Ducks, Sabres are class of first half

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The NHL is halfway home.

Friday marked the midway point in the hockey season, with some newcomers at the top of the standings and the list of scoring leaders.

The Buffalo Sabres proved last season that they were good, falling one win short of the Stanley Cup finals when they were eliminated by the eventual champion Carolina Hurricanes. Now they are the class of the East, winning 29 of their first 40 games and opening a seven-point lead over their closest pursuers - the surprising Atlanta Thrashers.

Out West, the Anaheim Ducks no longer call themselves mighty but are having the best of their 13 NHL regular seasons. The Ducks have reached the postseason only four times but could be in line for their second trip to the finals.

The addition of Chris Pronger to a defensive unit that already had another former Norris Trophy winner, Scott Niedermayer, has done all the Ducks hoped. But Pronger, the NHL's top-scoring defenseman, is now nursing a broken left foot that could curtail Anaheim's surge.

The fact that Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are in the top three in scoring is only a surprise in how quickly they have become stars. In their second NHL seasons, the players who were chosen No. 1 in the draft in consecutive seasons have taken over.

Crosby has been first in scoring since Dec. 13, when he posted a six-point night against Philadelphia. Ovechkin entered the weekend only one goal behind league leader Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay, a former MVP winner.

NOTHING FOR NOLAN: If you didn't know any better, one would have thought Ted Nolan was just another guy behind the visiting bench in Buffalo on New Year's Day.

No welcome back message to the guy who sparkled in two seasons as coach of the hometown Sabres. You know, the man who won NHL coach of the year honors on his way out of Buffalo 10 years ago.

Nolan stayed out of the NHL after parting ways with the Sabres in a contract dispute following a 40-30-12 mark in the 1996-97 season. His name surfaced from time to time as other teams filled coaching vacancies, but it wasn't until the New York Islanders gave him another look in June that he finally landed a job.

This week, Nolan made his first official visit back to Buffalo and the Sabres chose to ignore the occasion.

"It's sad," a disappointed Nolan said after the Islanders' 3-1 loss Monday. "It would have been nice if someone who had accomplished something here in the past was acknowledged."

FLYING FLYERS: For a team with a championship tradition, a three-game Flyers winning streak wouldn't seem likely to be a cause for celebration in Philadelphia.

When it comes on the heels of a franchise-worst 10-game skid, it is.

"The older guys are just talking more and we're saying what we want," said goalie Robert Esche, who made at least 40 saves in each of the three wins.

"There's a lot of professionalism coming into the team right now, and that's what we need. They're all baby steps, they really are.

"It's all great stuff that we're winning and it's an awesome feeling to win, but on the same hand we also know where we're at in this league and that's last place. We have to get out of it."


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