has only failed to register a point on two occasions and has four multi-point games — including a monster four-assist outing against the New York Islanders — en route to three goals and 17 points since his return. Only five players have put up more points over that span and one four players have taken on a higher average ice time. This is to say that since getting back to action, Getzlaf has been dominant in every facet for the Ducks and he’s showing no signs of slowing down.

What will help Getzlaf keep this up, too, is that the rest of the Anaheim roster is seemingly getting healthy at the right time. While the Ducks have stuck in the playoff race, they’re on the outside looking in as of Wednesday. However, with a healthy roster and Getzlaf playing the way he has, there’s little doubt that Anaheim will be right back to battling for not just a wild-card berth but a divisional playoff spot in short order.

Ben Bishop, Dallas Stars

Sometimes it can take a goaltender a while to get used to a new locale. And it would be fair to say that Bishop, brought in by the Stars to finally give Dallas top-tier goaltending, had to go through some of the same growing pains that other netminders have faced upon joining a new club. Case in point, as Dallas finished up the first quarter of the campaign, Bishop had an 8-6-0 record but a below-average .904 save percentage. Much more was expected out of him, to be sure. But after that mediocre start to the season, Bishop has turned it on and his numbers since have been impressive.

Since Nov. 21, which was Bishop’s first start in Dallas’ second-quarter, he has posted a sound 11-5-0 record, but, more importantly, has been stopping pucks at a much higher rate. This isn’t a case of Dallas’ high-powered offense bailing out their netminder. Only six goaltenders have posted better SPs than Bishop’s .928 mark since mid-November, and the brilliant thing about Bishop’s play is that it seems to be steadily improving. Early in the second quarter of the season, for instance, Bishop was mixing good performances with bad, posting five games with a sub-.900 SP across a 10-game span from Nov. 21 to Dec. 19. In the eight games since, though, Bishop hasn’t once dropped below a .900 SP and has only twice had a sub-.920 SP. It’s no wonder he has a 6-2-0 record over those eight games.

Bishop’s play is incredibly important to Dallas’ success, too, and that he finds his game at this point in the season could result in the Stars charging up the standings. Dallas sits only four points back of St. Louis Blues for the final divisional spot in the Central with three games in hand. And if Bishop keeps playing as he has — and the offense continues to click — the Stars fighting their way into a divisional seed and potentially into a battle for the top of the division isn’t out of the question.

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