The first month of any season is bound to produce some surprises and there were no shortage of them in October. Here are ten things that might not have been expected coming into the 2011-2012 season:
10. Hockey In Winnipeg: While it had been known for a while that the Jets would be back playing in the NHL this year, in retrospect it is still a surprise. Not too many would have predicted that the they would get their team back at this time last year and then be playing as soon as this year, but here they are.
9. Phil Kessel: For a star player like Phil Kessel to score is certainly not a surprise, but the current pace at which he is collecting points probably is. Kessel is the league’s leading goal scorer and point-man after the first month of action and his strong early season play has been one of the biggest reasons that the Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten off to such a good start.
8. Pittsburgh Penguins: Any time your team loses two of the best players in the world your chances of scoring goals and winning hockey games is greatly decreased, right? Well in the case of the Pittsburgh Penguins that notion is wrong. The Penguins are yet to have Sidney Crosby in the lineup and have also been without Evgeni Malkin for a number of games but still managed to win eight of their 13 October contests. They have been led by a balanced attack up front and stingy defensive play in front of all-star goalie Marc-Andre Fleury which has the Pens currently on top of the NHL standings with 18 points.
7. Thomas Vanek and Jason Pominville: The Buffalo Sabres duo has been on fire to start the season accounting for 45% of the Sabres goals. They both rank in the top 5 in league scoring and have shown more chemistry together than perhaps any other two players in the NHL. Vanek will be hard-pressed to surpass his career best 43 goals and 84 points and Pominville will have to pass the 80 point mark, but if October is any indication, both players are on their way to having career-years.
6. Kari Lehtonen: Coming off his finest season as an NHL goaltender, Lehtonen has been quick in proving that last year wasn’t a one time deal. The oft-injured net-minder won eight of his nine October starts helping backstop the Dallas Stars to a Western Conference best 18 points. The 27-year-old leads the league in wins, is second in save percentage and fourth in goals against average.
5. Marc-Andre Bergeron: Playing with his sixth different team in his seven year NHL career, Bergeron has long been coveted for his offensive ability and the Tampa Bay Lightning have been the beneficiaries of the blue-liner’s talents this year. With 12 points in 11 games Bergeron is the second highest scoring defenseman in the league behind Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson and surprisingly leads the Lightning in scoring. With names like Stamkos, St. Louis and Lecavalier expected to do a bulk of the team’s scoring, Bergeron’s production is obviously a big boost for Tampa who hasn’t really had a high-scoring rearguard since Dan Boyle.
4. Ottawa Senators: Losers in five of their first six games, it looked as if the #1 overall pick would be the only thing the Ottawa Senators would be competing for this year. Since then the club has gone on an incredible six-game win streak, turning their season around in dramatic fashion. The Sens wrapped up October with a win over the red hot Toronto Maple Leafs last night and finished the month with a 7-5 record; something absolutely no one would have predicted after watching this team play the first two weeks of the season.
3. Vancouver Canucks: Although the Canucks didn’t come home with the Stanley Cup last year, their season lasted as long as possible and they have been unable to avoid the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover this year. Looking sluggish through many of their games, the Canucks finished October with a 5-5-1 record and looked very much like a team expecting to just cruise through the regular season.
The wake-up call game in an embarrassing 3-0 home loss to the St. Louis Blues on Wednesday night in which they responded with a 7-4 win over Washington on Saturday night. The win over a top team may be just what they needed to get out of their early season funk and return to being the cup contenders that they were expected once again to be.
2. Boston Bruins: While the runners-up have started slowly, the cup champs have taken the whole championship hangover to another level. A 3-7 start to the season is something head coach Claude Julien and his players definitely weren’t expecting coming off their Stanley Cup victory just a few months ago.
Losing is disappointing enough but losing a home-and-home to heated rival Montreal, a team that was struggling in their own right might just be as bad as it gets for Boston. Perhaps it will be the anger of losing those two games that will wake the Bruins up and spark them to turn their season around, and that turn-around needs to begin in a hurry.
1. Edmonton Oilers: 7-2-2, 16 points and a tie for first place in the NHL standings, not bad for a team that finished dead last in last year’s standings. Apparently the Oilers didn’t get the memo that they were still a year or two away from seeing their lengthy rebuilding period take effect because the young team is playing as if they are going to be contenders this year.
Second year phenoms Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have combined with 2011 first-overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins to form the league’s youngest and perhaps most exciting line to watch, but they haven’t been alone. The trio has been inspired by the strong play of veterans such as captain Shawn Horcoff, Ryan Smyth and the return to form as a number one goalie by Nikolai Khabibulin.
The most surprising aspect of the Oilers season so far is that they have yielded a league best 18 goals despite featuring a defense core that was expected to be the club’s biggest weakness. Their shut-down defensive play will need to continue if they hope to keep putting up wins in November and the rest of the season.
Resident of Windsor, Ontario. Extensive knowledge of both the NHL and junior hockey in Canada, particularly the OHL. Writer for THW covering the Winnipeg Jets and the OHL as well as covering Phoenix Coyotes prospects for Hockey’s Future.