Well hockey fans, we're almost a quarter of the way through the season and there have been plenty of surprises so far this year. Here's my list of the five teams that have exceeded expectations so far and the five that have under-achieved thus far. Remember, teams that are in the top eight by November usually end up making the cut in early April.
1. Los Angeles Kings - The Kings play is probably making Ilya Kovalchuk lose sleep in his New Jersey home. Perhaps the only team that pursued the most coveted free agent throughout the summer as much as the Devils, the Kings eventually gave up and haven't looked back yet. They have started the season 12-3-0 and an incredible 8-0 home record. The twenty four points they own are good enough for first place in a very difficult Western Conference. Jonathan Quick is one of the top goalies in the league, posting a 10-1 record with a .994 save percentage and a 1.52 goals against average. The offense is led by Justin Williams (8-8-16) and Anze Kopitar (6-10-16).
2. Montreal Canadiens - The Habs are trying to prove that their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year was no fluke. Despite getting rid of playoff hero Jaroslav Halak, the Canadiens have put all of their trust in young Carey Price and he has not disappointed. Price has been criticized by fans in Montreal for years but is turning the boo's to cheers this year with 10 wins (tied for 1st) a .923 (11th), a 2.18 (10th) and 2 shutouts (3rd). Tomas Plekanec leads the team in points with 18 (6-12) and playoff sensation Michael Cammalleri is third on the team with 4-8-12. The Habs are currently in third place in the Eastern Conference with an 11-5-1 record (23 pts).
3. St. Louis Blues - Although their last few games have not ended so well for the Blues, they still had an amazing start to the season and hold fourth place in the West with a 9-3-3 record (21 pts). Jaroslav Halak is proving that he really is a stud number one goaltender in this league. He is posting incredible numbers and is in the top 5 in save percentage, goals against average, and shutouts. Offensively they are led by T.J. Oshie, although he just went down with a broken ankle. The Blues are getting depth scoring this year though so the loss of Oshie may not affect the team as much as some may think.
4. Philadelphia Flyers - After a slow start to the season the Flyers have gotten back on track and are currently in second place in the Eastern Conference with an 11-4-2 record (24 pts). After splitting time between goaltenders Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher to begin the season, coach Peter Laviolette has chosen "Bob" as his number one, starting him the past 9 games. Bob has proven to be one of the best goalies in the league, putting up a 10-2-1 record a .932 (5th) and a 2.08 (7th). He could be the answer that Flyers fans have been searching for between the pipes since Ron Hextall. Claude Giroux has continued his post-season success into this year, point up 18 points (9G,9A) in 17 games and captain Mike Richards has finally found his scoring touch with 6-10-16. The Flyers may be poised to make another deep run if they can keep this play up.
5. Ottawa Senators - After a mediocre start, the Senators seemed to have found their game. They currently sit in fifth place in the Eastern Conference with a 9-7-1 record. Brian Elliott seems to have found his game, shutting out the upstart Boston Bruin last night. The Senators are led on offense by Daniel Alfredsson who has put up 7 goals 8 assists and 15 points over the first 17 games. Despite several trade rumors in the past few years circulating around Jason Spezza, he hasn't let that affect him this year, putting up 4 goals and 12 points. Off-season acquisition Sergei Gonchar is fitting in wonderfully for the Senators, scoring 4 times and adding 8 more assists for 12 points in the early goings.
1. New Jersey Devils - After so much drama this season involving free agent Ilya Kovalchuk the Devils have looked sluggish in the early goings. The Devils got their first win at the Prudential Center this past Friday when they beat the Oilers in overtime. Although injuries haven't helped, such as Hall of Fame goalie Martin Broduer missing a few games with an elbow injury or the loss of goal scorer Zach Parise for three months with knee surgery, that still doesn't excuse the rest of the offense. Patrik Elias leads the team with 11 points (only two of them goals) and the leading goal scorer is Jason Arnott with 6. Kovalchuk has just 4. The Devils currently sit in 14th place in the Eastern Conference and need to turn things around soon if they're going to get out of the cellar.
2. Buffalo Sabres - A perrennial playoff team with an all-world goalie should not be in 11th place in the conference a quarter of the way through the season. But that's exactly where the Sabres sit with a 6-9-3 record (1-6-1 at home). Derek Roy is leading the team offensively and seems to be about the only bright spot about the season. He has 8 goals and 11 assists for 19 points through the first 18 games. Thomas Vanek is third on the team in points but only has 11. Ryan Miller is 4-5-2 on the season with a .904 and a 2.63, not exactly what is expected of a goaltender that won a silver medal with Team USA in the Olympics last year.
3. Chicago Blackhawks - Just a few short months after winning the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks are not off to such a great start in defending their title. Nineteen games into the season the Blackhawks sit at 8-9-2 (18 points), which is good for 9th in the West. Their nineteen games is the most by any team in the NHL and is up to 4 more games than some of the teams around them in the standings. The most glaring difference between this year and last year is between the pipes. The Hawks thought they could get by without Cup-winning goaltender Antti Niemi and instead went in the direction of Marty Turco, who is 7-5-2 with a .911 and a 2.74. A terrible home record of 4-7-0 doesn't help either. Patrick Sharp is leading the team in goals (10) and points (18), with Patrick Kane (15) and Jonathan Toews (14) close behind. At this rate, the Hawks are hoping they get a chance to defend their Stanley Cup come playoff time, but given the competitive nature of the Central Division, I wouldn't be so sure they will.
4. Toronto Maple Leafs - Many people thought that this might be the Leafs year to make the playoffs again. When they started out as one of the hottest teams in hockey they turned even more heads. As more games have unfolded, the Leafs have fallen back down into their usual spot, 13th in the Eastern Conference. Losing 8 straight, the Leafs are in a freefall and have begun to call up their young kids i.e. Nazim Kadri to try and spark the offense. After making several trades to acquire the likes of Phil Kessel, Jean-Sebastien Giguere, and Dion Phaneuf, some heads may be on the line soon if Toronto doesn't start improving. Not to mention they are again without a first round pick this year, it belongs to the Boston Bruins because of the Kessel trade. If you want to know the root of the Leafs problems though, look no further than the net, where Giguere and Gustavsson have both been less than stellar. Giguere is 4-5-2 with an .899 and a 2.62 while Gustavsson is 1-3-1 with an .898 and a 2.97. Kessel leads the team with 8 goals and Clark MacArthur leads the team with 13 points.
5. San Jose Sharks - The Sharks playoff struggles seemed to at least diminish after years of not being able to advance past the first round but maybe the reversal of their playoff fortunes have reversed their regular season fortunes as well. Usually among some of the best teams in the league all season long, they even won the President's Trophy in 2008-09, the Sharks are sitting on the edge this year, currently ranking 8th place with an 8-5-2 record. Antti Niemi has been less than superb, going 2-4-0 with an .878 and a 3.73. Luckily for the Sharks, Antero Niittymaki has returned to his silver-medal form in '06 with a 6-1-2 record a .929 and a 1.80. Joe Thornton leads the team in points despite serving a two game suspension, with 16. Dany Heatley (15), Patrick Marleau (14), Dan Boyle (12) and Joe Pavelski (12) round out the top five in scoring. If the Sharks want another crack at the Cup in this years playoffs they need to start playing more consistently but without the solid and reliable play of Evgeni Nabokov in net behind them for the first time in years, this Sharks team could finish a little differently than in previous seasons.