Nearly a quarter of the National Hockey League season is already in the books.
How crazy is that?
It feels like yesterday where all we had to talk about was how good the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to be, or how the Anaheim Ducks were a lock to make the Stanley Cup Final.
Man, those were the days.
Now, we face the harsh reality that even the most researched and reasoned predictions can be horribly wrong.
Isn’t that what makes this game so great though? The unpredictability keeps fans coming back, so with that in mind, let’s take a look at the five biggest surprises of the young season.
5. Mike Condon
Condon’s dazzling play has changed that initial skepticism that most fans had only weeks ago, propelling himself into the heart of league dialogue.
An undrafted minor-leaguer, Condon out-dueled incumbent backup Dustin Tokarski for the number two slot during the pre-season. Still, he seemed destined to collect dust on the bench, as Price has started the lion’s share of games in recent years.
Not so, as Condon has been thrust into duty thanks to Price’s groin injury. Montreal was expected to sputter without their rock in net, but it’s been the exact opposite.
Condon has been dominant, posting a mind-boggling .940 save percentage along with a squeaky-clean 6-0-1 record. Not only has he helped the Canadiens win games, but he’s afforded them the luxury of being patient with Price’s eventual return.
4. The Return of the Kings
Los Angeles gave new life to the term “Stanley Cup hangover” last year, finishing an uninspired season outside of the playoff picture.
The spoils of war may have gotten to the Kings, as their summer featured multiple drug-related arrests. They turned into a punching bag on social media after dropping their first three games, only worsening matters.
That narrative flipped seemingly overnight, as the Kings rattled off seven wins in a row, looking every bit the machine that captured two Stanley Cups in three seasons. L.A is back in the news for all the right reasons, which must be a welcome relief to those around the organization.
3. Montreal Takes the NHL by Storm
The Canadiens have won 125 hockey games in only three seasons since Michel Therrien was brought on board. They’ve had deep playoff runs, yet the underlying numbers have always portrayed them as a deeply flawed team.
Therrien brought an ultra-conservative system with him, one that had the Habs constantly dumping the puck out of their zone. That style placed a huge burden on Carey Price, as Montreal would spend a ton of time defending.
The summer was one of serious re-evaluation for Therrien though, as he introduced a new system this season that places a heavy emphasis on controlling the puck while entering the offensive zone.
Lo and behold, Montreal is now the second-highest scoring team in the NHL and also one of the very best puck-possession teams.
Offensive talent has never been hard to find on this roster, but a system that actually accentuates it has been. It’s there now, and it’s working.
To boot, they have the best goalie in the NHL in Price, so there’s really no telling what this team’s ceiling is. That elusive 25th Cup may not be too far off for the Canadiens.
2. Tough Times for Sidney Crosby
Finally, Sidney Crosby is getting a superstar winger to play with him.
That was the pervading thought when the Penguins acquired Phil Kessel; Crosby would finally have a trigger man.
How’s that going, you ask? Well, Crosby is 168th in league scoring, with a measly seven points. Better yet, Kessel has been moved to Evgeni Malkin’s line, as he and Crosby just couldn’t find the right chemistry.
Crosby hasn’t looked like himself. He’s looked angry and frustrated, and he’s not completing nearly as many dangerous passes as he has in past seasons.
Given Crosby’s track record, there’s no way he’ll struggle this badly for 82 games, but his struggles remain mystifying given the talent around him.
1. Ducks Stumble out of the Gate
This season was supposed to be a 82-game coronation of the Anaheim Ducks as the NHL’s best. Major media outlets hailed them the victors before the puck had even dropped on the regular season.
Who can blame them?
The Ducks boast perhaps the most impressive combination of offensive firepower, defensive depth, and quality goaltending.
Instead, Anaheim started the season with a single win in ten games, scoring only six goals outside of that lone win. Bruce Boudreau’s work as a coach came into question, and rightfully so.
He adopted a passive defensive system, a sharp deviation from Anaheim’s high puck-pressure system of years past.
The change not only didn’t work, but it completely backfired. The Ducks turned into a lousy possession team that couldn’t score to save its life.
The ship finally seems to be righting itself, as they’ve now won four games in a row. Their overall play has steadily improved with each game, yet that poor start has already left a huge dent in their playoff chances.