* Joe Thornton's still putting up points.
* Even though Patrick Marleau is no longer captain, he's more of a leader now than before.
* Dan Boyle is still the straw that stirs the drink in San Jose.
* And Evgeni Nabokov continues to stop nearly everything.
But GM Doug Wilson's makeover of the Sharks roster is more than just trading key second-tier scorers Jonathan Cheechoo and Milan Michalek to Ottawa for Dany Heatley.
Career 500-goal scorer Jeremy Roenick retired. So did Claude Lemieux. Also gone are defensemen Christian Ehrhoff and Brad Lukowich, checkers Michael Grier, Travis Moen and Marcel Goc, along with backup netminder Brian Boucher.
"A lot of new faces. New chemistry," Thornton said. "But ..."
The Sharks, who were 53-18-11, the best record in the NHL last season, were unceremoniously ousted in the first round of the playoffs in six games by eighth-seeded Anaheim. Early playoff exits for several years for a team with expectations, that means changes.
"You're out. That's it," Thornton said. "It doesn't matter who was No. 1 and who was No. 8. Doug Wilson obviously felt frustration by what he saw -- and in the past, he's always made the right moves to make us better."
Following San Jose's 3-1 victory in St. Louis on Nov. 14, the Sharks had a 14-4-3 record -- once again good for the top spot in the NHL. They also were 9-0-1 in their last 10 games and 11-1-1 in their last 12 starts.
Heatley's off to a 14-goal start in his first 22 games. Thornton's once again challenging for the League's scoring title and Marleau's on pace to surpass season-high of 38 goals, set last season. Plus, Boyle and Nabokov are chipping in with their best performances as usual.
But that's where this story begins. There's nothing different from San Jose's top ranking in the NHL considering what the Sharks did last season. But there's plenty different about the atmosphere around this team.
Look no further than the team's energy/checking line of Scott Nichol centering Jed Ortmeyer and Manny Malhotra. Nichol and Ortmeyer were lured away from a hard-working Nashville team, while Malhotra came from Columbus.
"I wouldn't call them a No. 3 line," coach Todd McLellan said. "They've been an impact line for us ... and on many nights they've been our best line."
Energy. Being relentless and gritty.
"It's more than that," Thornton said. "Each of those guys has come in trying to make an impression -- and, in the process, they've helped create a new identity for our team.
"They play with a sandpaper approach, hard to play against -- and their energy has been contagious. I know I don't want to come to the rink, watch them play with energy and have someone say they've outworked me. I think we all feel that way."
Nichol didn't hesitate on July 15, when the Sharks called and made him a free-agent offer.
"Are you kidding? Being able to join the best team in the NHL?" Nichol said. "I not only didn't hesitate to sign with the Sharks, but I also didn't hesitate to bring everything I've got to training camp."
McLellan says when he was back in Detroit, working with Wings coach Mike Babcock, there was one word for the commitment that went through all the roles on that team, whether it be scorer, passer or checker.
"The word is passion," McLellan said when asked about the comments Thornton made about Nichol and Co. "Scottie has only one speed -- and that's 100 mph."
You won't get Thornton or McLellan or any of the Sharks to gush over the success they've had early this season. Because they've been there, done that -- not getting past the second round of the playoffs since 2004.
"You want to build a foundation, a model of consistency, a way of playing that makes you hard to beat in April, May
and June," Thornton said.
Born to be orange -- Back on draft day, Toronto Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke was asked if he was surprised at the Philadelphia Flyers acquiring defenseman Chris Pronger from the Anaheim Ducks for forward Joffrey Lupul, rookie defenseman Luca Sbisa and two first-round picks.
He smiled and said, "I think he was born to wear orange. He's got the whole package, size and skill as well as being a leader. But the fans in Philadelphia will love that mean streak he brings to every game."
Coming into this season, the Flyers were looking to find a way to win some of the close games that got away from them in recent time. Pronger has often been that difference-maker this season. And he was again on Nov. 16 when the Flyers hosted the New Jersey Devils, who were on the verge of tying an NHL record of 10 consecutive road victories to start a season.
In Philadelphia's 3-2 victory over the Devils, goalie Ray Emery got a lot of attention, as did Darroll Powe, Scott Hartnell and James van Riemsdyk for their goals. But there was Pronger, playing 26:51 and was a tower of strength on defense with one hit, but four blocked shots while adding two shots to the offense.
