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Avs, Sabres, Lightning, Kings surprise NHL early

Wednesday, 10.14.2009 / 12:47 PM / NHL Insider

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer

 
When you listen all summer to talking heads with an opinion they can't wait to spew telling anyone willing to listen how bad your team is really going to be in the upcoming season, it gets old and annoying pretty quick.

Take, for example, the Colorado Avalanche.

Did anybody give them a shot at sniffing the playoffs, let alone first place, at any point this season? Ah, no.

Did anybody think bringing in a career backup to be their No. 1 was going to solve all of their goaltending woes? Hardly.

Did anybody in the Avalanche dressing room give a rat's patoot what all these so-called know-it-alls (us included) were saying?

Not one bit.

The same could be said for players in dressing rooms in Buffalo, Tampa and Los Angeles.

Between the Avalanche, Sabres, Lightning and Kings -- four teams that did not qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs last spring -- they have a combined record of 13-3-4 and they're all in first place in their respective divisions.

"We know that we have a lot of doubters out there, people who think we're going to be terrible," Avs rookie center Matt Duchene told the Denver Post. "But we're not taking no for an answer right now. I don't think there's one guy in here who thinks we're going to lose games. We have so many young guys that have played on winning teams and know what it takes to win, and who are almost too naive to think we can lose."

Youth is an underlying theme with all of these teams, but so is solid goaltending.

Craig Anderson, who played in a career-high 31 games for Florida last season, is 6-for-6 with the Avalanche and there's no reason for new coach Joe Sacco to take him out. He's 4-1-1 with a .940 save percentage and 1.98 goals-against average.

Buffalo, backed by Ryan Miller, leads the NHL in goals-against per game. They've allowed just five as Miller is 3-0-1 with a .945 save percentage and 1.23 goals-against average.

Antero Niittymaki, is doing his best to wrestle the No. 1 job in Tampa away from Mike Smith. He's won back-to-back starts against Florida and Carolina, allowing four goals on 59 shots.

Since giving up six goals in a season-opening loss to Atlanta, Smith has done his part in allowing only four goals on 62 shots in two starts. He's winless at 0-1-2, but Smith and Niittymaki have so far formed a solid 1-2 punch for the Lightning.

Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has been spectacular after a slow start.

He's given up just one goal each in his last two games, helping the Kings take back-to-back 2-1 decisions against the Blues and Islanders. He was just named the NHL's Second Star of the Week ending Oct. 11. Erik Ersberg will get his first start of the season tonight.

Let's not forget about goal scoring.

The Kings, Avs and Lightning are all scoring at least three goals per game. L.A. is tied with Edmonton and Philadelphia for third in the League at 3.80 per game.

Meanwhile, Buffalo torched Detroit for six goals Tuesday after scoring just four in its first three games. It came at a price, though, as Thomas Vanek was lost for "weeks" according to coach Lindy Ruff after suffering an upper body injury following his second goal of the night.

"We finally exploded," Miller said according to the Buffalo News. "We weren't getting the goals in the first couple of games, but that's what we're capable of with this system."

What about those special teams? Colorado has been winning because of them.

The Avalanche are second in the League on the power play (10 for 26, 38.5 percent) and fifth on the penalty kill (21 for 24, 87.5 percent). Los Angeles is scoring 33.3 percent of the time on the power play and Buffalo has killing penalties at an 83.3 percent clip so far.

"Our power play was one of our hurting things last year," L.A. defenseman Drew Doughty told NHL.com of the Kings' power play that was 14th in the NHL last season at 19.2 percent. "Having (Ryan Smyth) and Justin Williams, they're helping out a ton. That line, with (Anze) Kopitar, they've jelled so well together and they're helping our power play out a ton. All the younger guys that are getting chances on the power play, we got a little bit of confidence from last year."

"We know that we have a lot of doubters out there, people who think we're going to be terrible. But we're not taking no for an answer right now. I don't think there's one guy in here who thinks we're going to lose games. We have so many young guys that have played on winning teams and know what it takes to win, and who are almost too naive to think we can lose."
-- Colorado's Matt Duchene

And, of course, each of these teams sprinkled in key ingredients over the summer and they are so far quite tasty.

We've already discussed Anderson in Colorado, but defenseman Kyle Quincey, who came in the Ryan Smyth to L.A. trade, has six points (1-5-6) while logging a team-high 24:58 per game.

Smyth has been a huge factor in the Kings' success. He has four goals and four assists playing left wing on the top line with Kopitar and Williams. His net-front presence has given the Kings' power play a new look and his experience and character is invaluable.

"It's nice to go out there when you're winning," Smyth told NHL.com. "You compete hard and you get rewarded with wins, but we have really grinded it out, too. We have had close games, but we have made them fun."

Myers has been the key newcomer in the Sabres lineup. At 6-foot-7 he's a mountain of a man, but the 19-year-old rookie can skate and join the rush like a forward. He had an assist and was a plus-3 in the 6-2 win over the Wings.

An even younger defenseman has also been omnipresent for the Lightning.

Victor Hedman, just 18, leads all Tampa players in ice time at 25:40 per game, which is also 4:14 more than any other rookie in the NHL. His four assists are also tops among the League's rookies while his 14 shots on goal put him second.

"I just try to play my game and that's what they want me to do," Hedman told NHL.com. "You can't go around think you're 18 so it's OK to make mistakes. Obviously if you play a lot of minutes they want you to produce so you need to focus on what you need to do."

Of course, every one of the 1,037 of the words you just read could mean bubkis by next month if these four first-place teams fall hard. Hey, the Sabres were 6-0-2 to start last season and wound up finishing 10th in the Eastern Conference.

It can happen, but if the talking heads have learned anything through the first 14 days of the season, it's not to predict the future. You can be so dead wrong.

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com


Quote of the Day

We've got a team filled with captains, that's what I think. With these first two games we got in, we're really dominating and moving the puck really fast, and it's worked out really good.

— U.S. goalie Brandon Halverson after a 6-0 win against Germany in the World Junior Championship on Sunday