Entering the 2018-19 NHL season, the Tampa Bay Lightning would have been at the top of most lists to top the standings – and, sure enough, the Bolts are riding high as the best team in the league as the schedule enters the final quarter.
The same can be said of contenders such as the Nashville Predators, San Jose Sharks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Washington Capitals and Winnipeg Jets. Those clubs are faring about as well as most people would've expected.
So, as the NHL regular season hits the homestretch, which teams rate as the most pleasant surprises? Here’s a look at five teams that have surpassed expectations:
1. NEW YORK ISLANDERS: This one’s easy, even if they are coming off losses in Calgary and Edmonton. Based on goals-against average, the Isles were the worst defensive team in the NHL last season. This season they’re the best. The Islanders missed the playoffs for the second straight year last season, then lost superstar captain John Tavares for nothing in unrestricted free agency. Yet, they’re sitting in first place in the Metropolitan Division and vying for a top-five spot in the overall league standings. Barry Trotz should win the Jack Adams Award by as a big a margin as Vegas coach Gerard Gallant won it last year. And Mitch Korn, Trotz’s longtime goalie coach from Nashville to Washington to New York, should get, oh, I dunno, at least a plaque or something for turning Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss into Vezina Trophy candidates. Are the Islanders for real? Can they win in the playoffs? Time will tell, but they were asking the same questions of Trotz’s team last season, too, and that ended up working out pretty well.
2. MONTREAL CANADIENS: The knives were out for Habs GM Marc Bergevin. Montreal missed the playoffs last year and were predicted to suffer the same fate this season. Their forwards were too small. Their blueline was subpar, especially when Shea Weber was sidelined with injury, which was becoming an all-too-frequent occurrence. Worst of all, Carey Price had lost his world-beating mojo, just as his eight-year, $84-million contract was kicking in. Panic! At the Montreal discotheque! Except…the l’il forwards are scoring just fine. The defense has held up, with and without Weber. Best of all, Price has rediscovered his form as the season unfolded. Add it all up, and the Canadiens are holding down a wild-card spot in the East, with an eye on moving up in the Atlantic Division if the Toronto Maple Leafs continue to stumble. Somewhere, Bergevin is smiling. Then again, he often is. The guy’s a bit of a kidder, don’t you know.
3. CALGARY FLAMES: Last year’s bitter disappointment is this year’s sweet redemption. Like the Isles and Habs, the Flames missed the playoffs last season. The difference is, Calgary had hopes of making the post-season dance and tangoing for glory. They’ll get the chance this time. With a new coach in Bill Peters and an unsung goalie in David Rittich, not to mention a Hart Trophy effort from Johnny Gaudreau and a Norris Trophy rise from Mark Giordano, the Flames are first in the Western Conference. Sean Monahan is a legit No. 1 center, Elias Lindholm is breaking out big-time, Matthew Tkachuk is, too, and Calgary has the scoring depth and quality blueline to support its star power. Can Rittich – or Mike Smith, if it comes to that – hold up in the playoffs? That’s a fair question, and we’ll find out soon enough.
4. BOSTON BRUINS: OK, so maybe it’s not the biggest surprise in the world to see the seemingly perpetually contending Bruins secure in a playoff position. Led by the league’s most all-around line of Patrice Bergeron between Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, with Zdeno Chara on defense and Tuukka Rask in goal, the Bruins’ core is tried and true. But…battling for second place in the overall league standings? Despite injuries that have shelved the likes of Bergeron, Pastrnak, Rask, Charlie McAvoy and Torey Krug at various junctures this season? Despite a noticeable lack of scoring power when the top line isn’t on the ice? And despite the fact that Chara has been patrolling NHL bluelines since dinosaurs roamed the Earth? You probably expected Boston to be a good team. But not this good, surely. The downside, of course, is the Bruins could finish with the second-best record in the league and still end up in second place in the Atlantic Division behind Tampa Bay, meaning a tough first-round matchup against Toronto or Montreal. Old rivalries never die.
5. CAROLINA HURRICANES: There’s competition for the fifth and final spot. The Arizona Coyotes are hanging in the wild-card race in the West despite a devastating run of injuries (and, you know, being the Arizona Coyotes). The Buffalo Sabres got off to a great start, faltered and fell out of a playoff spot, but they’re still in the fight and, whatever happens the rest of the way, it feels like they’ve turned the corner toward respectability. The Vegas Golden Knights have followed up their miracle expansion season with a solid sequel. But let’s go with the Hurricanes. It’s not so much that expectations were low entering this season as it is that you didn’t really know what to expect from Carolina. The failed No. 1 goaltending experiment that was Scott Darling gave way to waiver-wire pickup Curtis McElhinney and consistently inconsistent Petr Mrazek -- and the M&M platoon has gone 29-19-4. The keys to the offense were handed over to Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Micheal Ferland, not exactly a murderer’s row, but they’re scoring enough (with a little help from everybody else) to get the job done. About the only thing we could count on from the Canes was a good showing from their defense corps, and the blueline has not disappointed. Jaccob Slavin, Dougie Hamilton, Justin Faulk, Brett Pesce and Calvin de Haan don’t have a ton of name recognition, but they’ve chipped in on offense and, more importantly, have frustrated opponents and limited scoring chances against on a nightly basis. The result? The Hurricanes are fighting tooth and nail for a wild-card spot in the East. It won’t be easy, they’ll have to chase down Montreal, Pittsburgh or Matt Duchene and the Columbus Blue Jackets to earn a playoff ticket. But, like Arizona and Buffalo, Carolina is trending up and this season should be considered a success whether or not they qualify for the playoffs.