NHL's Best Performances of the First Quarter of the Season
We're deep into the 2011-12 NHL season and things couldn't be better.
There's exciting teams rising in popularity, new players sitting atop the leaderboards and endless speculation as we head toward the second half of the season.
There is the HBO 24/7 Winter Classic special, and ever-changing All-Star voting leaders.
There are emerging stars and team goats.
There is love. For a game that never seems to disappoint.
At this point I've compiled a list of best performances of the season so far, and due to the wide range of types I have put this together in no particular order.
There are players, teams, coaches, execs and everything in between. All of them have contributed to some great hockey and an amazing NHL season.
Let's see who's doing it right.
Toronto's Dynamic Duo: Phill Kessel and Joffrey Lupul
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The Toronto forwards have immensely stepped up their collective level of play this season and so far have put up 70 points (Kessel 36, Lupul 34) towards the Leafs resurgence effort.
Whether this high-octane offense is something that Toronto fans have come to expect and have been missing or whether it is a pleasant surprise, it's hard to argue with how these two players are producing.
Toronto currently sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference, in large part due to Kessel and Lupul's offensive firepower.
Minnesota Wild (as a Whole)
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I'm not sure anyone could have predicted that the Minnesota Wild would be sitting in first place in the NHL (!!) after 32 games.
The team seems to simply be on fire considering their success cannot be explained by offensive dominance (highest point scorer is Mikko Koivu at 26th in the league), or outstanding goaltending (Nicklas Backstrom is 15th in wins).
The Wild are simply winning games. One way or another.
Being as it is mid-December, this Wild team is already past the "hot start" days and is really deserving of being taken seriously.
Paul Holmgren, Philadelphia Flyers GM
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Largely criticized for his (at the time) crazy offseason moves, Holmgren's revamping of the Flyers seems to have paid off.
The team is in first place in the Eastern Conference, goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov is 14-5-2 as a starter and the offense is clicking in every way.
Philly has been a solid team in the past few years, so mixing things up the way Holmgren did was seen as wild, but if their play continues he will look like a genius come April.
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
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Speaking of Philly's offense, Giroux has really broken out this year and is doing everything right on the ice.
He leads the league in points and has five game-winning goals.
Philly caught a really tough break when Giroux went down with a concussion this week but hopefully he will bounce back soon and continue leading this team.
Were it not for this injury, Giroux could finish with an amazing career year.
Tim Thomas, Boston Bruins
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Sure, the Bruins are a great team. They just won the Stanley Cup and haven't changed much since.
Their core, however, is between the pipes in the form of star goalie Tim Thomas.
Thomas is undoubtedly the Bruins MVP, and when he puts up 47-save performances (a career high against Ottawa on Wednesday night) he proves his worth to this club.
It's very possible that Boston will make another deep playoff run and Thomas will be the reason that they do.
The Chicago Core: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp
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After Chicago won the Stanley Cup in 2010, their team got poached as they couldn't keep their free agents within the salary cap. Their core remained and is leading them back to the top of the standings.
The four forwards have amassed 129 points between them and are taking the league by storm.
If they keep this play up, many Chicagoans will be planning a second parade in three years.
Dale Tallon, Florida Panthers GM
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Florida is one of two teams to not make the playoffs since the lockout and it appears as though GM Dale Tallon had enough of that.
He completely overhauled the team in the offseason, and the Panthers are making it worth it with their new linemates. The team currently sits in third in the Eastern Conference, leading the southeast division.
Not many people expected Tallon's moves to pay off, but he is looking to be quite the guru right about now. The Panthers have three players in the top 20 in scoring and have won 10 games on the road.
This team is for real.
Lindy Ruff, Coach of the Buffalo Sabres
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The Sabres are a team that you could always be sure will make the playoffs. They're not the best, but they're definitely up there.
This season, Buffalo has been bitten by the injury bug more than anyone could have imagined. With 11 players currently on the injured list, Coach Ruff has had his hands full.
Amazingly, despite the injuries, the Sabres have stayed afloat and are still very much in a playoff spot. If this team goes anywhere, they owe it to their shrewd coach, who has done all he can to make sure his team is still winning games.
Milan Michalek, Ottawa Senators
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The left winger on the Senators is taking the league by storm with his NHL-leading 19 goals. He really has emerged as a solid player this season after years of decent, maybe above-average play.
Michalek already has more goals than he did all of last year and is only seven away from a new career high.
The Senators dropped after their hot start, but if they go anywhere this year in their rebuilding effort, they will need to give thanks to their Czech winger, who has scored almost at will this season.
Brian Elliott, Goalie for St. Louis Blues
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Last year, the Blues finished in 11th in the West, 10 points out of a playoff spot.
Today, they sit in sixth, only five points away from the division lead. For that they have Brian Elliott to thank.
The goalie may only be ranked 10th in wins, but he is first in goals-against average (1.45), first in save percentage (.947) and tied in first for shutouts (4).
Elliott is making the Blues relevant and since he does only have 10 wins, it seems like this isn't a fluke streak and he is really on his game.
After the Cardinals won the World Series, Blues fans should be cheering on Elliott's play if they want some more playoff excitement in the city.