Surprises and statements at the season's quarter pole
Random thoughts at the quarter pole...
Raise your hand if you thought that the Philadelphia Flyers' goaltending would take a turn for the better when Sergei Bobrovsky came to camp and began stopping pucks. No fanfare. No notoriety. No English. Nothing but success. Well, his first hiccup came last week in an 8-7 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Still, the man they call Bob has solidified the position in Philly for the first time in years. He has 11 wins and a .925 save percentage and has come out of nowhere to backstop the Flyers to the top of the Atlantic Division. Bobrovsky's play coupled with his anonymity makes him the surprise story of the first quarter.
While you cannot call Steven Stamkos a surprise, you can certainly marvel at his scoring exploits and pace. His dizzying ascent to the top of the scoring race has the hockey world abuzz. Maybe with Stamkos it isn't where he is now, but that his progression has been so dramatic. Coupled with the Lightning's success with an 11-7-2 start, Stamkos continues to impress. Yes, he tied for the league lead with 51 goals a season ago and finished fifth in overall scoring with 95 points, yet most people stopped short of decreeing his arrival as a superstar go-to guy. Consider the first quarter of this season the Stamkos proclamation.
If you're looking for carryover storylines, look no further than Nicklas Lidstrom. The 41-year old captain of the Detroit Red Wings is off to a blazing start. He's leading NHL defensemen in scoring, which follows up his strong second half last season and makes the slowest start of his career a year ago a distant memory. What's top of mind is Lidstrom's game-winning goal in overtime against the Calgary Flames (see video below). All is right with Nick Lidstrom and by extension his Red Wings are off to a Western Conference-best start with 28 points.
At the other end of the spectrum you have the New Jersey Devils where nothing has gone right in their world. They have a meager 12 points after their first 20 games -- the same as the woeful New York Islanders, who are currently enduring an 0-11-2 stretch and have already made a coaching change. The Devils' John MacLean could be the next to go. Of course, his team's plight is exacerbated by the high profile summer signing -- and all the wrangling surrounding that deal -- of Ilya Kovalchuk. He has only four goals and is a minus-10 -- worst among the Devils' forwards. Kovalchuk has been a healthy scratch,
Kovalchuk's former team, the Atlanta Thrashers, is authoring a story of a different kind where Dustin Byfuglien on the blueline is looking like a masterstroke. Many derided the much-maligned franchise for even entertaining the notion of playing Byfuglien at his original, natural position. Now, GM Rick Dudley and coach Craig Ramsey are getting accolades for their insight. Byfuglien deserves much of the credit for knowing his game. He wanted the chance, the team was open enough to try it, and he has done the rest. Talk about making the most of the opportunity. Big Buff leads all NHL defensemen with seven goals, 76 shots, three power play goals and is tied with Rick Nash for the NHL lead with four game-winning tallies -- two in OT. After 21 games, Dustin Byfuglien has proven to be an impact player -- on the blueline.
Finally, the return to top form of Boston Bruins' goaltender Tim Thomas is one of the most heartwarming stories of the 2010-11 campaign. After struggling through an injury-plagued 2009-10 season, Thomas is back to his Vezina Trophy-level of 2009. Actually, he's off to a scintillating start with a 1.49 goals-against average and a staggering .954 save percentage. As a latecomer to starting and starring in the NHL, Thomas is the ultimate battler. He has continued to modify his approach, and is now practicing a more patient butterfly approach... most times. He is still the best scrambler in the game and never gives up on a play, leading to many magnificent contortionist stops. In the season's first quarter, though, Tim Thomas has gone straight to the top of the class. Again.
I know there are many, many more noteworthy stories thus far around the league. E-mail me with your favorites so we can discuss.