NHL Season Off to Surprsing Start

The first month of the NHL season has been anything but ordinary for hockey fans around the country. There have been record-setting starts, unexpected early falters and outstanding individual performances abound. Let’s take a closer look.

The Buffalo Sabres and Anaheim Ducks have made headlines by surging to the top of their conferences. The Sabres began the season with 10 straight victories, tying the NHL record set by the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1993. Buffalo was a perfect 10-0-0 before losing to the Thrashers in a shootout on October 28th and it wasn’t until November 3rd that they lost their first regulation game. Everybody thought Buffalo would do well, but not this well. Could it be their new uniforms? Maybe, but great goaltending by Ryan Miller and ten goals from center Chris Drury have helped as well.

Out west, the Anaheim Ducks have amassed 24 points in just 14 games. Also sporting new uniforms (coincidence?), my Stanley Cup pick still has not lost a game in regulation this season. Newcomer Chris Pronger has anchored a solid defense while also leading the team with 13 points and goalies Jean-Sebastian Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov have posted a combined 2.07 goals against average.

But, when there are winners there must also be losers. Philadelphia has certainly been one of these losers, sitting at the bottom of the Atlantic division with only three wins through thirteen games. The Flyers start was such a disappointment that GM Bob Clarke fired himself and took head coach Ken Hitchcock with him; that’s never a good sign for a franchise. Indeed, the Flyers are about as doomed as the Arizona Cardinals, another team with high expectations and minimal results.

Other disappointments include the Ottawa Senators, whose high-powered offense has been all but tamed the first month. Thought to be the front-runner to represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals, the Sens find themselves in last place in the Northeast division. The season is still young, but Dany Heatley and company must pick up their games to fulfill the team’s lofty expectations. The Calgary Flames are also in the basement of their division with a 4-7-2 record. RW Jarome Iginla is finding the back of the net and goalie Mikka Kiprusoff is playing well, but the pieces just aren’t falling together for the Flames. Look for them to climb back into the race during the second half of the season.

One of the most compelling stories of the season has been the Pittsburgh Penguins and their corps of young stars. Forwards Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal (none of whom can legally pick up a 30-rack from Wayne’s) have lifted the problematic Pittsburgh franchise to 7 wins through 11 games. Malkin, a rookie center who draws comparisons to the great Mario Lemeiux, has been particularly remarkable, scoring in each of his first six games as a pro. In addition, 2003 first-round draft pick Marc-Andre Fleury has been solid in net with a .921 save percentage. If the Penguins can keep this up, it would be one of the most staggering turnarounds in league history after losing 60 games last season.

So what’s the reason for all this madness? A little thing called the salary cap, whose instatement last year means there are no longer franchises like the Yankees or Devil Rays in hockey. Instead, every team is on an even playing field with a maximum $44 million salary. So expect a plethora of exciting games and even more unpredictable starts in the coming years.