For a guy who wasn't even a No. 1 goaltender in October, Tim Thomas has already had a tremendous season.
It's not that the Boston Bruins didn't know what he was capable of -- Thomas was, after all, the Vezina Trophy winner in 2008-09. But after battling inconsistency and a hip problem in 2009-10, he began this season on the bench as last season's rookie sensation, Tuukka Rask, started the season-opener in Prague.
That didn't last long. Rask lost the opener, Thomas pitched a shutout in Game 2, regained the starting job and has been the NHL's best goaltender all season. He reached the All-Star break on top in goals-against average and save percentage, and tied for the top spot in shutouts. Not coincidentally, the Bruins are on top in the Northeast Division again after struggling to make the playoffs last season.
Thomas may not be the niftiest skater among goalies -- his tumble during his race against Cam Ward during Saturday's Honda SuperSkills competition will live for years -- but when it comes to stopping the puck, he's been the best in the NHL this season.
Five up — Five players who've exceeded expectations so far:
Sergei Bobrovsky -- Not even the most rabid Flyers fan could have expected the kind of numbers Bobrovsky has put up: a 21-6-3 record, 2.42 goals-against average and .920 save percentage. Those would be incredible numbers for any rookie, let alone a 22-year-old undrafted free agent who had never played in North America until this season.
Logan Couture -- Couture has made a place for himself in San Jose's lineup by doing what many of his teammates haven't been able to -- put the puck in the net. The rookie center is tops on the Sharks with 22 goals, a total that also leads all first-year players.
Kris Letang -- Sergei Gonchar's departure as a free agent meant that the Pittsburgh Penguins needed more from Letang -- and he's delivered. He's already surpassed his career-high in points for a season with 41, and he's plus-22 after entering the season with a career mark of minus-10.
Toni Lydman -- Lydman signed with Anaheim during the summer in one of those under-the-radar deals, but has been a huge boost to the Ducks' defense. He's averaging more than 23 minutes a game and is second in the NHL at the break with a plus-24 rating.
Michael Grabner -- The 23-year-old Austrian has gone from a waiver pickup by the New York Islanders in October to the NHL's Fastest Skater at All-Star Weekend. He's also put up 15 goals and shows promise of being capable of a lot more.
Five down — Five players who need to pick it up:
Ilya Kovalchuk -- New Jersey paid an enormous price in money and talent to keep Kovalchuk, who hasn't offered much in the way of payback so far. Though he's been playing better in the last couple of weeks, Kovalchuk is on pace for by far the worst season of his career, with 14 goals, 29 points and a League-worst minus-29.
Devin Setoguchi -- San Jose has struggled for most of the season, and Setoguchi's continuing offensive decline has been a big reason. He's gone from 31 goals in 2008-09 to 20 last season to just 9 goals and 14 points so far this season -- along with a minus-14 rating.
Sergei Gonchar -- Ottawa brought in Gonchar from Pittsburgh to get a boost on the blue line. So far, it hasn't happened. Gonchar has just 21 points in 50 games and is minus-17 on a team that appears headed for an early spring.
Marty Turco -- The Hawks signed Turco during the summer and expected him to take over the No. 1 goaltending job. Instead, his goals-against average is over 3, his save percentage is under .900 and he's lost the starting job to rookie Corey Crawford.
Simon Gagne -- Tampa Bay was excited to add Gagne during the offseason, but he's struggled with injuries and inconsistency so far. The Bolts need more than 9 goals, 13 points and a minus-19 rating from a player they were banking on for top-six production.
Injuries, news and notes — Sidney Crosby missed All-Star Weekend due to a concussion, but the Pittsburgh Penguins did get some good news last week -- their captain has been cleared for light workouts. It's a step forward, though there's no word as to when he'll be able to play again. He's missed the Pens' last nine games.
