Hawks' hot start, goaltending among league's early surprises
What's that saying again -- expect the unexpected?
Yup, that's it -- and that defines the National Hockey League on an almost nightly basis. This season has been no different.
While dissecting the current candidates for the various pieces of hardware and looking ahead to the April 3 trade deadline and the stretch run of a short season is what we normally do at the halfway point, it's only right also to look back at the biggest surprises of the season to date.
Here are 24 things you probably didn't see coming:
1. Blackhawks' record-setting streak
If you find anyone saying they predicted the Chicago Blackhawks would open the season with 24 consecutive games without a regulation loss, then you have found yourself a flat-out liar. It was fair to assume Chicago would be a contender this season, but going 21-0-3, including an 11-game winning streak, in its first 24 games was nothing short of legendary.
The Blackhawks shattered the record for the most consecutive games to start a season with a point (previously set by the 2006-07 Anaheim Ducks at 16). In the process, they built a 10-point lead in the Western Conference and a 17-point lead in the Central Division before the Colorado Avalanche handed them their first loss March 8.
2. Roberto Luongo remains a Canuck
He wasn't supposed to by this time.
Remember when Luongo was a virtual lock to go to the Florida Panthers? How about when it became apparent the Toronto Maple Leafs were going to trade for him? Can you recall the time when he was linked to the Blackhawks? And talking about how potentially he would waive his no-trade clause to go there?
Of course all of that was speculation and none of it has come true. Luongo has been the most talked about player on the NHL trade market since the end of last season and yet he's still with the Vancouver Canucks, sharing time with Cory Schneider, and not surprisingly, putting up strong numbers.
There has been no indication from Canucks general manager Mike Gillis that Luongo will be traded any time soon. There also has been no indication from the 29 other clubs in the League that they want to take on Luongo and his big contract.
3. Chicago's superb goaltending
In order to win 11 straight games and go 24 in a row without a regulation or overtime loss, the Blackhawks had to get quality goaltending. This was Chicago's biggest area of concern heading into the season, but Corey Crawford and Ray Emery shut the door on just about everybody to lead the Blackhawks to their record-setting start.
Crawford and Emery split time in net over the first 24 games and combined to allow only 1.8 goals per game. Crawford was 11-0-3 with two shutouts, a 1.53 goals-against average and .940 save percentage; Emery was 10-0-0 with a 2.02 GAA and .925 save percentage.
4. Habs' hot half
The Montreal Canadiens, who finished 15th in the Eastern Conference last season, are 17-5-4 (38 points) and have yet to lose back-to-back games in regulation. They currently are riding a three-game winning streak and are 11-1-3 since a 6-0 loss to Toronto on Feb. 9.
Coach Michel Therrien has brought a fresh new look to the Habs and rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk have added an element of youth that this team needed desperately. In addition, defenseman Andrei Markov is healthy, fellow blueliner P.K. Subban is signed and playing the best hockey of his young career, forward Tomas Plekanec is scoring at a better rate than ever and forward Max Pacioretty has been all over the score sheet.
5. Lucky health for the top five
Despite injuries being a storyline for most teams through the first half, the Blackhawks, Canadiens, Anaheim Ducks, Pittsburgh Penguins and Boston Bruins have been relatively healthy. It's no coincidence that they are the top five teams in the NHL.
Ironically, the Blackhawks have been hit hardest of these five teams. They lost 55 man-games to injury before the streak ended and forward Patrick Sharp sustained a shoulder injury that will cost him 3-4 weeks. However, defenseman Steve Montador, who hasn't played all season because of a concussion, makes up nearly half of the man-games lost.
The Canadiens had 45 man-games lost to injury through 24 games, but more than half of that is taken up by Petteri Nokelainen, who hasn't played all season because of an injury. Brandon Prust also is out now with a minor shoulder separation.
The other three teams -- Pittsburgh, Anaheim and Boston -- combined for only 43 man-games lost to injury through the weekend, including just seven for the Bruins.
6. Toronto's goaltending holding up
Luongo remains in Vancouver and the Toronto Maple Leafs are OK with that.
The unheralded duo of Ben Scrivens and James Reimer has combined for solid work for the Maple Leafs on most nights. Neither Scrivens nor Reimer is anywhere close to being a Vezina Trophy candidate, but they have been a big reason why Toronto is in a playoff spot. The goaltending has been effective enough to buoy what has been a relatively explosive offense.
7. Goals are up across the League
The shot-blocking rage hasn't stopped offenses from producing. Goals per game are up this season (2 percent through games played through the weekend) compared to last season.
Entering Monday, NHL teams were combining for 5.6 goals per game with 373 total games played; they combined for 5.5 goals per game through 373 games played last season. Seventeen teams are scoring more goals per game so far this season then they did last season. Anaheim and the Los Angeles Kings are scoring just almost a full goal-per-game more this season than they did last season.
