Biggest Surprises at the Halfway Point of the NHL Season

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMarch 11, 2013

Biggest Surprises at the Halfway Point of the NHL Season

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    The first half of the 48-game regular season has been a positive one for the NHL.

    Coming after the misery of the four-month lockout that threatened to cancel the entire year, the NHL has seen a number of surprising performances by teams and individuals that are worthy of headlines and attention.

    For the purpose of this story, we are looking at positive developments and unexpected achievements. We are not looking at major disappointments—even though they can also be surprises. That's a different story.

    Uplifting performances breathe life into franchises and players, and here are the surprises that have gotten our attention through the first half of the year.

Montreal Canadiens' Rebirth

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    The Montreal Canadiens were dead-last in the Eastern Conference in 2011-12.

    While there was some talent on the roster and there was a thought that they could at least contend for a playoff spot this season, most people thought the Canadiens would have to go through some serious rebuilding before they would become a good team again.

    However, the Canadiens had management problems and ownership brought in general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Michel Therrien to turn things around.

    By adding some grit and toughness and giving the Canadiens a sharp, defensive-oriented game plan, the Canadiens have moved to the top of the Eastern Conference standings.

    More than just a system and attitude, the Canadiens have quickness and speed by the boatload. Tomas Plekanec, Max Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Brian Gionta give the Canadiens the ability to strike suddenly. Michael Ryder, back for his second stint with the team, has a sniper's ability to score huge goals.

    Carey Price has had some inconsistent moments, but he is capable of shutting the door when the Canadiens need him most.

    Look for the Canadiens to remain a serious contender throughout the season

Anaheim Ducks Surge

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    While the Canadiens have pulled a remarkable turnaround in the East, the Anaheim Ducks are doing the same thing in the Western Conference.

    The Ducks have been an unstoppable force this season, rolling to an 18-3-3 record that would have them on top if it weren't for the record-setting Chicago Blackhawks.

    The Ducks have used their size and strength to pound opponents, although they have plenty of scoring and skilled players in Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Bobby Ryan along with golden veterans Teemu Selanne and Saku Koivu.

    Head coach Bruce Boudreau has always been a colorful leader, but this year he has shown he knows how to get the most out of his players on a consistent basis.

Chris Kunitz Becomes a Star

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    Chris Kunitz has been a dependable player for the Ducks and the Pittsburgh Penguins throughout his career.

    A hard checker, a solid defensive player and a decent goal scorer who could make plays at key moments.

    However, Kunitz has morphed into a star in 2013. Kunitz is the third-leading scorer in the league behind teammate Sidney Crosby and Tampa Bay Lightning superstar Steven Stamkos with 36 points.

    Kunitz is also the leading plus-minus player in the NHL with a plus-21 rating.

    Kunitz has the benefit of playing on an explosive team and opponents can't concentrate on stopping him. Kunitz has taken advantage of that and become one of the most valuable players in the league.

Alex Semin, Competitor

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    This may be the most shocking development in the league this year.

    Alex Semin has always had the talent to blow his slap shot by opposing goalies and score key goals. However, when it came to consistency and playing on the defensive end of the ice, Semin was not known for his effort.

    Perhaps he got the message during the offseason when he signed a one-year deal with the Carolina Hurricanes. There were no multi-year offers, and if he didn't show more of a complete game this year, he might run out of opportunities.

    Through the first half of the season, Semin has not taken any shortcuts. He has been a major factor as the Hurricanes have risen to first place in the Southeast Division. Semin has seven goals and an eye-opening 19 assists for 26 points.

    Semin has regularly looked for his own scoring opportunities, but this season he is setting up his teammates in an impressive manner. Semin is also a shocking plus-18 and should have an excellent chance to sign the multi-year contract that was not offered to him last year.

Toronto Maple Leafs Are Road Warriors

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    The drought has been interminable.

    The Toronto Maple Leafs have endured two miserable and painful lockouts since they last gained entry to the Stanley Cup playoffs in 2004.

    They had a solid first two-thirds of the season in 2011-12 before the bottom fell out and they were outsiders once again.

    Brian Burke is gone and so is head coach Ron Wilson, who was fired while the team sunk like a stone last year.

    The start of the season has seen the Maple Leafs play with more determination, effort and skill. They punish opponents and the standings show they are solidly in playoff contention as of March 11. They are fifth in the Eastern Conference with a 15-10-1 record.

    Head coach Randy Carlyle's team has been especially solid on the road, compiling a 9-5-0 record in opposing arenas.

    The Leafs have gotten solid play from James van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri and Phil Kessel along with better-than-expected goaltending.

    They have much to prove in the second half of the year, but they have been a first-half surprise.

Viktor Fasth's Goaltending Heroics

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    The Ducks knew they had a talented goalie in their minor league system in Swedish goalie Viktor Fasth.

    However, they had no idea he was ready to dominate when he was called up to the NHL in January after a brief stay with the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League.

    Fasth has been sensational for the Ducks, compiling a 10-1-1 record with 1.92 goals against average and a .929 save percentage.

    Fasth has shown exceptional quickness and the ability to string acrobatic saves together in order to keep the puck out of the net. If the Ducks can maintain their lofty position in the Western Conference, much of that will be due to Fasth's outstanding play.

Record-Setting Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks have shown themselves to be the best team in hockey by a wide margin during the first half of the season.

    The second half has not gotten off to a good start with two losses, but it's understandable. Chicago had a record 24-game streak without a regulation loss in the first half of the year.

    The Blackhawks have used speed, puck possession, timely scoring and sensational goaltending to dominate the NHL.

    It's the same formula they used in the 2010 playoffs when they won the Stanley Cup. Joel Quenneville has harnessed his team's talents once again and has gotten a sensational effort.

    Jonathan Toews is one of the most complete players in the league and he is the team's leader. Patrick Kane has played the best hockey of his career over the first half of the season and Marian Hossa is nearly unstoppable in clutch situations.

    Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have backstopped the team in sensational form. Look for them to shake off back-to-back losses and return to form shortly.

High-Scoring Nazem Kadri

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    Hockey fans had been waiting for Nazem Kadri to become an NHL contributor since he was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs with the seventh pick in the first round in 2009.

    Kadri had played with the Leafs each of the past three seasons, but the team had never had enough confidence in him to give him a long-term opportunity.

    That has changed this year and Kadri has put his remarkable skills on display.

    Kadri has 11 goals and 14 assists to lead the Leafs with 25 points. He is also an eye-opening plus-14, showing he is not a defensive liability.

    Kadri has scored four power-play goals for the Leafs and is connecting on 20.4 percent of his shots.