Out — Vancouver defenseman Alex Edler went down with a back injury last week that will require surgery. He's expected to miss the rest of the regular season. … Florida forward Shawn Matthias left Wednesday's game in Boston after colliding with the boards and injuring his leg. … Colorado forward David Jones left the Avs' last game before the break with a shoulder injury. … St. Louis defenseman Barret Jackman missed the Blues' last three games before the break with a lower-body injury. … Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom had to miss the All-Star break due to a broken finger and is expected to miss another couple of weeks.
Returning — The New York Rangers expect to get back forward Ryan Callahan (broken hand) and defenseman Dan Girardi (ribs) when play resumes Tuesday. They may also get back forward Vinny Prospal, who hasn't played all season due to knee surgery. … Detroit took center Pavel Datsyuk (broken hand) off IR on Friday. Forward Danny Cleary (broken ankle) hopes to be ready to play this week. … Ottawa center Jason Spezza, who went out with a shoulder injury on Dec. 26, says he expects to play this week. … Flyers forward James van Riemsdyk (lower body), who missed the last two games before the break, is expected to be ready to go when play resumes Tuesday. … San Jose forward Ryane Clowe returned Wednesday after missing four games with an undisclosed injury. … Buffalo forward Drew Stafford returned Tuesday after missing three games with a groin injury. … Phoenix got defenseman Ed Jovanovski back for its last two games before the break after he missed five games with a lower-body injury.
Still out — Anaheim captain Ryan Getzlaf will begin skating Monday, more than a month after going down with facial fractures. He could be back sometime next week. Forward Jason Jaffray, who had major knee surgery in training camp, has been cleared to skate. … Los Angeles forward Scott Parse, who had hip surgery in mid-November, has gotten the OK to skate again. … Boston sent center Marc Savard back to his home in Ontario to rest after his most recent concussion, which came Jan. 22 at Colorado. … Nashville forward Marek Svatos had arthroscopic knee surgery last week and is expected to miss another week or two. He's already missed seven games.
The week ahead — It's back to work on Tuesday after five days off for the All-Star break. Twenty-four of the 30 teams have three games in the six-day work week that begins Tuesday.
Games to watch:
Pittsburgh at New York Rangers (Feb. 1) -- Versus will be on hand as the Penguins begin play after the break with a visit to one of their least-favorite places -- Madison Square Garden.
Chicago at Columbus (Feb. 1) -- The Hawks begin their annual February trip -- this time it's a six-gamer -- with a stop in Columbus. They won't be home again until Feb. 16.
Washington at Tampa Bay (Feb. 4) -- The Capitals will undoubtedly have revenge on their minds -- the Lightning shut them out in each of their last two meetings following the acquisition of Dwayne Roloson on Jan. 1.
San Jose at Boston (Feb. 5) -- The Sharks begin the eastern portion of a long trip as they pay a rare visit to TD Garden -- it's only their third trip to Boston since 2003. San Jose has two wins and a tie in those three games.
Pittsburgh at Washington (Feb. 6) -- NBC's Game of the Week is the first meeting between two of the NHL's most intense rivals since the Caps came into Heinz Field on Jan. 1 and beat the Penguins in the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic.
Tough week ahead:
Florida Panthers -- The Panthers pick up right where they left off before the break -- on the road; their last home game was Jan. 21. They visit Toronto, Montreal and New Jersey in a four-day stretch.
Los Angeles Kings -- The Kings are set to spend most of this month on the road. They visit Minnesota, Edmonton and Calgary in the first three stops on a 10-game road trip.
San Jose Sharks -- The Sharks get to play at home when they return from the break, but then it's off to Anaheim and the start of a two-week road trip before heading East to Boston.
Easy week ahead:
Anaheim Ducks -- The Ducks have a rare two-game week. They start with a home game against San Jose on Wednesday before visiting Colorado for a Saturday matinee that kicks off a road trip.
Buffalo Sabres -- The Sabres get the longest All-Star break of any team; they don't resume play until they visit Pittsburgh on Friday, then return home for a Saturday night date against Toronto.
Tampa Bay Lightning -- The Bolts are still in the early stages of their record-tying 12-game homestand. This week, the Flyers, Capitals and Blues visit the St. Pete Times Forum.