With the NHL having hit the first-quarter mark of the regular season, let’s look at some of the biggest surprises so far.
Biggest Surprise Team In The Sense That Doesn’t Make Their Fan Base Want To Cry:Colorado Avalanche. I don’t know too many people who thought that, under rookie NHL coach Patrick Roy, the Avs would hit the ground running, let alone running, jumping, singing and dancing like extras in a Bjork video. Winning 12 of their first 13 games gave Colorado a cushion in the standings, but a recent skid dropped them into a tie for seventh in the Big Boy (a.k.a. Western) Conference and showed that this supremely talented young team still has much to prove. Still, given their more recent history – they’ve played six measly playoff games in the past five seasons – seeing what Colorado is capable of when things go right has to be heartening for a fan base that was accustomed to much higher standards of success.
Biggest Surprise Team In The Sense That Makes Their Fan Base Want To Cry And Perhaps Sue Somebody For Emotional Distress, Even Knowing Full Well The Lawsuit Probably Won’t End In Their Favor:Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers thought they were on the precipice of big things prior to the start of the season. They were, as it turns out. But the big things were deficits (most notably, in net) and distractions (the dissatisfied Nail Yakupov and his agent Igor Larionov), a short-term goalie solution (Ilya Bryzgalov) and the prospect of another very high draft pick this summer. Craig MacTavish looked like he was frustrated enough to grind his teeth into a fine powder at the recent NHL GM meetings and you have to believe he’ll make a trade of some import soon. But if he thinks dealing the Oilers’ 2014 first-rounder will be the elixir for what ails his squad, he’s not thinking big enough. I still say Shea Weber should be their target – and if it ever gets to the point of a counter-offer from the Predators, no reasonable one should be refused. There are simply too many sacred cows on this team and not enough sacred milk.
Biggest Surprise Team In The Sense That Makes Their Fan Base Want To Be Struck With Whatever Guy Pearce Was Suffering From In ‘Memento’: Buffalo Sabres. Yes, most of us imagined the Sabres would be win-challenged this year. But between a management housecleaning, underwhelming Thomas Vanek trade, non-whelming non-trade of Ryan Miller, and nonsense with Patrick Kaleta and John Scott, something tells me Sabres supporters would’ve preferred a Post-It note summary rather than watching it all play out in real, regretful time.
Biggest Surprise Team That Could Quickly Stop Surprising In The Remaining Three Quarters Of The Season: Tampa Bay Lightning. The Bolts were seen as a playoff periphery team before the season began, but thanks to the double-whammy of goalie Ben Bishop’s stellar play and Steven Stamkos’ otherworldly play, Tampa Bay began the year on a 12-4-0 tear. Then Stamkos got seriously hurt Nov. 11 and any momentum the team had was snuffed out. In the four games since then, they’ve been a coin-flip 2-2 and were outscored 11-5 in their past two games. Coach Jon Cooper has been able to wring what he’s needed out of the roster’s youngsters, but hockey people I’ve spoken with wonder how much organizational depth Cooper can draw upon until Stamkos returns. And that’s only if Stamkos returns at all this year; if he’s out through March (a particularly tough month schedule-wise for the Lightning) or longer and Cooper can keep them in playoff contention, he ought to be a Jack Adams Award nominee.