We're only a month into the NHL season, but that hasn't stopped some teams from surprising everyone with their early play.
Pegged to be mediocre at best before the season began, these squads are turning into pleasant surprises for fans who expected nothing more than a long year filled with dreams of a high lottery pick. Here's a look at the clubs that are turning more than a few heads in October:
*Statistics current as of Wednesday morning
Toronto Maple Leafs (5-2-1)
Try as you might, you can't ignore Toronto's start to the 2010-11 season. Not when the Leafs got off to a four-game winning streak to kick off the campaign, their best start since 1993-94.
An 0-2-1 stretch saw Toronto level off a bit, as the Leafs only scored four goals in that span. But considering Toronto's track record in October (last season 1-7-4), the possibility of still being in the playoff race when November hits is still a bright side for the team moving forward.
Reasons for fast start: Solid defence and goaltending. Oh, and Phil Kessel and Clarke MacArthur. The Leafs are conceding just 2.38 goals-per game (eighth in the NHL) and allowing only 26.1 shots against (fourth). Netminders Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Jonas Gustavsson have been directly responsible for giving Toronto extra points in the standings by making crucial saves to preserve leads and keep the Leafs in contests. Scoring won't be a problem if Kessel and MacArthur keep filling the net, as Kessel has seven goals while MacArthur has six.
Are they legit? Toronto needs to handle its scoring slumps better in order to stay in contention for a playoff berth, let alone vie for a top spot in the East. The Leafs only have six goals in their last four games and went 1-2-1 in that span. That sort of production will only send Toronto to the bottom of the standings at season's end, especially if either Kessel or MacArthur go down with an injury. The two forwards have 13 goals between them, and to compare: the rest of the team has 10 goals combined. The Buds' lack of scoring punch up front has been well-documented, but it can be handled if Toronto manages to keep winning on the back of its defence. But if the Leafs start to lose in bunches, there isn't a lot coach Ron Wilson can do to spark the offence.
Nashville Predators (5-0-3)
The Preds were pegged as a playoff team to start the season, but nobody expected them to be this good.
A balanced attack and outstanding goaltending has spotted Nashville to an early lead in the Western Conference. The Preds have reeled off wins against the defending champs in Chicago, along with St. Louis, Anaheim, Dallas, and Tampa Bay.
Nashville is on an eight-game point streak to start the season, and they're the only team left in the NHL that hasn't lost in regulation.
Reasons for fast start: Two goalies who are playing lights-out in the Predators' crease. Nashville's only allowing 2.12 goals per game (third in the NHL) thanks to Pekka Rinne, who is third in save percentage in the NHL (.955 in four games), and fellow stopper Anders Lindback, who is turning away shots at a .925 clip. And the netminders are doing this as the Predators allow 34.9 shots per game, which is 26th in the NHL. Considering all but one of Nashville's eight games have been decided by just one goal, many of the stops Lindback and Rinne make are of the pressure-packed variety. The Preds are also making teams sweat with a balanced scoring attack — twelve Predators have found the back of the net in their first eight games.
Are they legit? Probably wouldn't be a surprise to see Nashville among the top four in the West at season's end, as long as the "Twin Towers" keep stopping shots and the Predators continue to utilize all four lines. But the defence has to lower that shot total in order to keep the netminders fresh deep into the season.
Dallas Stars (5-3-0)
No Mike Modano? No Marty Turco? No big deal. With Dallas losing its longest-serving player along with its rock in net, not much was expected of the Stars before the season began.
But impressive wins over Detroit and New Jersey in the first few weeks of the season have people wondering if Dallas was a bit underrated during the pre-season prognostications.
More impressive could be the fact that the Stars are on this clip while dealing with trade rumours (we're serious, and yes it's October) surrounding top forward Brad Richards.
Reasons for fast start: It begins and ends in net, because Kari Lehtonen was phenomenal as the Stars won five of their first six games of the season. Turco's replacement in goal was allowing less than three goals per game in that span, and is making saves at a .918 clip. He's doing this as his Stars have allowed 33.5 shots per game. That confidence in net is letting the Stars take more chances on offence, and they are scoring three goals per game, which is seventh in the NHL. And trade buzzword Richards is among the league leaders with two goals and nine assists for 11 points.
Are they legit? If Lehtonen keeps playing the way he has been, then the answer is a definite yes. You'd be hard-pressed to find a year in the NHL when a decent team hasn't ridden a lights-out goalie to a better-than-average season and a big run in the playoffs. But if Lehtonen falls back to earth and/or the offence sputters (both of which have happened during the team's current two-game skid), the Stars are going to have to shore their defence up in a big way to stay competitive. Especially with that 66.7 per cent (!) success rate on the penalty kill.
Tampa Bay Lightning (5-2-1)
Okay, this isn't a really big surprise. We knew that after an amazing effort from Steven Stamkos (51 goals), a return to form for Martin St. Louis (94 points) last season, along with the addition of general manager Steve Yzerman, Tampa could see a tick upwards in 2010-11.
But even so, it's still a bit of an eye-opener to see the Bolts atop the Southeast even at this early stage, considering the Washington Capitals won the division crown last season by 38 points.
Reasons for fast start: An offence that continues to be led by Stamkos. The third-year wonder is picking up where he left off last season, leading the NHL in scoring and tied for the lead in goals (15 points and eight goals in eight games) at this early stage of the season. He's helping the Lightning average 3.38 goals per-game, which is tops in the NHL, as Tampa has averaged a little more than 36 shots on net.
Are they legit? Could be. Stamkos is looking like he could put up MVP-like numbers this season, and St. Louis is also averaging a point per game. If the team's in contention late in the season, first-year GM Yzerman looks like he's savvy enough to pull off a nice trade at the deadline. But the questions that dogged Tampa Bay before 2010-11 began are still hanging in the air. Injury prone Simon Gagne is a good addition to the club, but he has already missed time and we're only eight games into the season. Captain Vincent Lecavalier has yet to break out (four points in seven games), and both Tampa goalies, Mike Smith and Dan Ellis, have a sub-.900 save percentage.
New York Islanders (4-2-2)
You'd be hard-pressed to find a pundit who said the Islanders would be anything more than cannon fodder for the 2010-11 season, what with Rick "A-Slight-Breeze-Tears-My-Ligaments" DiPietro in net and little in the way of veteran experience in front of him.
But a 4-2-2 start to the season has them in the strange position of challenging Pittsburgh for an early lead in the Atlantic Division.
Reasons for fast start: The Islanders are filling the net right now, averaging 3.25 goals-per game (third in the NHL), and New York's getting timely scoring too. Three of the Isles' four victories have been by one goal, scored late in the third period or in overtime. And despite early season injury trouble, John Tavares looks like he's ready to take the next step to superstar status. Still carrying the weight of monumental expectations after going first overall in the 2009 draft, the sophomore scored an OT winner in Toronto, netted a natural hat-trick against Florida, and has five goals in four games.
Are they legit? Depends on whether or not New York continues to get hammered by the injury bug. DiPietro's fragile, Tavares has already missed time with a concussion, and the Isles are without winger Kyle Okposo and top defenceman Mark Streit for extended periods of time. Add to that list forward Rob Schremp (lower back, four weeks) and defenceman Andrew MacDonald (broken hand, four to six weeks), and now you're moving into the realm of ridiculousness. You can count the teams on one hand who have the depth to handle that much injury trouble, and the Islanders aren't one of them.