Half the Story Can Be Telling

There's less obstruction, but more inconsistent refereeing.

The Minnesota Wild hasn't faded, but the Boston Bruins have. The defending Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings are thriving, even though Steve Yzerman might not return from knee surgery until March, but the Mighty Ducks are collapsing after a strong start. Four coaches have lost their jobs, and more could follow.

The NHL schedule will reach the halfway point Wednesday and just think: After that, there will be only 615 games left in the season -- and only 20 months of posturing over the collective bargaining agreement.

Here are some notable performances during the first half:

First half most valuable player: Martin Brodeur, New Jersey. Honorable mention: Marian Gaborik, Minnesota; Todd Bertuzzi, Vancouver; Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh.

Brodeur is the foundation for all the Devils achieve. Gaborik is the Wild's big gun and will win a scoring title within a few years. Bertuzzi has size, skill and a hot hand for the suddenly formidable Canucks. Without Lemieux, the Penguins would be a minor league team.

Rookie of the half year: Tyler Arnason, Chicago. Runners-up: Stanislav Chistov, Mighty Ducks, and Alexander Frolov, Kings.

Arnason leads rookies with 11 goals and 22 points. That's nothing like the 76 goals and 132 points Teemu Selanne scored as a Winnipeg rookie in 1992-93, but few rookies make much impact anymore. Chistov and Frolov are slumping but have the skills and smarts to spice a rivalry for the next decade.

Best defenseman: Nicklas Lidstrom, Detroit. Runners-up: Ed Jovanovski, Vancouver; Al MacInnis, St. Louis.

Lidstrom averages nearly 30 minutes a game and rarely makes a mistake. Jovanovski gave the Canucks muscle and leadership; he broke his heel last week and will be sidelined five weeks. MacInnis, 39, is still playing major minutes and is making the Blues miss the injured Chris Pronger a bit less.

Vezina (best goalie): Marty Turco, Dallas. Runners-up: Brodeur, Ed Belfour, Toronto.

Turco gives the Stars security and makes the clutch saves Belfour didn't make last season. Brodeur is among the best of his generation. Belfour has been reborn in the pressure cooker of Toronto, a credit to his perseverance.

Coach of the half year: Jacques Martin, Ottawa. Honorable mention: Jacques Lemaire, Minnesota; Marc Crawford, Vancouver.

Martin has steered a talented team past off-ice distractions to the top record in the East. Lemaire, known for strategies on defense, is smart enough to modify his plans to fit his players' talents. Crawford has been patient with the Sedin twins and gets a lot out of second- and third-line players.

Financial News

Although the Ottawa Senators are still awaiting their Jan. 1 paychecks, staffers and suppliers have been paid, a club spokesman said. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said last week he was hopeful owner Rod Bryden would secure short-term financing to pay players this week. A plan to sell limited partnerships in the club, which would have covered the payroll and cut the Senators' huge debts, fell apart on New Year's Eve when several creditors objected to terms of the deal.

Players are saying they're not worried, and the NHL Players Assn. has not filed a grievance. According to the collective bargaining agreement, if a club defaults on compensation, players can send written notice to the club, league and union, at which point the club has 14 days to remedy the default. If the club doesn't pay, the league has seven days after that first 14-day period to remedy the default.

"Rod Bryden and the Ottawa club's recent financing difficulties raise important short- and long-term issues for the club's ownership group, the players and the league," NHLPA Executive Director Bob Goodenow said in a statement. "At present, all parties are focused on working to resolve the short-term issues so the club can pay its ongoing operating expense."

The extension given Mark Hamister and Todd Berman to finance their purchase of the Buffalo Sabres expires Friday. They want state and local aid to spruce up the 6-year-old HSBC Arena, a tough sell in a weak economy. The NHL has been operating the Sabres since June, when owner John Rigas' Adelphia cable empire imploded.

Easy as ABC

The Senators and Sabres, hot topics in the NHL, will be discussed but won't dominate telecasts on ESPN, ESPN2 or ABC, according to ESPN President George Bodenheimer.

ABC will start its five consecutive weeks of afternoon telecasts on Saturday, when viewers will see Colorado at Dallas, Detroit at Philadelphia or the Rangers at Pittsburgh. The three Disney-owned networks will average four games a week after next month's All-Star break.

"From a coverage standpoint, we obviously cover all the leagues from an editorial point of view and cover those stories," Bodenheimer said. "By and large, the fan is interested in seeing hockey games. Everything else is a distant second."

