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10 surprises that made October in the NHL intriguing

by Dan Rosen

One month in the books, and the Presidents' Trophy for October goes to the …

OK, so that's not actually a thing and we won't go there. It's way too early to hand out hardware, but it's not too early to be surprised and intrigued by what's happening in the NHL.

With that in mind, here are 10 surprises, in no particular order, that made October in the NHL intriguing:

OT changes working

This should not necessarily be considered a surprise because it was the intention when the NHL made the changes to the overtime format, but through Friday the percentage of overtime games that extend into a shootout is down from last season.

Here are the numbers:

This season: 151 games played (through Friday):

41 overtime games, 21 decided in a shootout (51.2 percent)

Last season: 151 games played

32 overtime games, 21 decided in a shootout (65.6 percent)

Last season: 1,230 games played (entire season):

309 overtime games, 178 decided in a shootout (57.9 percent)

The NHL made changes to address the concerns among general managers that too many games were extending into the shootout.

The League implemented a dry scrape before overtime rather than before the shootout to provide a cleaner ice sheet for the five-minute 4-on-4 session. The League also put in a rule requiring teams to switch ends for overtime, creating the long-change factor that exists in the second period, historically the period that features the most goals.

The changes appear to have made a difference so far.

Life on the Island

The New York Islanders appear poised to give Nassau Coliseum the send-off it deserves -- a chance at packing 15,000-plus inside the old barn for some Stanley Cup Playoff hockey.

The Islanders are one of the most interesting teams in the League so far this season. General manager Garth Snow deserves a lot of credit.

Snow identified the Islanders' weaknesses last season and addressed them, making the team deeper up front, on the back end and in goal by acquiring forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolay Kulemin, defensemen Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy, and goalies Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson.

The additions of Boychuk and Leddy four days before the season began gave the Islanders enough depth on the blue line to play an attacking, speedy brand of hockey. The Islanders went from a team lacking in defensive depth to one rich with it.

Most important, the Islanders are being led by a healthy John Tavares, who missed the final 22 games of last season with a knee injury he sustained during the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Tavares has 12 points in 10 games, and Brock Nelson has been a pleasant surprise with 12 points.

The Islanders do have work to do in the defensive end, particularly on their penalty kill. Playoff hockey might not come to the Coliseum if their penalty kill doesn't drastically improve from a League-low 66.7 percent.

Burns' dominance on 'D'

Brent Burns
Defense - SJS
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 13
SOG: 38 | +/-: 0
San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns was confident he'd be able to readjust to playing defense after scoring 22 goals as a forward last season, but felt it would take him some time to feel comfortable playing on the blue line again.

He found that comfort zone quickly; his transition to defense has been as fluid and productive as the Sharks could have hoped.

Burns leads all defensemen with 13 points (four goals, nine assists). He's on pace to score more as a defenseman this season than he did last season as a forward playing with Joe Thornton and Joe Pavelski.

"Offensively he's just been an absolute force for us," Sharks coach Todd McLellan told the San Jose Mercury News. "He's involved in so much."

Capital improvement

It hasn't translated into sustained success yet, but the Washington Capitals are a much stingier team this season than they were in 2013-14. That's the Barry Trotz influence working the way it should.

Entering Friday, the Capitals were first in the League in even-strength shot attempts-against per 60 minutes (45.6), according to War-on-Ice.com, after finishing 23rd last season (57.0 per game). They were third in shots on goal-against per game (24.7) after finishing 27th last season (33.5).

Goalie Braden Holtby is still trying to find his game; he has a .907 save percentage. Captain Alex Ovechkin has gone without a point in five straight games for the first time in his career. He had seven shots on goal in a four-game stretch before firing seven on net in a 4-2 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Wednesday.

If the Capitals continue to be as stingy (read: they have the puck a lot) as they are now they should start winning more games.

"That 70s Line"

The Los Angeles Kings had one player (Anze Kopitar, 70 points) among the top 87 scorers last season. They enter play Saturday with two in the top-10 and three among the top 34 so far this season. And they're all on the same line.

Tyler Toffoli, Jeff Carter and Tanner Pearson, a.k.a. "That 70s Line," have been dominant this season and helped carry the Kings to a 6-3-2 record.

The biggest surprise has to be Toffoli, who is tied for fourth in points with 14. He has a League-best plus-12 rating.

Toffoli had 29 points in 62 games last season but 14 points in 26 Stanley Cup Playoff games, when coach Darryl Sutter put "That 70s Line" together and rode it to a Stanley Cup championship.

Sophomore slump

Colorado Avalanche forward Nathan MacKinnon went his first 10 games without a goal before scoring two against the Islanders on Thursday. His early-season slump could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on your perspective and attitude.

Nathan MacKinnon
Center - COL
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 6
SOG: 32 | +/-: -5
If you're saying good, you're an optimist and believe MacKinnon's breakout game Thursday is a sign of what's to come in November because it's impossible to keep a player with his talent and speed down for too long. He had 63 points in 82 games as an 18-year-old last season.

