October can bring surprises around the NHL, and this year is no exception.
Toronto, Edmonton and Ottawa are in the Top 8 of their respective conferences (although the Sens have played more games than New Jersey), while Stanley Cup finalists Boston and Vancouver are struggling and in the bottom half of the standings.
We asked two hardcore hockey fans, Snark and Rosy, to weigh in on these teams.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Rosy: Goaltending has been such a sore spot for this team since the lockout, so you have to like that the Leafs are 2-1 so far in games in which Dr. Jonas Gustavsson, concussion specialist, had to man the fort. Some of the support forwards are starting to score now, Kulemin and Grabovski have been more of threat in the last few games, and Tim Connolly's back. The Leafs have seven NHL-calibre defenceman, with an inspired Dion Phaneuf leading the way, and they've made modest gains on special teams.
Snark: Modest is an understatement. They're 21st and 25th, hardly the stuff of which playoff berths are made. Strength of schedule has been in their favour big time so far. Tim Connolly's back? More like Tim Connolly's back will get injured one day soon, given his track record. Good to see the GM and the coach on the same page again: GM acquires a promising young defenceman as the centrepiece of a trade with Nashville, and the coach treats him like an afterthought, putting him on a side in which he's never played. Coach then thinks the guy's not very good and banishes him to the press box. If Reimer's hurt for a lengthy period, the Leafs are in big trouble, and even if not we still need proof he's a legit 60-game guy.
Snark: Yeah, a real murderer's row the Sens have beaten during their current four-game streak: Winnipeg, Columbus, Carolina and Florida. Even during the streak they've let in three goals on two occasions, meaning that they're still in line to set an unwanted post-lockout mark for goals against. That's because you just can't trust which Craig Anderson will be in net. Late 2010-11 surprises Bobby Butler and Erik Condra have not been a factor offensively when they've played. Shut down their top line and there ain't much left to worry about.
Rosy: Considering how dreadful the first two weeks were, you have to admire their pluck. Ottawa is winning games late in the third period, another positive sign for a rebuilding team. Erik Karlsson is looking like he could be a 60-point defenceman, and Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek are playing like one of the elite lines in the league.
When adversity strikes for this team, you can't help but believe in the power of Paul MacLean's Mustache!
Rosy: With a motivated Nikolai Khabibulin and Devan Dubnyk, the Oilers have a top 10 tandem that can make up for some of the defensive liabilities (Kind of like Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask have been doing for quite awhile). You can't help but feel like something's brewing with this club. Even without Ryan Whitney for several games, they led the league in shots allowed. Last year they were blown out on the regular; they've been in there until the bitter end in their four losses so far.
We've saved the best for last. The young guns Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins are helping to give Edmonton two strong forward lines, even with Ales Hemsky on the shelf.
Snark: Oh, look who's playing like an NHL goalie again now that he's on the back half of his contract? Who knows what motivates Khabibulin, or for how long. Anton Lander and Lennart Petrell … sounds like the shingle for a couple of small claims lawyers, not the names of reliable depth forwards. Andy Sutton, who went through three teams in the previous three months, is a key cog on the blue-line. Edmonton has played a home-heavy schedule so far, taking advantage of Pittsburgh and the Rangers on the tale end of their Western trips. November's tough 14-game ledger includes Chicago twice, Detroit and Los Angeles, among others.
Snark: You might have read that Roberto Luongo has been substandard in net so far. That's allowed a whole pile of other players to escape the criticism which they deserve. Vancouver's been shutout five times in the last 17 games of meaning dating back to last season; goaltending isn't the only thing holding the Canucks back. Vancouver lost the battle of secondary scoring to Boston comprehensively, and it appears again that if the Sedins and Kesler are contained, it is the sound of crickets elsewhere on the team.
The team misses Christian Ehrhoff a lot and will rue that Kevin Bieksa contract. Great guy, good at his job, not worth that much.
Rosy: People seem to want overlook that over the course of a full season, it's hard to come up with many goalie tandems that are better than this one. Over the past four seasons, Luongo has racked up 11 shutouts in the months of November and December. Every goalie during a long season has a sample size of six games where their average is 3.45. Luongo's just happens to be occurring near the beginning. The defence will adjust to the loss of Ehrhoff and let's not throw the Booth out with the bathwater after just two games. It was a great trade with Florida to address the team's secondary scoring issues.
Snark: This was a really solid team that had a lot of things go right in the spring. Health is crucial to a Stanley Cup drive, and in contrast to the previous postseason, Boston had nothing out of the ordinary to contend with. They were one goal away from elimination in the first round, and won a third round Game 7 that featured just one goal.
Tim Thomas can only carry the team on his back so much, and the team's lack of finishing ability is coming home to roost this season. Aside from Zdeno Chara, the defence are merely OK and can get pinned in their own end (they need a good puck moving guy like Tomas Ka … never mind).
Rosy: C'mon, it's early and the Bruins have played just two division games. Unlike a lot of GM's, Peter Chiarelli hasn't hamstrung the team by doling out 23-year contracts and there are a few prospects in the cupboard if a trade or two is necessary. The defence is more workmanlike than flashy but there's no egregious parts to the sum, either. Yes, we admit Brad Marchand should be placed in a protective bubble when not at an ice rink, but David Krejci can't continue to be as bad as he's been so far.
Besides, it's only a matter of time before Benoit Pouliot (191 GP, 37G) busts out.
Share your thoughts below. Which team is the most surprising? Which ones will right the ship or fall off their early promising start?