IN RECENT YEARS, the NHL's best duos have come from the West -- think Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, and Vancouver's Sedin twins. But this season, the league's most prolific partnerships are putting the Eastern Conference back on the offensive.
The Penguins traded for Neal last February to add a scorer to Sidney Crosby's line. But as Crosby continues to battle concussion issues, Neal has landed alongside Malkin, and the two could not be better matched. Each is tough to knock off the puck and dangerous enough alone to draw defensive attention away from the other. The duo have a combined 68 points. Neal, who has never before played with a center as gifted as Malkin, is on pace for a career-high 45 goals. "Geno skates with speed up the middle, draws guys to him, fights off checks and is still able to get the puck into open spaces," says Neal. "For me, it's just about being in the right spot." And that's led to a spot on the NHL scoring leaderboard.
Heading into their Nov. 5 game against Montreal, the Rangers had a lackluster 5-6 record. Second-year center Stepan was also struggling, with just three points. But that night, Rangers coach John Tortorella paired his young playmaker with veteran sniper Gaborik and, voila, a Broadway hit was born. Powered by Stepan's offensive creativity and Gaborik's finishing touch, the Rangers have bolted up the standings on the strength of a 13-6 tear. The two have combined for 48 points, with Gaborik leading the team with 17 goals. "Gabby creates space, which gives me more time to work, and always seems to find ice when I have the puck," Stepan says. "He's a shooter, so my game works really well with his."
Playing with Kessel, an ultraskilled sniper, the 28-year-old Lupul is realizing his potential as a power forward: charging the net, battling in the corners and giving his opposite winger room to work. "Phil is so good in open ice that you
Jagr has found the fountain of youth, and its name is Claude Giroux. When Jagr, who will turn 40 in February, signed with the Flyers in July, he wasn't sure he could still play at an NHL pace. But with 27 points through 28 games, he's doing more than keeping up. "He doesn't lose a lot of battles because he's a strong, big guy, and he uses his big butt really well," says Giroux, who will turn 24 on Jan. 12. Jagr says he is channeling former linemate and Penguins legend Ron Francis in constantly feeding Giroux, who was the NHL's leading scorer before suffering a concussion on Dec. 10. "All those years, guys were trying to play for me," says Jagr, a five-time scoring champ. "Now I want to be a good help to him."