As the Pittsburgh Penguins begin the month of December, they can look back on a successful start to the 2013-14 season and the fortunate surprises that helped the team climb to the top of the Metropolitan Division where it sits today.
While every season brings some surprises, this year's Pens have had more than their fair share of unexpected hurdles, as injuries have forced supporting cast members to assume greater roles and a team that previously played a wide-open style of hockey to lead the NHL in goals per game last season (3.38) has had to redefine itself this season.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the five most pleasant surprises for the Pittsburgh Penguins so far.
Having signed a two-year $2.2 million-dollar deal with the Penguins before the 2012-13 season, Tanner Glass was expected to make the Pens a tougher and better penalty-killing team—two areas where they had been lacking in recent years.
Unfortunately, Glass' performance last season was disappointing, as he totaled just one goal, one assist and was a minus-11 during the regular season. He spent a lot of time watching from the press box as a healthy scratch during the postseason.
When the Pens were unable to come to terms with fan favorite Matt Cooke over the offseason, many feared that the Penguins would not be able to make up for the loss of Cooke's tenacity and physicality. Penguins general manager Ray Shero believed that Glass could fill that role.
So far this season, Glass has done just that with two goals and four assists. Despite missing the last four games due to a broken hand, he still ranks second in the NHL in hits with 99.
Glass' presence on the penalty-killing unit has been a big reason behind the Pens' improvement when playing shorthanded, as they have gone from 26th last season to sixth this season.
Although the Pens were in the top half of the league in goals allowed last season, they struggled at times during the postseason. Their inability to clear pucks, block shots and clear traffic in front of the net led to an early exit from the Eastern Conference Finals at the hands of the Boston Bruins.
Enter Jacques Martin who was hired by the Pens over the offseason as an assistant coach in the hopes of making the Pens a more defensively responsible team.
Martin, a Jack Adams Trophy winner as the NHL's Coach of the Year in 1999 with the Ottawa Senators, has a reputation in NHL circles as one of the top defensive strategists in the game. His emphasis on puck possession has fit well with head coach Dan Bylsma's up-tempo system.
The question of whether hiring Martin has been the biggest reason for the Pens' improved defensive play is debatable. What is not debatable is that, despite the loss of backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun and injuries to defensemen Paul Martin, Rob Scuderi and Kris Letang, the Pens are allowing fewer shots and goals per game (25.9 shots/2.29 goals) than last season (29.2 shots/2.48 goals).
Acquired by the Penguins from the Dallas Stars in a trade that brought 40-goal scorer James Neal to Pittsburgh in exchange for Alex Goligoski, Matt Niskanen has seemingly always been an afterthought in the minds of Pens fans.
Having tallied just 35 points over his first two full seasons with the Pens—equal to his output in the 2008-09 season alone—Niskanen had done little to change that perception. Given the Pens' salary cap situation, Niskanen figured to be on the trading block this season.
That was until an injury to Kris Letang gave Niskanen the opportunity to showcase his talents by playing behind the Pens' top lines and he has made the most of it.
Through 28 games, Niskanen has already matched his assists total from last season with 10, ranks second among Pens defensemen in both penalty minutes and shots on goal, and leads the team with a plus-13.
Often paired with Ollie Maatta, Niskanen has become the two-way defenseman that Pens general manager Ray Shero believed he would be when he acquired and signed him to a two-year, $4.6 million contract. As an impending free agent, Niskanen figures to get a sizeable raise if he can maintain the level of play he has shown so far this season.
Although the Penguins won 15 straight games en route to a division title and were the top seed in the Eastern Conference last season, their penalty-killing unit struggled to rank 25th out of 30 teams.
This season, however, the Pens have done a much better job of not only killing off the man advantage, but also in staying out of the penalty box altogether. They have gone from being shorthanded an average of 3.5 times per game last season to 2.9 times a game this season.
Undoubtedly, the reduced workload for the Pens' penalty-killers has led to an improvement in their success rate, which has gone from 79.6 percent of penalties killed last season to 85.2 percent this season for sixth in the league.
Having surrendered only 12 power-play goals this season—just one off the league lead held by the Vancouver Canucks and New Jersey Devils, the Pens have become a much better shorthanded team. Each of the last five Stanley Cup winners ranked among the top 10 in penalty-killing units, so that bodes well for the Penguins' postseason aspirations.
Having invested six first or second-round draft picks on defensemen during the last five NHL drafts, Penguins general manager Ray Shero has been stockpiling highly skilled defensive prospects in the hopes of adding an offensive element to an already physical group.
With this season's emergence of 19-year-old phenom Olli Maatta, that investment has finally paid off.
Taken with the 22nd overall pick in the 2012 draft, Maatta was a relatively unknown prospect prior to his arrival in the OHL after playing just 48 games in his native Finland.
Trained on the larger ice surfaces of Europe, Maatta has used his skating ability and exceptional lateral movement—combined with his 6'2". 206-pound frame and willingness to play a physical game—to make an immediate impact. He led all rookie defensemen in scoring with five goals and 27 assists in the 2011-12 season.
Heading into this season, most analysts believed that Maatta was a year away from making an NHL roster, but a strong training camp convinced the Pens that he was ready. With one goal and four assists while averaging 15:49 of ice time as a rookie with the Penguins, he hasn't given anyone reason to think otherwise.