After the opening months of every NHL season, the pecking order among teams is never quite the way it was expected to be. Past dynasties fall off the map, while upstart contenders replace them at the top. The hockey world takes a little while to re-adjust, and then the season grinds along like usual as crunch time approaches.
The 2011-2012 season has been no different. A few unanticipated changes have been made to the league's caste system, leaving the predictions of experts a little outdated. But soon, these surprising playoff challengers will have established an identity in their conference's top eight, and the NHL will get back to its normal business.
Two stylistically opposite clubs highlight the list of surprises so far—the Minnesota Wild and Florida Panthers. However, one thing does tie them together: neither one has made the postseason in quite a long time.
In fact, their rises within the standings have been phenomenal, as the Wild have moved up a remarkable 12 spots from last year while the Panthers have improved a whopping 14 spots. They're not alone in the group of upstart contenders this autumn, though. A couple other long-suffering franchises in Toronto and Dallas are also finally starting off a season on the right note.
The Maple Leafs were the hottest team around back in October, and despite their pace settling down this month, they've remained a solid above-the-bubble club. Mimicking their trend has been the Stars, who seem to have, at last, returned to their playing caliber of a decade ago.
How have these up-and-comers improved so greatly over their poor efforts from years past? Let's have a look.
Statistically, the 13-8-0 Dallas Stars look like a team undeserving of their well-above-.500 record and a win total tied for most in the league.
Their goals-per-game average, 2.57, is overshadowed by their 2.71 goals-against average; their average shots for and against (27.9 and 32.9, respectively) are the same. Both the power-play and penalty-kill units are mediocre—the PP ranks 18th and the PK stands at 16th. Even their faceoff winning percentage is below average.
But the Stars are just one point out of the Pacific Division lead because they know how to win consistently despite lacking an outstanding category.
They've taken down a plethora of quality teams—Chicago, Los Angeles, Phoenix, St. Louis—by scrapping out a tight victory. In fact, the Stars lead the NHL with a 7-1 record in games decided by one goal and are an undefeated 4-0 record in games tied after regulation. And behind a lot of that success is savior netminder Kari Lehtonen, with a 13-4 record and .928 save percentage on the year.
The schedule is going to get harder as winter takes hold, though, so Dallas must continue its clutch resilience against tougher opponents if it wants to keep pace against the best of the conference.
Losing Brent Burns hasn't hurt the Minnesota defense much.
Even without him leading the blue line, the Wild's dominant D has shut down their foes time and time again in this young season. Their incredible 1.95 goals-against average leads the league by a long shot, an intimidating statistic created largely by their defense's shot-blocking and hitting prowess (ranked fifth in both categories).
Minnesota's shutdown back end has proved unbreakable to even the best offenses in the NHL. It has registered three shutouts already and has held high-flying attacks from Vancouver and Detroit to just two goals in three games combined. And with an ongoing five-game winning streak and 9-2 mark in November, that success is unlikely to end soon.
Headlining the defensive unit are a trio of up-and-comers in 21-year-old Jared Spurgeon (six points, plus-three), 23-year-old Justin Falk (plus-four) and 26-year-old Clayton Stoner (plus-six).
Franchise goaltender Niklas Backstrom and young backup Josh Harding have helped the cause, too, with jaw-dropping save percentages of .935 and .942, respectively.
When all of their impeccability is combined, the NHL's best defense is created, and it's transformed the Wild into serious playoff contenders. But one question remains will their offense be able to deliver at the same level when called upon?
No top line in all of North America has been as inexorable as Toronto's trio of first-line forwards, who have caught fire like pine straw by a campfire and have failed to slow down for an instant.
NHL scoring leader Phil Kessel has been merely the brightest spot of his line along with center Tyler Bozak and left winger Joffrey Lupul. The three forwards have combined for 31 goals, 39 assists and a plus-17 rating this season, a 3.18 points-per-game pace that stands unrivaled even among the best offenses.
The 16 goals and 14 helpers alongside Kessel's name are clearly at the top; however, Lupul has taken over the role of primary playmaker with his 15 assists (in addition to 11 scores) while Bozak has taken long strides toward becoming Toronto's long-awaited savior centerman with his four strikes and 10 helpers.
That trio has been on the ice almost twice as much as any other specific three-man line over the Leafs' last 10 games, and they've earned it.
Kessel, Lupul and Bozak have launched Toronto into fifth place in scoring with 3.09 GPG average—a more-than-noteworthy improvement over their averages of 2.60 and 2.56 over the last two years. Furthermore, nine contests with four-plus goals, including two seven-score outbursts in the past week, exemplify the undeniable explosiveness of this Leafs offense.
Instability and injury loom at the goaltending position, conversely, leaving Kessel & Co. even more critical to victory as Toronto encounters some big-time shootouts down the stretch.
Florida Panthers new head coach Kevin Dineen said this about his team in an interview with the Miami Sun-Sentinel on Thanksgiving Thursday: "We've really got a really positive jump out of the new personnel we've brought in here, and the team has found a pretty good cohesiveness."
In other words, the Panthers, with their new coach, new GM, new goaltender and nine new forwards, are poised to not only make their first postseason berth in 11 seasons this year, but to seriously challenge for a conference title.
Florida's success this autumn can be attributed to every facet of the club. At last, after a decade of roller-coaster rides, chemistry-lacking lines and shaky support from both the fanbase and front office, it's all come together for the Cats.
The combination of a fiery offense, unyielding defense and shockingly stable goaltending duo has, amazingly, situated the Panthers just two points from the league's best record.
The top line of franchise veteran Stephen Weiss with new teammates Kris Versteeg and Tomas Fleischmann has been simply incredible.
All three have over 20 points on the year—Weiss with eight goals and 21 points, Fleischmann with nine goals and 22 points, and Versteeg with 12 goals and 26 points—vaulting all three into the top 20 scorers in the NHL to date. Combined, this three-headed monster has also totaled nine power-play goals, five game-winners, an 18.6 shooting percentage and an astonishing plus-43 rating.
But that first line hasn't been the only key unit keeping the Panthers thriving.
The fourth-, fifth- and sixth-ranking scorers on the team stat chart are all defensemen—Brian Campbell, Dmitry Kulikov and Jason Garrison (with four man-advantage goals to his name). Mike Weaver and Ed Jovanovski haven't missed any beats, either.
And, stunningly, even new goalie Jose Theodore has been far from the trainwreck starter he was anticipated to be. Theodore has actually managed a 9-4-2 record due to his quite respectable .921 save percentage; youngster Jacob Markstrom (.944 save percentage in five appearances) has been excellent as well.
With all of these pieces in place, Florida has developed a chemistry unknown to his team for many seasons, and used it to do what a winning team does—get a lead and keep it. They're 8-1-1 when scoring first and 7-0-1 when leading at the second intermission.
It's hard to say "we told you so," but it's true—check out this article from back on July 31st. But perhaps it's still a little too early to be bragging. There's a nice, long three-quarters of the '11-'12 season remaining, and who knows if Florida can truly keep all of their cylinders running this smoothly for another five months.
So let's ask you, readers; can they?
Mark Jones is currently Bleacher Report's featured columnist and community leader for the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes. In his 38 months so far with the site, he has written over 320 articles and received more than 375,000 total reads.