Surprises? You want to talk surprises? How about the fact the Atlanta Thrashers made it to the holiday break in sixth place in the East, while the vaunted Philadelphia Flyers are buried in 13th – and with a different coach than the one who started the year behind the bench? Or that Phoenix, Nashville and Los Angeles each have a firm hold on a playoff spot in the West, while Vancouver and Detroit – Detroit! – are on the outside looking in?
What’s next, a breakout year from Dustin Penner?
Here are 10 surprises among the NHL’s scoring leaders, defense leaders, goaltenders and rookies:
1. Marian Gaborik: The Rangers sniper is second overall in league scoring (49 points) – and has the most goals in the NHL with 26 in 35 games. Wild, eh?
2. Henrik Sedin: The playmaking Canucks center is right behind Gaborik with 47 points in 37 games, including 16 goals. (His career high in goals is 22, set last season.) Perhaps most impressive is that Henrik continued to produce – and prodigiously – without his life-long linemate, brother Daniel, who missed 18 games to injury in the first half.
3. Tomas Plekanec: Wasn’t Scott Gomez supposed to be Montreal’s No. 1 center? Apparently nobody told Plekanec, who’s sixth overall in league scoring with 43 points in 39 games. And he’s second overall in assists, with 36, behind only San Jose’s Joe Thornton (41). Gomez, meanwhile, has 17 assists and 21 points in 35 games.
4. Brad Richards: Maybe it’s not a surprise, exactly, when a 29-year-old with a 91-point season and a Conn Smythe Trophy to his credit is tied for seventh in league scoring with 42 points in 35 games, but Richards hasn’t surpassed 70 points since the lockout. So the fact he’s on a career-best pace this season speaks to his rededication – or maybe to the more wide-open, free-flowing playing style that Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk and coach Marc Crawford have employed in Dallas.
5. Dustin Penner: He’s slowed down a bit of late – no doubt, losing linemate Ales Hemsky for the remainder of the season to a shoulder injury has contributed to that fact – but Penner is still among the NHL’s top 20 in scoring, with 19 goals and 38 points in 37 games.
6. Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton: Don’t look now, but the Panthers linemates are on pace for nearly 80 points apiece. Can playoff berth be next for the beleaguered Panthers?
7. Stephane Robidas and Marc-Andre Bergeron: If you predicted Dallas’ Robidas and Montreal’s Bergeron would share the goal-scoring lead among defensemen at the holiday break – with nine – you would’ve been laughed out of the room. (Especially since Bergeron didn’t even have a job at the start of the season; the Habs signed him after Andrei Markov went down to injury in Game 1.) But who’s laughing now?
8. Steve Mason: There’s the sophomore jinx – and then there’s whatever is going on with Mason. The Columbus goalie was a rookie revelation last season, claiming the Calder Trophy and even earning a Vezina Trophy nomination, but he – along with most of the rest of the Blue Jackets – is struggling to keep his head above water in 2009-10. Mason is second-last in both save percentage (.887) and goals-against average (3.40) among NHL goalies who have played at least 10 games. Only Toronto’s Vesa Toskala (.869, 3.81) had worse stats.
9. Ilya Bryzgalov: The secret is out on the Phoenix goalie, but the fact he made it to the holiday break among the NHL’s top five in wins (21; tied for third), goals-against average (2.02; third) and save percentage (.926; fifth) is nothing short of a Festivus miracle.
10. Dan Sexton: It’s been an up-and-down season in Anaheim – mostly down – but the turmoil opened a window of opportunity for (supposedly) 5-foot-10, 170-pound rookie winger Dan Sexton and the lucky Duck has taken full advantage. After starting the season with the Bakersfield Condors (13 goals, 26 points in 18 games) in the ECHL, the undrafted Sexton was called up to the American League’s Manitoba Moose and promptly supplied a goal and three points in five games. So the Ducks, hamstrung by injuries and desperate for good news, promoted Sexton to the big-time – and the little guy has responded with five goals and eight points in his first 10 games.
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