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NHL Review: Early Lessons Learned as Hockey Returns to the Ice

Alex GruberFeatured ColumnistJanuary 29, 2013

NHL Review: Early Lessons Learned as Hockey Returns to the Ice

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    It's nice to have hockey back, isn't it?

    After an agonizing four-month-long lockout due to the lack of a Collective Bargaining Agreement, the National Hockey League finally dropped the puck on a shortened season this month.

    Every team has played at least four games already, and despite there only being 48 regular season games instead of 82, we're not short on storylines thus far.

    Here's a look at some of the biggest ones.

The Sharks Might Be for Real This Time

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    The San Jose Sharks have been a pretty puzzling franchise in recent years.

    They are always one of the strongest teams in the Western Conference, until the playoffs come and they bow out fairly easily. But perhaps this shortened season is that extra motivation they need to get over the hump.

    The Sharks easily boast the best single attacking line in the league so far.

    Patrick Marleau bagged two goals in four straight games before being held to just one tally in Sunday's win over the Vancouver Canucks. Nine goals in five games? For this 48-game season, that's on pace for 86 goals. Crazy.

    His opposite number on the wing is Joe Pavelski, who has chipped in with a pair of goals and eight assists already. This is just slightly overshadowed by the center Joe Thornton whose 10 assists and three goals have him tied for the NHL points lead with, yep, Marleau. And Pavelski is tied for fourth.

    Additionally, the Sharks have only allowed eight goals through their five games, best in the Western Conference. Thornton, Marleau and defender Marc-Edouard Vlasic sport plus/minus ratios of plus-6 (tied fifth in the NHL), while Douglas Murray is at plus-8 (tied second).

    It's no wonder that they're sporting a 5-0-0 record. They'd be in first if the Chicago Blackhawks weren't 6-0-0. This hot start is no guarantee of playoff success, but it's still pretty encouraging for Sharks fans.

I Might Have Picked the Wrong Florida Team

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    Last week, I wrote on this very website that the Florida Panthers should be considered favorites to repeat as Southeast Division champions. Unfortunately, the Cats have been playing like kittens recently. Their 5-1 romp over the Carolina Hurricanes was followed by four losses by a combined 18-3 margin.

    So for now, sitting atop the Southeast is their in-state rival, the Tampa Bay Lightning. I dismissed the Lightning as contenders, stating their defense would be their undoing.

    And while the Lightning have allowed nearly three goals per game so far, their 24 goals scored are tied for most in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues. And they've distributed the goals well, with four players having bagged three goals thus far.

    Leading the way have been Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos, whose eight and seven assists, respectively, put them with the San Jose top line as the top five point-getters in the league thus far.

    The other three-goal heroes? Tough guy Ryan Malone and blue-liner Eric Brewer.

    That defense has been solid despite their somewhat leaky record; playing up-tempo, attacking hockey can lead to goals allowed. But Brewer's three goals are encouraging, and Sami Salo, signed in the offseason, has five assists and a league-best plus-9 rating.

    In other words, the Lightning deserve to be on top of the Southeast right now.

The Northwest Division Could Be a Coin Toss

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    Last year, the Southeast Division was, on paper, the "weakest" of the six in the NHL. The Panthers' 94 points to win would have put them as the sixth seed were they not division winners. That total was just two more than the eighth seed, the Ottawa Senators.

    If there is a division this season that could turn out similarly, it would have to be the Northwest Division.

    The Minnesota Wild are currently on top with just five points from as many games, tied with Vancouver at that total while also sporting a negative goal differential (more goals allowed than scored).

    In fact, those five points are tied with four other teams in the West, including the aforementioned Vancouver and the current ninth seed, the Detroit Red Wings. Basically, they could go from division winners to out of the playoffs in just one game.

    Vancouver waits in the wings, but the Colorado Avalanche and Edmonton Oilers are both just one point behind the top two, and both boast a game in hand having only played four games instead of five. The Calgary Flames, with three points, also possess that game in hand.

    This division could go down to the wire and could easily be decided by which star player(s), be it Zach Parise in Minnesota, Vancouver's Sedin twins or Edmonton's bevy of young stars, steps up biggest over the next few weeks.

Craig Anderson Could Win the Vezina Trophy

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    We may be in the midst of a lockout-shortened season, but postseason awards will still be up for grabs. And if they were being voted on right now, the Vezina Trophy for best goaltender would have to go to Ottawa's Craig Anderson.

    A journeyman of sorts with solid stops in Florida and Colorado, "Andy" is entering his second season as Ottawa's main man in the crease. And he has certainly not disappointed thus far.

    Anderson has allowed just three goals in his four starts for a 0.74 goals-against average, including just one goal allowed over a home-and-home against former team Florida, with the Senators 3-0-1 in those four games.

    Incidentally, in the one game he didn't start, Ottawa allowed six against Tampa Bay.

    His stat sheet also boasts a league-leading .975 save percentage and one shutout. Anderson may trail former Senators teammate Brian Elliott in the shutout category and two players in the win column, but his continued efforts in keeping opponents off the scoreboard ought to be rewarded.

This Year's Rookie Crop Is Fantastic

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    Remember the first season after the 2004-05 NHL lockout? That season saw the duel between Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin for Calder Trophy honors, which the Russian eventually won.

    That duel has continued to grow since then.

    This time around, the leading man for the best-rookie honors is yet another Russian: Vladimir Tarasenko of the St. Louis Blues. The 21-year-old has already notched four goals and four assists through six games as his squad trails only the undefeated Chicago Blackhawks in the Central Division.

    Tarasenko's instant impact should not be surprising.

    As Bleacher Report's Steve Silverman outlined, his skill set is one that is conducive to a high rate of success. He might be running away with the race thus far, but plenty of players are ready to make a run for him.

    Among those is 2012's top draft pick, Edmonton's Nail Yakupov. The youngster grabbed attention by celebrating a late, late-equalizing goal in an immensely enthusiastic manner, and this unbridled young energy combined with loads of talent should make him fun to watch this season.

    Also among this rookie class is Alex Galchenyuk of the Montreal Canadiens, who has picked up three points in four games, and Florida's Jonathan Huberdeau, who busted down the NHL door with a three-point Opening Day performance.

    This is just a sample of some of the awesome youngsters that will make this NHL season very fun to watch.

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