Viktor Fasth, Montreal Canadiens and the Biggest Surprises of the NHL Season

Mark Jones@@CanesReportSenior Analyst IFebruary 8, 2013

Viktor Fasth, Montreal Canadiens and the Biggest Surprises of the NHL Season

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    The opening weeks of the 2013 NHL season have offered a little bit of everything—last-second scrambles, historical routs, inspirational stories, vicious fights.

    And, as always, plenty of surprises.

    Who would've imagined that the Anaheim Ducks would lead the Pacific Division? Who would've imagined that Tom Sestito would have more goals than Phil Kessel, Corey Perry and Tyler Seguin? Who would've imagined that Tim Thomas would (most likely) end his career as an Islander?

    As the three-week milestone for the ongoing season approaches, we point out some of the most bizarre surprises of the NHL's first 152 games of the season.

Rookies on Fire

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    Two completely different rookies—one a 23-year-old Ontario native never drafted into the league, the other a 21-year-old Russian less than three years removed from the 16th overall pick—have taken the league absolutely by storm.

    Cory Conacher of Tampa Bay and Vladamir Tarasenko of St. Louis lead the league's rookies with 12 and 10 points, respectively, in 10 games each. Conacher has five goals and seven assists for the Southeast Division-leading Lightning; Tarasenko has five goals (including this goal-of-the-year candidate) and five helpers for the Blues.

    They're on pace to score a combined 106 points over the 48-game season and, hypothetically, 180 over an 82-game season. By comparison, last year's top two rookies combined for just 104 points.

    Conacher and Tarasenko have also significantly outshone Edmonton's duo of much-hyped rookies—Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov—who have just 14 points and a minus-five rating combined.

Washington Capitals in Last Place

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    It's been a rough year for the Washington Capitals.

    Hall of Fame player Adam Oates has struggled to get settled behind the bench, the offseason losses of Tomas Vokoun and Alexander Semin have proven costly and Alexander Ovechkin has been nearly invisible.

    The Capitals' 2-8-1 record ranks dead last in the NHL, along with their minus-16 goal differential. They didn't get a win until their fifth game and have still won just two of 11 matches—despite playing only three contests against top-five seeds from last season.

    Young goaltenders Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby haven't helped the cause, either, with save percentages of .889 and .857 through seven and four starts, respectively.

    Meanwhile, Ovechkin has just three goals, seven points,12 PIM and a minus-five rating through 10 games.

Chicago Blackhawks Unstoppable

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    Many expected the Chicago Blackhawks to be top contenders for the Stanley Cup in 2013, but few predicted the 'Hawks would fly out of the gate like this.

    Chicago has picked up a point in all 10 games so far, going 8-0-2, despite having played only twice so far at the United Center.

    A 5-3 win Tuesday over the Sharks in San Jose was undoubtedly their most impressive accomplishment so far, as the Blackhawks rallied from an early 2-0 deficit to hand San Jose only its second regulation loss.

    The Blackhawks' "big four"—forwards Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp—have a combined 21 goals, 51 points and plus-20 rating so far.

Viktor Fasth Leading Ducks

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    Victor Fasth? The NHL's No. 1 goaltender in save percentage and goals-against average?

    Who made that typo?!

    Wednesday night, Fasth, an undrafted 30-year-old netminder making his NHL debut after bouncing around Swedish leagues for years, became the first Ducks goalie ever to start his career 4-0. He fittingly did it with a 31-save win over Colorado—his first career shutout.

    That victory came after 21-, 27- and 26-save wins over Nashville, Minnesota and San Jose, respectively. Fasth has stopped 101 of 105 shots for a .962 save percentage, tops in the league, including saving 15-of-15 on the penalty kill.

    It's a surreal run for the 6'0", 186-pound goaltender. He could go anywhere from here.

Defending Champs Slumping

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    After the Los Angeles Kings won just 40 of 82 games last regular season, but then 16 of 20 in their Stanley Cup-winning playoff campaign, many questioned which version of the team would show up for the start of this year.

    So far, it seems to be the former.

    The Kings were crushed by Chicago 5-2 on banner-raising night and have won only three of nine matches through Thursday.

    Their 2.11 goals-per-game average ranks 25th in the league. No Kings player has more than five points, captain Dustin Brown is a minus-six in nine appearances, and Conn Smythe-winning goaltender Jonathan Quick has a save percentage of .889 on 199 shots.

    To call it a Stanley Cup hangover would be quite an understatement.

Kessel, Weber Hit the Skids

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    Thursday night was a breakthrough for a couple of beleaguered NHL stars. Toronto's Phil Kessel scored his first goal of the year in a win over Winnipeg, while Nashville captain Shea Weber recorded his first point in a defeat of the L.A. Kings.

    Kessel had zero scores on 42 shots prior to his one-goal, four-shot effort in Manitoba. Weber, in the first season of a new 10-year, $110 million contract, had racked up nine consecutive goose eggs before notching a secondary assist in the Preds' first home win.

    They're not alone on the list of underperforming stars around the league. Forwards Michael Cammalleri, Drew Stafford, Jussi Jokinen and Ryan Clowe, among many others, have still yet to light the lamp. Defensemen Ryan Suter, Drew Doughty and Tyler Myers are all minus-seven or worse on the year.

Montreal Canadiens Shocking NHL

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    Few expected the "rebuilding" Montreal Canadiens, coming off last year's disastrous last-place finish, to get back into the top-eight picture this quickly.

    However, led by the resurgences of goaltender Carey Price, centers Tomas Plekanec and Alex Galchenyuk and defensemen Andrei Markov and Raphael Diaz, the Habs are sixth in the Eastern Conference with a 6-3-1 record.

    Markov, who played a mere 20 games in 2010-11 and 2011-12 combined, is tied with Plekanec for the team lead in scoring, with 10 points in 10 appearances. Galchenyuk, the rookie, has seven points and a plus-six rating so far. In goal, Price is 6-2-0 with a stunning 1.74 GAA.

    The Canadiens and Leafs will renew their heated rivalry Saturday in a battle of two surprising above-.500 teams.

NHL Attendance Skyrocketing

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    Despite all the fears of a post-lockout hockey apocalypse, the three weeks since hockey's return have shown nothing but a strong resilience in the NHL's fanbase.

    The per-game attendance average has increased, so far, from 17,455 in 2011-12 to 17,720 this winter.

    Six teams—Anaheim, Carolina, Dallas, Florida, New Jersey and Tampa Bay—have all had attendance increases of at least 800 per game. The Stars have been the big winners, with an increase of a whopping 3,682 through four home games.

    Gary Bettman and Donald Fehr may have flirted with corrupting it, but the loyalty of hockey's diehard followers has shone through brightly so far.