NHL 2011-2012: The Keys to Success for 4 Upstart Contenders This Season

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NHL 2011-2012: The Keys to Success for 4 Upstart Contenders This Season
Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

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 A few unanticipated changes have been made to the league's caste system, leaving the predictions of experts a little outdated.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.

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