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Around the NHL: Unexpected Teams Off To Hot Starts

Sometimes in the NHL, and in life, things go according to plan.  Such as the Tampa Bay Lightning showing why they’re considered a heavy Stanley Cup favorite.  Cory Schneider putting up ridiculously good stats in between the pipes for New Jersey.  Even Drew Doughty playing an absurd number of minutes per night for the Los Angeles Kings.  But as we’ve seen in sports and the NHL, things usually don’t go according to plan.  And just two weeks into the season, there have been a few teams getting off to much better starts than expected.  We’ll take a look at a trio of teams that have come storming out of the gates, as well as other developments across the NHL over the last week.

MONTREAL, EDMONTON, AND DETROIT DEFY EXPECTATIONS EARLY ON

Now we’ve seen this song and dance from the Montreal Canadiens before.  Last season, they got off to a blistering 9-0-0 start before injuries (*cough* Carey Price *cough*) and other factors caused their season to collapse by New Year’s Day.  Right now, they’re the only team in the NHL without a loss in regulation at 6-0-1, as they’ve scored at least three goals in every game.  When Price missed the first three games of the season because of the flu, Habs fans had to be thinking, “Here we go again.”  But free agent acquisition Al Montoya stepped up and went 2-0-1 in Price’s absence, and when Price returned, he didn’t miss a beat despite seeing his first regular season action in almost a year.  And remember when we all thought the Predators had fleeced the Habs in the P.K. Subban/Shea Weber deal?  Well, it’s early, but so far the trade has worked out brilliantly for Montreal, as Weber leads the team with 9 points and is tops in the NHL with a plus-12 rating.  Now if Price goes down again, Montoya’s ability to hold up long-term would be put to the test, but this Habs team has a different feel to it than last season.

Staying in Canada but moving out west, the Edmonton Oilers are on top of the Pacific Division after two weeks with a 6-1-0 record.  That is not a typo.  Even I had to re-read that sentence to make sure it was real.  While expectations were certainly a bit higher in Alberta’s capital with a healthy Connor McDavid this season, I don’t think anyone had them getting off to such a great start.  Everyone figured that McDavid would make the leap to superstar, and with a league-high 11 points, I’d say he’s well on his way to reaching that status.  He has been a game-changer for this franchise, and there have been several nights where he’s far and away the best player on the ice.  While McDavid is the franchise, the Oilers have also gotten a boost in net with the play of Cam Talbot.  Talbot has started every game so far, and has a stellar save percentage of .927 while leading the league in wins.  A year after struggling to find his way as a first-time starter in the NHL least season, Talbot’s play has picked up considerably after a couple of so-so showings in the first couple of games.

Before the season began, I didn’t give the Red Wings any chance of being able to extend their streak of playoff appearances to 26 seasons.  After their first two games, the Wings had the look of a lottery team, not a group capable of keeping their playoff streak going.  Since then, they’ve reeled off six consecutive victories and are in the top 10 in both goal-scoring and goals allowed.  However, they’re in the middle of the pack in terms of special teams while also giving up 33.1 shots per game, the fifth-most in the NHL.  Petr Mrazek and Jimmy Howard have both played very well between the pipes for the Red Wings, with Mrazek starting six of the team’s first eight games.  Their play has kept Detroit in a couple of games in which they were outplayed, so it will be interesting to see how they both hold up the rest of the way.  The Wings will need to cut down on the number of shots they allow, because as good as Mrazek and Howard have been this season, they have proven to be inconsistent throughout their careers.  The biggest surprise with this team has been the play of Thomas Vanek.  Signed as a free agent after being bought out by Minnesota, many thought that Vanek’s career was on the downswing.  However, the veteran leads the Wings with four goals and is tied with Gustav Nyquist for the team lead with eight points.  Not bad so far for a guy who looked like his best days were behind him.

GOALTENDING SITUATIONS IN FLUX IN L.A. AND BOSTON

Coming into this season, when you thought of teams that had serious issues in the crease, you probably didn’t have the Los Angeles Kings or Boston Bruins at the top of that list.  However, injuries to both teams’ starters and backups have thrown their goaltending situations into chaos.  Vezina Trophy finalist Jonathan Quick went down with a groin injury during the opening period of the season, and will be out for three months.  His backup, Jeff Zatkoff, suffered a groin injury as well, which necessitated the signing of Peter Budaj and the recall of Jack Campbell from the Ontario Reign of the AHL.  In Campbell’s place with the Reign was 22-year-old Jonah Imoo, who is in the organization on a professional tryout basis.  Why is this so remarkable, you might ask?  Because backing up Imoo was his father, 46-year-old Dusty Imoo, who works as the Kings’ goaltending development coach, becoming the first father-son goaltending tandem in professional hockey history for one game.  The younger Imoo made 26 saves in a 5-4 loss to the San Jose Barracuda, and after the game, the Kings were able to call up Jack Flinn from the ECHL and sign former Lightning goalie Anders Lindback to a PTO, but for one evening, hockey history was made.

Unfortunately for the Boston Bruins, there haven’t been any sort of history-making moments to put a silver lining on a tough situation.  Tuukka Rask has been battling a lower-body injury since opening night, but managed to win all three of his starts in the Bruins’ first four games.  He hasn’t played since re-aggravating the injury October 20.  His backup, Anton Khudobin, took over for a few games, but is now expected to miss three weeks due to injury.  As a result, the team was forced to bring up both Malcolm Subban and Zane McIntyre, and neither has fared very well so far.  Subban was yanked from a 5-0 loss at home to the Minnesota Wild, while McIntyre allowed all five goals in a 5-2 loss at the New York Rangers, a game in which Boston had a 2-0 lead after the first period.  The Bruins have lost three in a row after beginning the season 3-1-0, and they’re probably going to need Rask, even if he’s less than 100 percent, if they’re going to end their current losing skid.

GOAL SCORING IS UP THIS SEASON, BUT WILL IT REALLY LAST?

Based on past history, I’m inclined to say the answer is no.  But it can’t be denied that this season’s first couple of weeks haven’t been tremendously fun to watch.  There’s an average of 5.73 per game as of Friday morning, per hockeyreference.com.  The per season average over the last 5 years is 5.26.  There are plenty of reasons why that number is high at this point of the season.  Some would say the World Cup of Hockey certainly had an effect, as many players were already in mid-season form by the time the regular season started.  But I believe a lot of it has to do with the amount of youth in the league.  Three of the top six scorers in the league, are under the age of 20, and two of them, Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews, are first and second in points.  Teams are looking to get younger, faster, and more skilled, especially since young talent can be had at a cheaper price than veterans.  Goalies are either struggling with injuries (see the above story on Quick and Rask), or they just haven’t been as sharp.  Hockeyreference.com also reports that the league-wide save percentage as of Friday morning is .906, which isn’t what you’d call stellar.  However, scoring will probably once again start to dip to the league-wide trends of the last five years as the season goes along, as teams and coaches will get more tape on these youngsters and figure out ways to slow them down.  Not to mention, rookies tend to hit a wall at a certain point during their first seasons in the NHL, there’s no way that goalies will continue to play poorly for the rest of the year, and officials will go back to putting their whistles away and let teams get away with anything short of murder on the ice.  The scoring surge is nice right now, but don’t expect it to last much longer.  It never does anymore.

 

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