8. Kadri's surge
For fans in Toronto, Nazem Kadri's play this season probably is less of a surprise and more of a feeling of "finally" -- as in finally, the seventh pick of the 2009 NHL Draft is starring for the Maple Leafs, making good on his promise with production. He had been criticized in the past for being out of shape and for poor eating habits, but this season he is leading the Leafs in scoring and has helped them into playoff contention.
9. Ducks soaring with secondary scoring
A big problem for the Anaheim Ducks last season was secondary scoring; they basically didn't have any of it. This season, secondary scorers like Andrew Cogliano, Daniel Winnik, Kyle Palmieri, Sheldon Souray and even Francois Beauchemin have been primary threats on most nights, helping the Ducks to a resurgent season.
Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan and Teemu Selanne continue to put up points, but Saku Koivu, Cogliano and Souray are having big offensive seasons; Winnik has given the Ducks unexpected offense; Palmieri has shown he can be a legitimate top-six forward when healthy; and Beauchemin could be among the midseason candidates for the Norris Trophy with the numbers he's putting up.
10. Rise of Viktor Fasth
The 30-year-old Swedish goalie came out of nowhere to join some exclusive company earlier this season. Fasth started the season 8-0, becoming just the third goalie in NHL history to record a win in his first eight career decisions (Ray Emery and Bob Froese are the others).
Fasth, who was signed to a one-year deal to be a backup, has taken a lot of the starts away from Jonas Hiller and provided the Ducks with one of the League's most formidable goaltending duos. He already has signed a two-year, $5.4 million contract extension with the Ducks.
11. Rangers' early-season inconsistencies
After 18 games, the Rangers were 8-8-2, stuck in 11th place in the Eastern Conference. Rick Nash was injured, Henrik Lundqvist was ordinary, Brad Richards hadn't scored a goal in what seemed like forever, Marian Gaborik was on the third line and their power play deserved a D-minus at best.
However, with Nash's emergence on the score sheet since he returned from his injury, the Rangers have gotten things together, and heading into their game Tuesday against Buffalo, they had won five of six to climb into the top eight and just one point behind the New Jersey Devils.
12. The Ryan O'Reilly Saga
The Colorado Avalanche and Ryan O'Reilly, who was a restricted free agent, could not come to terms on a new contract, leaving the second-line center unsigned and on the sidelines for the first 19 games of the season. It ended when O'Reilly signed a two-year, $10 million offer sheet with the Calgary Flames on Feb. 28, an offer sheet the Avalanche quickly matched.
By matching, Colorado surrendered the opportunity to secure Calgary's first- and third-round picks in 2013 as compensation for O'Reilly.
However, Chris Johnston of Sportsnet.ca reported after the fact that had the Avalanche not matched, O'Reilly would not immediately have been Calgary's property; instead he would have had to go on waivers because he played two games in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League after the NHL season started.
It all became moot because the Avalanche matched the Flames' offer sheet, but the Flames were close to surrendering their draft picks to Colorado and potentially losing O'Reilly to another team.
13. Ruff ending in Buffalo
Lindy Ruff lasted 14 full seasons plus 17 games in Buffalo. The coach that looked to be untouchable was fired Feb. 20 after the Sabres started 6-10-1. He was the NHL's longest active-serving coach with one team and finished his run in Buffalo with 571 victories.
Ron Rolston was brought up from Rochester of the American Hockey League to serve as Ruff's replacement on an interim basis. The Sabres are 3-4-2 under Rolston heading into their game Tuesday against the New York Rangers.
14. Washington's horrid start
No team needed training camp more than the Washington Capitals, who are on their third coach in a calendar year and are undergoing massive systematic changes with Adam Oates behind the bench, as opposed to Dale Hunter, who elected not to return after taking the Caps to the second round of the 2012 playoffs. However, it still was shocking to see the Capitals, who were a game away from the Eastern Conference Finals last season, come out of the gate with just two wins in their first 11 games (2-8-1).
Alex Ovechkin had only three goals in the first 11 games and Nicklas Backstrom was held to one goal and seven assists.
15. Blues struggling between pipes
Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott shared the Jennings Trophy last season and just as easily could have shared the Vezina Trophy for the way they performed in leading St. Louis to a 109-point season. This season, the Blues are struggling to stay in a playoff spot because their goaltending has been shockingly inefficient.
Entering their game Tuesday, rookie call-up Jake Allen had as many as many wins as Halak (five), in only seven appearances. Elliott has the worst save percentage (.851) and second-worst goals-against average (3.65) among goalies with 10 or more appearances. The Blues are giving up more than three goals per game after surrendering just 1.89 per game last season.
Through Monday's games, the Blues rank 30th in save percentage (.869) after finishing first last season (.929).
16. Semin's turnaround in Carolina
Alexander Semin remained an unrestricted free agent until July 26, when he signed a one-year, $7 million contract with the Carolina Hurricanes, who admittedly were taking an expensive one-year gamble on the enigmatic Russian forward. Semin, whose per-game production declined in each of his last two seasons in Washington, has found a home on Eric Staal's right side and is back to producing like an All-Star.
17. Still surviving in Detroit
It's possible that the Red Wings' streak of 21 consecutive seasons with a playoff berth comes to an end this season, but for now they're hanging in despite the loss of Nicklas Lidstrom to retirement and being ravaged by injuries.
The Red Wings currently have five players on injured reserve, including center Darren Helm, who has played just one game because of a back injury. They have lost 158 man-games to injury, including 47 by defensemen. However, as of Tuesday they remained in the top eight in the Western Conference.
18. Brunner's emergence in Hockeytown
Damien Brunner arrived in Detroit with little to no fanfare and only the potential to become a top-six forward. Halfway into his first NHL season, the 26-year-old former star in Switzerland is gaining some national acclaim as one of the Red Wings' top offensive players. Brunner is too old to be eligible for the Calder Trophy, but he's been the perfect complementary player to Henrik Zetterberg.
19. Cup hangover was real -- again
Even with a six-month offseason because of the lockout, the Los Angeles Kings couldn't avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover. Many critics assumed that the Kings would be fine because of the amount of rest they were afforded, but they still started the season with just three wins in their first 10 games (3-5-2) and were averaging just 2.1 goals per game.
20. Senators staying the course
Potentially season-ending injuries to star center Jason Spezza and Norris Trophy-winning defenseman Erik Karlsson probably should have derailed the Ottawa Senators' quest for a playoff berth. Those debilitating injuries still may kill Ottawa's season, but at least for now the Senators remain very much alive in the Eastern Conference playoff race despite not having their two best players.
What Ottawa is lacking in offense it has made up for in a League-best defense -- and this is despite the fact that Craig Anderson hasn't played since Feb. 21 because of an ankle injury. Robin Lehner and Ben Bishop have been terrific in goal and the Senators' penalty kill is among the best in the NHL.
21. Rookie Watch
Typically by the halfway point of a season there are maybe five or six candidates for the Calder Trophy, of which three or four are serious. This season, there's still at least a dozen viable candidates for the Calder Trophy.
Cory Conacher has come out of nowhere to be one of the most impactful players on the Tampa Bay Lightning this season. Jonathan Huberdeau and Drew Shore are about the only good things going for the Florida Panthers nowadays. Justin Schultz has at times looked like a veteran, playing nearly 23 minutes a game for the Edmonton Oilers. His teammate, Nail Yakupov, clearly has shown his flair for the dramatic.
Dougie Hamilton, Brendan Gallagher, Alex Galchenyuk, Brandon Saad, Jake Muzzin, Vladimir Tarasenko, Jake Allen and Beau Bennett are other rookies, to name just a few, that have had impacts for their teams.
22. Extreme Sharks
For seven games it seemed like Patrick Marleau was unstoppable and the San Jose Sharks were unbeatable. He's not and they aren't.
Marleau scored nine goals in the first five games, including two in each of the first four games, and the Sharks started the season 7-0-0 record with 27 goals scored. Marleau was the first player since the 1917-18 season to start the season with four straight multiple-goal games.
But once the 2013 calendar flipped to February, Marleau and the Sharks lost their scoring touch and proceeded to lose 10 of 12 games. Marleau had three goals in February as the Sharks scored only 15 in the month to drop out of the top eight in the Western Conference.
23. Bob pacing the Blue Jackets
One of Scott Howson's last moves before he was fired is turning into arguably his best in his five-plus years as general manager of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sergei Bobrovsky was the NHL's First Star of the Week last week for going 4-0-0 with a shutout, a 0.77 goals-against average and .962 save percentage. He was acquired from Philadelphia for three draft picks and now is helping the offensively challenged Blue Jackets try to climb back into the playoff race after a poor start.
24. Kunitz climbing the leaderboard
There's a new name near the top of the NHL's scoring leaders, one that never even has been close to the Art Ross Trophy before. Chris Kunitz is scoring goals and dishing assists at a better rate than ever before in his nine-year NHL career because he's been the perfect complementary player to Hart Trophy favorite Sidney Crosby.
Kunitz is coming off a five-point game against the New York Islanders, and heading into the game Tuesday against Boston had 36 points (17 goals, 19 assists), putting him on pace for 66 points in 48 games. Kunitz set a career high for points last season with 61, but he did that in 82 games.