If you're saying bad, you're thinking that MacKinnon's two-goal game Thursday was not the norm and instead he's in line for a difficult season, suggesting a sophomore slump after he ran away with the Calder Trophy last season.

That he went 10 games without a goal contributed to Colorado's slow start. The Avalanche won two of their first 10 games before beating the Islanders 5-0.

"It's all in the past now," MacKinnon said.

Wild way to win

If the Minnesota Wild weren't struggling on the power play, they might be the only undefeated team in the League. Instead they're 6-3-0 largely because they are 0-for-27 on the power play; they're the only team in the League without a man-advantage goal.

The Wild lost by identical 2-1 scores to the Anaheim Ducks (Oct. 17) and Los Angeles Kings (Oct. 19) despite outshooting them by a combined 69-42, including 41-16 against the Kings. They were 0-for-8 on the power play in those games.

They had a 3-0 lead entering the third period against the New York Rangers on Monday but gave up five goals on 12 shots in the final 20 minutes and lost 5-4. They were 0-for-4 in 14 minutes of power-play time in that game.

That the power play hasn't hurt the Wild more this season is a testament to their ability to maintain puck possession.

Minnesota led the NHL in shot attempts-against per game (23.2) entering play Friday, according to War-on-Ice.com. It was second in shot-attempt differential (plus-129) behind the Chicago Blackhawks (plus-165).

After blowing a three-goal lead in their loss to the Rangers, the Wild have come back from 3-1 third-period deficits to beat the Boston Bruins and the Sharks.

Despite being the team playing on a back-to-back, the Wild scored three unanswered goals in the third to beat the Bruins 4-3. They outshot the Bruins 18-8 in the third period.

Banged-up Blue Jackets

It's never a surprise when a team loses a player or two to injury early in the season. It's part of the game.

The Columbus Blue Jackets wish it were that easy to explain their injuries. They are playing without the meat of their lineup, including their No. 1 goalie.

Sergei Bobrovsky is out 1-2 weeks with a broken finger. So is defenseman James Wisniewski. Forward Artem Anisimov is out at least a week, possibly longer, after sustaining a concussion against the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday.

And that's just the latest round of injuries.

Columbus has played this season without forwards Brandon Dubinsky (abdominal surgery), Nathan Horton (back) and Boone Jenner (hand). Matt Calvert (upper body) is on injured reserve. Another forward, Nick Foligno, returned Friday after missing one game with an upper-body injury that could have kept him out longer, and Cam Atkinson missed a game with an injury as well.

"Whether I've done something or someone's done something to the hockey gods, I have never seen anything like this," Columbus coach Todd Richards told the Blue Jackets website. "It seems like every time we play a game somebody's getting hurt, or at least that's what it feels like."

Richards hasn't been Chicago's second center

Brad Richards
Center - CHI
GOALS: 0 | ASST: 4 | PTS: 4
SOG: 23 | +/-: 0
Brad Richards was signed to a one-year, $2 million contract to be Chicago's second-line center until Teuvo Teravainen was ready. Teravainen is developing in the American Hockey League, but Richards is not Chicago's No. 2 center either.

Andrew Shaw has been slotted behind Jonathan Toews for most of the season. Shaw has started nine of 10 games in that spot as Richards has struggled to adjust and be productive with his new team. He has no goals and four assists in 10 games.

Chicago coach Joel Quenneville has spent the first month of the season juggling his lines to find the right combinations, but Shaw has spent the most time with Patrick Kane. The Blackhawks, though, have struggled to score on a consistent basis despite leading the NHL in shots on goal per game (38.1) and shot attempts per game (65.94) entering play Saturday.

Inconsistent Bruins

The Boston Bruins went 6-6-0 in October, but consider what they've gone through and are going through and you'll get a better idea why a team typically among the most consistent in the League has been inconsistent this season.

Injuries, some general bad luck, a preseason trade, the occasional goal that should have been stopped and one big personnel problem have contributed to the Bruins' alarmingly average start.

Defenseman Zdeno Chara, an irreplaceable player because of his unique combination of size, power and skill, is sidelined with a knee injury that might keep him out until mid-December. Boston is 2-1-0 without him but needed overtime to beat the last-place Buffalo Sabres 3-2 on Thursday.

Fellow defensemen Torey Krug and Kevan Miller are out of the lineup now as well. The losses on the blue line would have been easier to take had the Bruins not traded Boychuk to the Islanders, but they did that to get some flexibility under the salary cap.

The Bruins are 22nd in the NHL in shooting percentage at 8.29 percent.

Tuukka Rask hasn't looked like the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender that he was last season. He has an .899 save percentage and 2.81 goals-against average, but life is harder now without Chara playing in front of him.

And the Bruins haven't replaced Jarome Iginla on the first line opposite David Krejci and Milan Lucic. They have mixed and matched there, getting some offense out of rookie Seth Griffith, who has three goals and five points in eight games, but it remains a hole in the lineup.

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