Avalanche warning -- Being successful in back-to-back games always has been a pretty good barometer of a strong team in my mind. Don't look now, but the Colorado Avalanche won their first seven games in those stamina-testing two-games-in-two-night situations following a 3-2 victory at Calgary Nov. 17, before they finally lost one in a back-to-back set one night later in Edmonton, 6-4.
It's easy to same that goaltender Craig Anderson has been the No. 1 constant in that consistency for Colorado (he gave way to Peter Budaj in the loss to the Oilers). And a look at the veteran leadership of Milan Hejduk (6 goals, 1 assist in those back-to-backs), Wojtek Wolski (3 goals, 4 assists) and Paul Stastny (2 goals, 5 assists).
But on Nov. 17, the cream that came to the top as well was a gritty group of defensemen -- especially after captain Adam Foote went out of the game in the first period with a jaw injury that limited the Avs to just five D-men -- veterans Scott Hannan and Brett Clark, along with Kyle Quincey, Kyle Cumiskey and Ryan Wilson -- the rest of the way.
In the end those defensemen were a key part of blocking an impressive 24 Flames shots as the Avs retained first place in the Northwest Division with the victory over Calgary.
"They do a good job of taking your space away and get big in front of you, blocking shots and clogging up the passing lanes," praised Flames winger Rene Bourque.
Added Colorado coach Joe Sacco, "They always sacrifice their bodies to try and help the team -- and they knew how important this game was tonight."
A roadblock of sorts -- To say Alex Auld is almost as important as MapQuest to the Dallas Stars would be an oversimplification. He's a backup goaltender to Marty Turco, so most of his assignments come on the road. But ...
Here's the angle to this story -- following a 31-save effort in Detroit on Nov. 18, all three of his wins have come on the road. But consider this: 40 of his 77 career victories in the NHL have also come in road games. In fact, Auld is one of only five active NHL goaltenders with at least 50 career wins who's won more games on the road than at home -- along with Vesa Toskala, Brian Boucher, Antero Niittymaki and Carey Price.
Not Greene anymore -- There have been plenty of pretty elite players perform for the Devils in New Jersey, but undrafted, unheralded defenseman Andy Greene recently bedeviled all of us when he either scored or assisted on the winning goal in five consecutive games to set a team record.
"You want to build a foundation, a model of consistency, a way of playing that makes you hard to beat in April, May and June." -- Joe Thornton
"If there's one thing you learn when you are fighting for ice time to establish yourself in the NHL, it's to make sure you bear down and put yourself in good positions," Greene said. "Stay focused. Try to make an impact on every shift you get."
Coach Jacques Lemaire, who helped develop the likes of New Jersey defensemen Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko among others, smiles when he watches the 27-year-old Trenton, Mich., native, saying, "He's a different player than the one I saw a few times when I coached in Minnesota and we'd play the Devils. Since training camp, he's shown me a player who is good with the puck, makes good plays, he's patient and doesn't get rattled."
In other words, a Jacques Lemaire-type player who has gotten well over 20 minutes of ice time every night since Oct. 29.
Trying to be like Mike, er, Ovie, er themselves -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau knew his team would be in awe of Alex Ovechkin's return after he missed six games with a shoulder injury, just like the fans.
"He's an exciting player. I imagine it'll be like Michael Jordan, everyone watching him in the shoot-around. What an exciting athlete and entertainer," Boudreau explained. "That said, I don't want to see our players standing around watching Ovie and saying to themselves, 'Alex is back, let's let him do it.' I want them to play like a team like they did when he was out."
The Caps were 4-2 without Ovechkin, scoring 22 goals in those six games (3.675 goals per game). More important, they were 6-for-14 on the power play.
But Boudreau got his wish Nov. 17, when the Capitals got their first goal by Ovi. And they added three more goals for a 4-2 triumph over the New York Rangers.
He wears a Blue jacket -- Edmonton winger Ales Hemsky has owned the Columbus Blue Jackets over the years with 30 goals in 22 games coming into a Nov. 16 contest. Sure enough, he scored another goal.
"Give him five seconds in our zone with the puck and we freeze or we're mesmerized by him," said Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock.