The last handful of NHL teams have reached the 20-game mark, meaning it's time to review the first quarter of a turbulent up-is-down 2013-14 season that had no shortage of compelling storylines.
Here's how weird it's been: A forward known primarily for his defensive responsibility (Alex Steen of the St. Louis Blues) led the league in scoring; a player known for being a defensive liability (Dustin Penner of the Anaheim Ducks) led in plus-minus; a pair of castoffs named Ben (Scrivens and Bishop) were among the leaders in save percentage and goals-against average; and that's just the start of it …
So with apologies to David Letterman, our top-10 list of achievers and underachievers in the first quarter of the NHL season:
West is best again
How skewed are the NHL standings? As of Wednesday morning, the Boston Bruins held top spot in the Eastern Conference. Nothing unusual, the Bruins were champs in 2011 and finalists in 2012, except, if they were in the Western Conference, their 29 points would leave the Bruins outside the playoff picture. The top eight teams in the West were all ahead of the No. 1 team in the East.
Backup goalie factor
The Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings lost their starting goaltenders (Niklas Backstrom and Jonathan Quick, respectively) to long-term injuries, a potentially catastrophic development. Instead, both have survived and thrived, thanks to stellar play from Josh Harding and Scrivens, respectively, who had the two best GAAs in the league.
The 2009 Calder Memorial Trophy winner was coming to a career crossroads when the Philadelphia Flyers acquired him from the Columbus Blue Jackets. Philly is a goalie graveyard, so what could possibly go wrong? But Steve Mason is having the last laugh, posting career-bests (2.12 GAA, .932 save percentage).
Who says NHL stars don't make good coaches? After a decade in the QMJHL, Patrick Roy took over last year's 15th-place Colorado Avalanche and has them in the thick of the playoff race. Even after hitting a bump in the road this past week, the Avs remain an exciting team to watch – and not just because of Roy's histrionics behind the bench.
The injury ward
NHL stars get injured every year, but there was something disconcerting about seeing no less than three – Steven Stamkos (Tampa Bay), Dan Boyle (San Jose) and Niklas Kronwall (Detroit) – wheeled off the ice on stretchers. Boyle and Kronwall are back, but Stamkos is out indefinitely, putting the Lightning's playoff hopes in jeopardy and leaving him iffy for the 2014 Canadian Olympic team.
Philadelphia, Buffalo purges
The Flyers wasted no time firing coach Peter Laviolette five games into the season, and under Craig Berube they're slowly becoming respectable again. In Buffalo, the Sabres cleaned house, installing popular former player Pat LaFontaine as director of hockey operations and popular former coach Ted Nolan behind the bench. But the Sabres are favoured in only one category – best shot at landing the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft.
The Flyers acquired Luke Schenn so he could play with his brother, Brayden; the Carolina Hurricanes acquired Jordan Staal so he could play with his brother, Eric. But while James van Riemsdyk, who came to Toronto in the deal, has been great on the Maple Leafs' No. 1 line, Schenn has been a healthy scratch lot of times. Staal has had a tough go of it offensively in Carolina, with just six points in 21 games.
Home and away
The move to the Eastern Conference was supposed to make life easier for the Detroit Red Wings, minimizing their travel and keeping them fresher. Instead, home has been anything but sweet. The Wings have now gone seven in a row without a regulation win, and are getting clobbered in the shootout, where you'd think the likes of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg would give them a big advantage.
Minor skirmishes of Alberta
Once upon a time, the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames were great NHL franchises, but that era passed. Now, they are both in the throes of major rebuilds. The problem is, the Oilers promised to turn it around this year. The Flames, meanwhile, set the bar low, tempering expectations enough their recent swoon came pretty much on cue.
Vigneault vs. Tortorella
Early on, it looked like a unanimous decision: Coach John Tortorella was fitting in far better with the Vancouver Canucks than counterpart Alain Vigneault with the New York Rangers after the two essentially swapped jobs. But things have changed. The Canucks have lost five in a row, while the Rangers have dug themselves out of an early 2-6 hole. Call it a split decision … for now.
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