5 Biggest Surprises so Far This NHL Season

Alex HCorrespondent IMarch 26, 2013

5 Biggest Surprises so Far This NHL Season

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    The beauty of the NHL is that it's incredibly unpredictable.

    Teams that were expected to be contenders falter in the blink of an eye, while others come out of nowhere to take the league by storm.

    Many players either exceed expectations or come nowhere close to meeting them—and it happens every season.

    The 2013 season has had its far share of surprises.

    Here are the five biggest surprises of 2013 so far.

5. Washington, Philadelphia and New York Rangers Fall from Grace

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    The New York Rangers were heavily expected to contend for the Stanley Cup after grabbing the Eastern Conference's top seed last season and acquiring superstar Rick Nash in the offseason.

    The Philadelphia Flyers have made the playoffs 16 out of the past 17 seasons, and after finishing fifth in the East last season, they were expected to remain among the league's elite, considering that their roster didn't undergo many changes in the offseason.

    Despite a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, the Capitals' hiring of Adam Oates as their new head coach was expected to bring back the prolific offense that Washington boasted in previous years, thus bringing them back to the being a powerhouse and true Cup contender.

    So far, all three of these teams are on the outside looking in.

    The Rangers have scored just 73 goals, which is currently last in the NHL. Reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist has a mediocre 13-12-2 record, far from what we usually see in "King Henrik."

    Right now, the Rangers are barely clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, even though they were expected to contend with Pittsburgh for the Atlantic Division crown.

    Philadelphia has scored just 82 goals, which is tied for 13th in the Eastern Conference and is simply unacceptable for a team that's loaded with plenty talent on offense. Ilya Bryzgalov has been putrid, with a 13-13-2 record, .900 save percentage and a 2.75 goals-against average. The fact he was signed to a nine-year, $51 million contract two summers ago makes his play incredibly repugnant.

    The Flyers are five points out of eighth place, and with so much talent and the league's highest payroll, this team is not living up to its high expectations.

    Washington is just two points out of the final playoff spot, but with the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro leading the offense, this team should be leading the weak Southeast Division instead of fighting for the final playoff spot.

    The Capitals have been playing better lately, with three consecutive wins, but a 15-16-1 record is incredibly surprising for a team that's loaded with talent at every position.

    All three of these teams are fighting for their playoff lives, even though they were expected to have little trouble finding a postseason berth. All three teams' playoff hopes are strongly in jeopardy, and they have just over a month to improve their game and earn a trip to the postseason. It would be surprising to see any one of these teams miss out.

4. Anaheim Ducks Return to the Western Conference's Elite

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    The Anaheim Ducks ended the 2011-12 season with 80 points, finishing 13th in the Western Conference.

    That was a huge disappointment considering that Corey Perry led the league in goals with 50 and took home the Hart Memorial Trophy the season before.

    Anaheim didn't make any significant moves during the offseason, so few expected this team to change dramatically—but that's exactly what's occurred

    Viktor Fasth came over from Sweden and is 11-3-1, recording .920 save percentage and 2.27 goals-against average to go along with two shutouts thus far.

    Jonas Hiller has done his fair share as well, going 11-3-3 with a .909 save percentage and 2.49 GAA while recording one shutout.

    While the goaltending tandem has been one of the best so far this season, the offense has scored 104 goals, good enough for third in the NHL.

    Captain Ryan Getzlaf is enjoying a bounce-back season, leading the way with 12 goals and 37 points. Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Saku Koivu, Teemu Selanne and Andrew Cogliano have also been major contributors to this potent offense.

    Anaheim is currently 22-6-4 (48 points), third overall in the league.

    Not bad for a team that was expected to contend for a top-10 pick in this year's entry draft.

3. Montreal Canadiens Leading the Northeast Division

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    Montreal heavily let down its passionate fanbase last season, going 31-35-16 with 78 points, which was last in the Eastern Conference and gave them the third overall pick in the 2012 entry draft.