Bodenheimer also said the woes of the Senators and Sabres hadn't scared advertisers away from hockey telecasts. Nor have they scared ABC/ESPN: Bodenheimer said he has had informal talks with the NHL about continuing the relationship past 2003-04, when the five-year, $600-million deal expires.

"NHL sales are going quite well this year, and the league works quite well with us in trying to acquire sponsors and advertisers," he said. "The NHL has a very key young demographic and having companies interested in sponsorship has never been a problem."

ESPN and ESPN2 cut their regular-season NHL schedule to 71, down 45% from two seasons ago, to accommodate ABC/ESPN's new NBA deal. However, ratings for NHL games are up slightly. Through Jan. 1, ESPN's ratings for four games were 0.60, compared with 0.53 for 11 games a year ago. Viewership rose 14% to 520,000 homes. On ESPN2, ratings inched up to 0.23 for 25 games, compared with 0.22 for 31 games a year ago, and viewership was up 9% to 192,700 homes.

"All businesses constantly fine-tune what they're doing," Bodenheimer said. "We added the NBA, and I think the NHL is going to benefit because ESPN's ratings are on the rise.... We're the first network in TV history to have all four professional sports leagues on at one time. While that requires some juggling, it's good for all the leagues."

ABC's five regular-season telecasts last year averaged a 1.4 rating and 4 share, and its three Stanley Cup final telecasts drew a 3.6 rating and 7 share. Its 2001 regular-season ratings were 1.1 with a 3 share, down from 1. 3/4 in 2000. However, ABC research found strong growth among male and adult viewers, ages 18 to 54, the audiences advertisers covet.

Magic Numbers

Statistics compiled by the NHL show the Red Wings and Canucks earned 107 points during the 2002 calendar year (from Jan. 1 through Dec. 31), the most by any team.

The top goal scorers were Markus Naslund and Bertuzzi with 48 and 46, respectively, followed by Boston's Glen Murray, with 44. Bertuzzi and Naslund finished one-two in points, with 102 and 101, ahead of Pittsburgh's Alexei Kovalev with 99, and Lemieux, 85.

Among goalies, Tampa Bay's Nikolai Khabibulin played the most games, 73, but his 4,122 minutes in net were second to Brodeur's 4,248. The Kings' Felix Potvin, 4,102, was the only other goalie to clock 4,000 minutes. Brodeur recorded the most wins, 41, five more than Potvin.

Slap Shots

Friends of Roger Neilson say he's struggling in his battle against cancer. They say he's upbeat and urges them not to worry, but the cancer that occurred in his bone marrow and reappeared as skin cancer reportedly has spread to his brain. Neilson, an assistant with the Senators, was hospitalized in late November and has been receiving treatment as an outpatient.

A bizarre injury proved to be no laughing matter. Toronto's Mikael Renberg was hospitalized during the team's recent trip to Vancouver because of a finger infection caused when he reopened a blister while lacing his skates. Quick action by physical therapist Brent Smith, who became alarmed when Renberg developed a high fever, spared the veteran winger possible amputation of his hand. Doctors administered antibiotics to clear up the infection.

After missing three games because of a concussion, Dallas center Mike Modano has come back strong. He has seven points in seven games, and 42 points in 40 games overall.

"He's thinking pretty well out there right now. When he moves and thinks well, that's good for our team," Dallas Coach Dave Tippett joked.

In a more serious vein, Tippett credited Modano with energizing a team that missed the playoffs last spring. "Mike has taken the bull by the horns," Tippett said.

It's amazing how much smarter Coach Bobby Francis became when goalie Sean Burke recovered from a sprained ankle and returned to the Phoenix Coyotes' lineup. Burke sprained his knee Friday while earning his fourth consecutive victory and will be gone again for two or three weeks. Without him, the Coyotes lost at Columbus, so Francis must have gotten dumb again.

Terry Murray interviewed for the Thrashers' coaching job. Atlanta General Manager Don Waddell asked his Detroit counterpart, Ken Holland, for permission to talk to Scotty Bowman, but Bowman relayed word he wasn't interested.

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FIRST-HALF AWARDS

Most valuable player

Martin Brodeur, New Jersey goalie:

Record: 19-13-2; Goals against avg.: 2.01; Save%: .913; Shutouts: 4

*

Rookie

Tyler Arnason, Chicago

Goals 11; assists: 11

*

Defenseman

Nicklaus Lidstrom, Detroit

Goals 9; assists: 22

*

Goalie

Marty Turco, Dallas

Rec: 17-9-8

GAA: 1.70

*

Coach

Jacques Martin, Ottawa

Rec: 25-9-5-1

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