10 NHL Teams Riding Hot Starts in the 2012-2013 Season
It is less than two full weeks into the 48-game NHL season, and it feels like the Stanley Cup playoffs have already started.
Points for all 30 NHL teams are at a premium, as team's schedules are loaded with showdowns against divisional and conference opponents.
Players and coaches are well aware that any one- or two-week stretch can make or break a team's season. There is a high level of urgency and desperation across the league, and tension between teams has already heated up.
The early stages of the regular season have featured dominant play by a few of the NHL's heavyweights, sloppy play by others and a handful of early surprises and disappointments. With that in mind, let's zone in on 10 teams who have gotten off to a fast start so far this season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
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Expect the Tampa Bay Lightning to be in it for the long haul this season. The Lightning are 4-1-0 and lead the Eastern Conference with a plus-11 goal differential.
After missing a trip to the Stanley Cup Final by one game in the 2010-2011 season, the Lightning missed last year's playoffs. Early signs through five games this season are that they do not intend for that to happen again.
The Lightning have scored at least three goals in all of their games and have 24 goals this season. The next highest goal total of any team in the Eastern Conference is 18 by the New York Islanders.
Steven Stamkos and Martin St. Louis are already in midseason form and have combined for six goals and 15 assists.
Tampa Bay also has a strong blue line, rounded out by Victor Hedman, Matt Carle, Eric Brewer and the newly acquired Sami Salo.
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After getting knocked out in the first round of last year's playoffs by the Washington Capitals, the Boston Bruins have been playing with some extra venom so far this season.
The Bruins opened up last season with a disappointing 3-7 record, and it seems they have learned from their mistake. Boston currently sits on top of the Eastern Conference with a 4-0-1 record.
Tuukka Rask has been solid so far as Tim Thomas' replacement in net, and 19-year-old defenseman Dougie Hamilton has shown flashes of brilliance playing alongside Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg.
Boston's biggest strength is its depth and versatility. All four lines are capable of producing for coach Claude Julien on any given night. The Bruins can play an up-tempo game or a physical and defensive style. If they can solve their power-play woes, they will be a scary team to face going forward.
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If you are a Montreal Canadiens fan, it is good to have Andrei Markov back.
Markov has returned to strong form this season after battling knee injuries, as he leads all Canadiens skaters with over 25:00 of ice time per game. Markov also leads the team with four goals, including an overtime game-winner against the New Jersey Devils last Saturday.
Markov's return has been a key contributor to the stellar play of Montreal's defense, which ranks second in the NHL, allowing just 1.8 goals per game.
Elsewhere, Carey Price has looked excellent between the pipes, with a goals-against average of 1.73. Montreal has also re-signed defenseman P.K. Subban to a two-year deal, according to a report from ESPN.
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Although Ottawa lost 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in a shootout on Sunday, the Senators have been one of the early surprises in this young NHL season, posting a 3-1-1 record.
Ottawa currently ranks in the NHL's top 10 in goals per game, goals against, power play and penalty kill.
Goaltender Craig Anderson has been on a Vezina Trophy pace so far, with a 3-0-1 record, 0.74 goals against and .975 save percentage.
Ottawa has also received excellent production from reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, with five points in five games, and top-line forwards Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek.
Expect the Senators to challenge the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens in a crowded Northeast Division.
New Jersey Devils
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Should we really be surprised that New Jersey is on this list?
After losing to the Los Angeles Kings in the Stanley Cup Final and then losing Zach Parise and Petr Sykora in the offseason, many considered the Devils an afterthought in the challenging Atlantic Division.
However, the Devils have jumped out to a 3-0-1 start and are still led by the ageless Martin Brodeur in net. Brodeur has led New Jersey to five Stanley Cup appearances in his career. This season, he already has one shutout and a goals against of 1.69.
Offensively, the Devils will have to rely heavily on Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson if they hope to make another deep postseason run.
We will get a better idea of how good the Devils are on Tuesday night, when they will visit the Boston Bruins.