    After drafting center Alex Galchenyuk, hiring a new GM in Marc Bergevin and bringing back Michel Therrien as their bench boss, many saw this as the start to a rebuilding process.

    That has been anything but, as the Habs are 20-6-5 with 45 points and are currently second overall in the Eastern Conference.

    Montreal's roster did not change significantly over the summer, with Galchenyuk being the lone notable addition, which makes this story so incredible and surprising.

    Goaltender Carey Price is 16-5-4 with a .911 save percentage, 2.32 GAA and two shutouts.

    Although their offense was ranked in the bottom third last season, they are currently ranked fifth with 98 goals scored.

    Only five teams have surrendered less goals than Montreal's 77.

    Montreal is among the best in offense, defense and goaltending despite a horrible finish last season. How this team managed to turn it all around in one year has shocked the entire NHL.

2. Ottawa Senators Lose 3 Key Players, Still in the Hunt for a Playoff Berth

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    Ottawa surprised the league last season after grabbing the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

    While many expected them to make the playoffs this season, few expected it to be higher than the seventh seed.

    After playing just five games, Jason Spezza had to undergo back surgery. It remains to be seen if he will be back on the ice this season.

    Then in February, after playing just 14 games, the team's best player in Erik Karlsson suffered a lacerated Achilles tendon when Penguins forward Matt Cooke stepped on him. Karlsson required surgery and likely won't return this season.

    It got worse. Goaltender Craig Anderson, who at the time led the league with a 1.49 GAA and .952 save percentage (which he still does, but he's only played 14 full games), suffered a sprained right ankle a week later. He hasn't returned since.

    The Senators lost by far their three best players in just under a month, and few expected this team to fight for a playoff spot after that.

    Ottawa is now 18-9-6, fifth in the Eastern Conference. The Sens have surrendered just 72 goals—only Boston and Chicago have surrendered less.

    Defenseman Sergei Gonchar had a 10-game point streak recently snapped, elevating his game in Karlsson's absence.

    Rookie sensations Mika Zibanejad and Jakob Silfverberg have provided much-needed offense for this injury-filled team.

    Ottawa has gone 11-4-4 in Karlsson's absence, nabbing 26 of a possible 38 points.

    Not bad at all.

    Plenty of credit has to go to head coach Paul MacLean, who has kept this team rolling through plenty of adversity.

1. Chicago Blackhawks' Record-Setting Start

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    Despite a shortened season of 48 games, the Chicago Blackhawks have set numerous records.

    They started out the season 6-0-0, which was the best start in franchise history.

    On February 22nd, they set the record for receiving at least one point in 17 straight games to open the season.

    Then on March 5th, they set a franchise record with 10 straight wins.

    They wound up winning 11 straight and recorded points in 24 consecutive games before a 6-2 loss to the Colorado Avalanche on March 8th.

    A 21-0-3 start in the era of the salary cap is absolutely remarkable. The Western Conference is also filled with plenty of talented teams, but Chicago took them down. Chicago has beaten every team in the Conference except Anaheim, who happens to be second in the West.

    Corey Crawford is 13-4-3 with a .922 save percentage, 2.02 GAA and two shutouts. Ray Emery is 11-0-0 with a .916 save percentage and 2.26 GAA. That is one heck of a goaltending tandem if you ask me.

    Patrick Kane scored 23 goals all of last season, but he already has 17 this season. He also leads the Blackhawks with 39 points. Jonathan Toews has 16 goals and 32 points. Marian Hossa has 13 goals and 23 points of his own.

    Chicago has a plus-35 goal differential, which is the best in the league.

    To sum it all up, the Blackhawks have absolutely dominated the Western Conference this season. In an era where you can only have so many star players on your team, this is an unbelievably tremendous feat to accomplish. 

    Chicago currently sits at 24-4-3 with 51 points, currently leading the race for the Presidents' Trophy.

    No matter what the final results are in the standings and the playoffs, there is no denying the fact that this is the biggest surprise of 2013 so far.