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NHL review: Auston Matthews starting to pull away in goalscoring race

The year 2023 complete, the NHL season is almost halfway through, and the intensity is ramping up.

In the Eastern Conference, there are only seven points between the third-placed New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins in 13th.

Out West, one of the preseason favorites for the Stanley Cup, the Edmonton Oilers, are down in 13th with a five-point gap to make up to the Wild Card places.

The battle to make the postseason could go right down to the wire. Here the major storylines from the latest games going into the new year.

Matthews maintains elite goal scoring level

As it currently stands, one player owns the league lead in goals scored, and that is Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs. At this point of the season he’s got 29 goals and is on pace for 70. 

It has been an incredible month of scoring for Matthews, as he finished December with 15 goals in just 12 games. That continued this week, especially against the Columbus Blue Jackets where he scored three goals in two games against them.

Behind Matthews in the league scoring is Nikita Kucherov (25), Brock Boeser (24), Artemi Panarin (23) and Sam Reinhart (23). These players have been near the top in goals for the entire season, but Matthews has really begun to run away with it. 

Parity means playoff prospects for plenty

One thing we have noticed increase in over the years has been the parity in the NHL. This was highlighted particularly well in 2019 when the St. Louis Blues went from being last in the league in January to the eventual Stanley Cup champions. 

And that sort of equality appears noticeably prevalent in two divisions right now, in the Central and Metropolitan Divisions.

In the Central, the Colorado Avalanche currently hold the lead with 47 points in 36 games. The last-placed Chicago Blackhawks are well out of it, but the Minnesota Wild have 36 points in 34 games in seventh place.

Similarly in the Metropolitan Division, the New York Rangers lead the way with 51 points in 35 games while the seventh-placed Pittsburgh Penguins have 38 points in 34 games.

When looking at those two divisions combined, arguably only two teams are out of the running for the postseason at this stage.

Read more: NHL Power Rankings

Reigning champions finally take a step back

After winning the Stanley Cup, the Vegas Golden Knights flew out of the gates and began the season 11-0-1. By mid-December, they were still going strong and steered themselves to a 20-5-5 record.

Since December 12th, this dominant Western Conference team has seemingly taken a step back. They have gone 2-5-0 since then, which includes a 1-2-0 record in the past week.

It seemed unlikely that the Golden Knights would continue their starting pace for the duration, so it is no surprise they are seeing some more losses. However, some of those losses have come against weaker teams like Anaheim and Buffalo. 

Even with this cool stretch, though, they remain near the top of the NHL standings, and should have no issues turning the corner in the new year, starting with the 2024 NHL Winter Classic.

Read more: 2023/24 NHL Stanley Cup odds

Much needed break for some

This was the first week since the NHL entered the Christmas break, and for some teams it has proven to be just what the doctor ordered.

Starting off with the Boston Bruins, they were looking at a four-game losing streak before the break. Since the resumption, they have won their first two games, and have got back to their usual dominance. They were probably the biggest beneficiary of the break.

The Florida Panthers and Carolina Hurricanes were also facing tough periods but have appeared to use the break to their advantage. They came out of the break with matching three-game winning runs, which is crucial for both as they are in particularly strong divisions.

The Pittsburgh Penguins and Arizona Coyotes also took advantage of the Christmas break, returning to the action with two wins each. They include a 7-0 romp over the New York Islanders for the Pens, who need to get their playoff charge going, down in seventh in the standings.

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