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Round 2
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Stanley Cup Final

No shortage of surprise teams in season's first month

Monday, 10.31.2011 / 1:56 PM / NHL Insider

By Adam Kimelman - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

Don't worry, hockey fans. You're not holding your newspapers upside down, and there's nothing wrong with your computer.

The NHL standings heading into the first day of the second month of the season are correct.

Odd-looking, certainly, but correct nonetheless.

Yes, that's the Toronto Maple Leafs, out of the playoffs since 2004, sitting atop the Northeast Division and second in the Eastern Conference.

Yes, the Ottawa Senators, who finished 13th in the East last season, are one point behind the Leafs and fourth in the conference.

That's right, last season's Stanley Cup finalists would be home for the playoffs if the season ended today. Vancouver is 10th in the Western Conference, one point behind eighth-place Nashville. And Boston, the defending Cup champion, is 15th in the East and 29th in the League.

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And yes, that's the Edmonton Oilers -- the two-time 30th-place Oilers, who haven't been to the postseason since 2006 -- tied for the most points in the Western Conference.

It's only been a month, but if it's any indication, we're in for quite an interesting season.

The oddest sight has to be in the Western Conference, where two of the top three teams from last season currently are outside the top eight (Vancouver and Detroit), while the two teams that finished with the fewest points -- Edmonton and Colorado -- are in the top five.

The Oilers have done it with an infusion of youth -- 2011 first pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins leads the team with 5 goals and 11 points -- and experience -- goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin leads the League with a 1.12 goals-against average and .960 save percentage.

The Avs have soared up the standings thanks in part to defensive improvements. With new starting goalie Semyon Varlamov, the Avs have cut their goals-against by nearly a goal per game from last season -- going from 3.50 (30th in the League) to 2.64 this season.

Also shooting up the standings have been the Dallas Stars, who no one could have predicted would enter November tied with Chicago and Edmonton for the most points in West. Despite losing All-Star center Brad Richards, free-agent additions Michael Ryder and Sheldon Souray have more than compensated, and goaltender Kari Lehtonen is off to the best start of his NHL career.

Strong play in goal also has helped the Senators rise in the East, as Craig Anderson looks more like the goalie who helped the Avalanche make a surprise playoff run in 2009-10. But what's really helped the Sens is their strong play late in games.

The Senators lead the League with 21 third-period goals -- more than they've scored in the first and second periods combined -- and at 3-0 they're tied with Colorado for the most shootout victories. Their late rallies are becoming legendary.

They scored five times in the third period against the Maple Leafs on Oct. 8 to nearly steal a win. They scored twice in 2:09 in the third against Minnesota to turn a 3-1 deficit into a 4-3 shootout win. Twice in the last 10 days they've scored with less than five seconds left in regulation to win games. And Saturday against the Rangers they scored four times in the third period to turn a 4-1 deficit into a 5-4 shootout victory.

Florida hasn't made the playoffs since 2000, but with a completely overhauled roster, could this be the season that changes? They enter November fifth in the East, and one point behind Washington for the Southeast Division lead. Newcomer Kris Versteeg leads the team with 5 goals and 11 points, and rookie Jacob Markstrom is making a strong statement that he's ready to take over in the Panthers' net.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Red Wings, who enter the month 12th in the West. Part of the problem is scoring, where the Wings are averaging just 2.44 goals per game, 20th in the League.

The Canadiens, who finished sixth in the East last season, needed a three-game win streak just to pull out of the cellar and climb as high as 11th.

A bigger surprise is the Bruins, who finished October just 3-7-0, the worst start for a defending Cup champion since the current playoff format was adopted in 1994.

Early struggles for the Canucks (Ryan Kesler) and Rangers (Marc Staal) can in part be attributed to injuries to key players.

How many of these first-month surprises will still be where they are when March and April roll around? No one knows for sure, but it certainly will be entertaining to watch.

Contact Adam Kimelman at akimelman@nhl.com. Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK

For me, it's a great win for our hockey team and for a lot of people back in Columbus, especially our fans in particular … people who have been devoted to this organization, it's big.

— Blue Jackets coach Todd Richards on their win vs. the Penguins in Game 2, the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup Playoff victory