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The Blackhawks were one of the favorites to win the Western Conference before the season began, and so far they have lived up to the hype.
So far this season, Chicago closely resembles the 2009-2010 squad that won the Stanley Cup. They own an NHL-best 6-0-0 record and also lead the league with 12 points.
Up front, the Blackhawks' firepower is outstanding, with names such as Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp and a rejuvenated Marian Hossa. Kane and Hossa have combined for 17 points through six games.
The real surprise for the Blackhawks has been the emergence of starting goaltender Corey Crawford. Crawford has been stellar thus far, posting a 5-0-0 record, 1.78 goals against and a .933 save percentage. If Crawford can maintain his level of play, the Blackhawks will be a very tough opponent in the playoffs with the offensive weapons they possess.
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The Ducks have been a pleasant surprise to start the 2012-2013 season, compiling a 3-1-0 record.
After missing the playoffs in the 2011-2012 season, Anaheim hopes to return to the playoffs for the sixth time in the past eight seasons.
In terms of sheer talent, Anaheim has one of the best offensive rosters in the NHL. Saku Koivu, Daniel Winnik, Teemu Selanne, Ryan Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry are all proven goal scorers.
For the Ducks to improve on their early-season form, they need to improve their 30th-ranked penalty kill and receive better production from Jonas Hiller in net. In three games, Hiller has given up 12 goals and has a save percentage of just .864.
Anaheim has a tough four-game stretch ahead of them, as they play the San Jose Sharks twice and host the Minnesota Wild and Los Angeles Kings.
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Edmonton is another surprise on the list, but give the Oilers credit. They won their season opener 3-2 in a shootout at Vancouver and also defeated the Los Angeles Kings 2-1 in a thrilling overtime battle.
The Oilers' special teams have been the key to their hot start this season. Edmonton has the second-ranked power play in the NHL at 35.7 percent and the eighth-ranked penalty kill.
Edmonton has not qualified for the playoffs since the 2005-2006 season, when they reached the Stanley Cup Final, but they have a bright future with rising stars like Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.
For the Oilers to continue their hot start, they will need better production from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk. In five games, Dubnyk has a 3.18 goals-against average.
St. Louis Blues
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After being swept in the Western Conference semifinals by the Los Angeles Kings in last season's playoffs, it appears St. Louis has found that extra gear to make a run at a Stanley Cup. The Blues delivered a huge statement to the rest of the NHL in their season opener by steamrolling the Detroit Red Wings 6-0.
St. Louis currently sits in fourth in the Western Conference with a 5-1-0 record and will be battling with Chicago all season to win the Central Division.
The Blues are tied with the Lightning for the most goals scored in the NHL at 24 and have held their opponents below 30 shots in every game this season.
St. Louis has excellent offensive and defensive depth and balance. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo anchor the blue line, while netminder Jaroslav Halak has already posted two shutouts.
Offensively, St. Louis can score with all four lines. Last season, nine different Blues skaters had at least 10 goals, and 12 Blues skaters recorded at least 20 points. Expect the same balance from St. Louis this season, with the emergence of Vladimir Tarasenko as a go-to scorer.
San Jose Sharks
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Maybe this is the year that the San Jose Sharks will finally break through in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It appeared prior to the start of the season that San Jose's Stanley Cup aspirations had passed them by, but the Sharks clearly have other ideas if their first five games are any indication.
Patrick Marleau has been white hot to start the year, scoring two goals in each of San Jose's first four games and recording at least two points in all five games. Marleau, Joe Thornton, Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have led San Jose to the league's top-ranked power play and have combined for a blistering 44 points.
San Jose leads the NHL in goal differential at plus-15. The Sharks rank behind the Lightning and Blues with 23 goals scored and have allowed just eight goals.
Goaltender Antti Niemi was a critical component in the Blackhawks' Stanley Cup run in the 2009-2010 season, and if he can duplicate that performance again, San Jose will be one of the favorites to win it all.