Picture the following scenario: A forward gets on a hot streak, and the rest of his line – and maybe even a defenseman or two – warm themselves around his fire. Happens every season, right?
So far this season, six teams are adding a slight wrinkle to that narrative: two guys on a torrid pace – feeding off one another's soaring confidence – are setting the goal-scoring pace for the entire League.
The duos, in order of production: Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp, Chicago, 35 goals; Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul, Toronto, 34 goals; Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, Pittsburgh, 33 goals; Steven Stamkos
and Vincent Lecavalier
, Tampa Bay, 31 goals; Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia, 31 goals; Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza, Ottawa, 31 goals.
Chicago's Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp have given opposing teams fits this season, as the duo has combined for 35 goals - tops among high-scoring teammates so far. (Photo: Getty Images)
Toews and Sharp are part of one of the NHL's most prolific top lines. Along with veteran Marian Hossa, the trio boasts 106 points (50 goals, 56 assists) and has catapulted Chicago to the top of the NHL standings following Sunday night's 4-2 win against the Calgary Flames. Through 33 games, Toews, the Hawks' captain, and Sharp are already halfway to their respective 2010-11 goal totals.
After a few lackluster seasons, Toronto is finally giving fans at the Air Canada Centre something to cheer about – and the Kessel / Lupul combination deserves much of the credit. Kessel, who along with Giroux has been the toast of the young season, leads the League with 39 points and is tied for second with 19 goals. After a couple of injury-shortened campaigns, the talented Lupul is finally healthy and realizing his potential with 15 goals and 21 assists in 32 games.
"I thought it (their chemistry) was almost instantaneous last year when Lupul came in and made a difference on the line," Leafs coach Ron Wilson told the Toronto Star last week. "Lupul is developing into more of a power forward. He's big. He protects the puck really well and takes the puck to the net really well. You want to play him with someone who is a threat all the time and that's what Phil has been the last 30 games last season and every game this season."
With nearly half of Pittsburgh's typical starting five – namely defenseman Kris Letang and Sidney Crosby – sidelined with head injuries, Malkin (15 goals, 21 assists) and Neal (18 goals, 14 assists) are working hard to fill the gaps. Though the duo has been producing all season, both are currently riding five-game point streaks.
Their most recent outing illustrates how crucial the pair is to the Pens' success. In an 8-3 blitzing of Buffalo on Saturday, Malkin notched his seventh career hat trick and added two assists. Neal added a goal and an assist. Tellingly, both delivered the primary assist on a power-play goal by the other.
On the opposite side of the state, Giroux (16 goals, 23 assists) and Scott Hartnell (15 goals, 12 assists) were on a torrid pace before a fluke head injury forced Giroux out indefinitely. Giroux was arguably the League's best player before he was kneed by teammate Wayne Simmonds against Tampa Bay on Dec. 10, as witnessed by his two assists in just 12:33 of ice time before leaving with the injury. Hartnell was often a beneficiary of Giroux's presence – six of his 15 goals were assisted by Giroux – and started December with a goal in six straight games.
Finally, two lagging Eastern Conference sides – Ottawa and Tampa Bay – are relying heavily on one-two punches to keep them on the right side of .500.
In Ottawa, Michalek (19 goals, 6 assists) and Spezza (12 goals, 24 assists) are putting up All-Star numbers in the host city for the 2011-12 game. After scoring a vital goal in a 3-2 overtime win in Buffalo on Dec. 13, Michalek left the game with a concussion and hasn't been back in the lineup. After assisting on Michalek's goal, Spezza – fourth in the League in assists – started the move that resulted in the OT winner.
"He's a big cog to our team," Spezza said of Michalek after the game. "He's a guy that works hard and makes a difference."
Spezza is working double-time to pick up Michalek's slack, with 6 points (3 goals, 3 assists) in the two games since the winger's injury.
With one-third of the prolific line that carried Tampa Bay to the Stanley Cup brink last season out with an injury, the remainder of the line is racking up points in his absence. Martin St. Louis
is out indefinitely with facial fractures from an errant puck, so Stamkos (20 goals, 17 assists) and Lecavalier (11 goals, 11 assists) will shoulder the load for the foreseeable future. And after a rough 1-7-0 patch, the Bolts have won two straight to return to .500.
In their most recent win, the chemistry was on full display as Lecavalier provided the primary assist on Stamkos' game-winner.
"He kind of faked the guy and gave it right back," Stamkos said of Lecavalier. "When you're playing with really good players you have to kind of expect those things. He made a great play."