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Biggest storylines so far in 2013-14

by Dan Rosen

With the first quarter of the 2013-14 season complete, looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.

An unexpectedly hot goalie in Minnesota, a surprising MVP candidate, the power of the Western Conference, an injury that rocked a team, its fan base and a country, and a culture change in western New York are some of the storylines that have dominated the headlines throughout the first quarter of the NHL season.

Here are 10 of the biggest storylines so far this season:

Minnesota's marvel in net

Minnesota Wild goalie Josh Harding, who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year, is among the League's best goaltenders this season. Without him, it's hard to imagine how the Wild would have 30 points thanks to a 10-1-1 run.

Harding is second in the NHL in goals-against average (1.26) and boasts a .945 save percentage. He's also tied for second with 12 wins and two shutouts.

Steen Machine

Alex Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, Alexander Steen. Which name looks out of place?

Alexander Steen
Center - STL
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 26
SOG: 67 | +/-: 11
Of course, it's Steen, but the Blues forward belongs with Ovechkin, Stamkos and Crosby so far this season.

Steen found himself tied with Ovechkin for the NHL lead in goals (17) after the Blues suffered a 4-1 loss against the Washington Capitals on Sunday. Steen entered the game with the lead, but his 13-game point streak came to an end in the loss, while Ovechkin scored twice in the first period to pull even with the Blues forward. Still, Steen has one more point than Crosby and New York Islanders captain John Tavares.

Western domination

The 14 Western Conference teams have been beating up on the 16 Eastern Conference to the tune of an 82-36-13 record, equating to a 67.8 point percentage heading into games Sunday. The Colorado Avalanche, Chicago Blackhawks, Wild, Blues, Anaheim Ducks, Phoenix Coyotes, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks have particularly feasted on East teams, going a combined 55-15-9.

There are varying theories as to why this is, but it's a trend that continues from years past. The West has won 50 percent or more of games played against Eastern Conference teams every season since 2005-06. It's just more pronounced this season.

Division logjam

The West's domination over the Eastern Conference has created a logjam in the Central and Pacific divisions.

The top four teams in the Central Division were separated by two points heading into Sunday, and they were all on pace for 114 points. Those teams (Chicago, Colorado, Minnesota and St. Louis) were a combined 28-6-4 against Eastern Conference opponents. Even the fifth-place Winnipeg Jets, sixth-place Dallas Stars and seventh-place Nashville Predators had as many or more points than nine teams in the East.

The top five teams in the Pacific Division were separated by seven points, and they were all on pace for at least 97 points. The Ducks, Coyotes, Sharks, Kings and Vancouver Canucks were 32-11-6 against the East heading into Sunday.

Lightning, Canada deal with injury to Stamkos

Stamkos was on his way to challenging for the Art Ross Trophy and the Rocket Richard Trophy, and he was a shoo-in to play in the 2014 Sochi Olympics for Canada. Now, he's on the sidelines recovering from surgery to repair his fractured right tibia.

Steven Stamkos
Center - TBL
GOALS: 14 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 23
SOG: 60 | +/-: 11
Stamkos was injured when he crashed leg-first into the goal post during the second period of a scoreless game at the Boston Bruins last week. At the time, he was tied with Crosby for the League lead in points (23) and tied with Steen for the League lead in goals (14).

There is no timetable for his return, but the Lightning aren't expecting him back any time soon, and his odds of recovering in time to play in the Olympics are low.

Shake-up in Buffalo

Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula fired longtime general manager Darcy Regier and coach Ron Rolston last week in the biggest shake-up of the season. Pegula handed the keys to his franchise over to Hockey Hall of Fame member Pat Lafontaine, naming him the president of hockey operations and allowing him to hire former Sabres coach Ted Nolan as interim coach.

Lafontaine, who played for Buffalo from 1991-96, sees himself in a role similar to the one Cam Neely has in Boston. He wants to oversee the hockey operations department, but his goal is to quickly hire a general manager who will run the club's day-to-day operations. He'll hit a home run if he can find someone like Bruins GM Peter Chiarelli.

Nolan has the rest of this season to start making headway with the current roster before he will receive a full evaluation from Lafontaine and the new general manager after the season. He has to focus on the starts of games. The Sabres have been brutal in the first period (outscored 29-3), but they're 1-1 under Nolan after splitting a home-and-home series with the Toronto Maple Leafs this past Friday and Saturday.

Roy and the resurgent Avalanche

The Avalanche finished last in the Western Conference last season and won the NHL Draft Lottery, selecting Nathan MacKinnon with the No. 1 pick in June. Last season is all but forgotten now.

While the Avalanche have hit a slump of late, their start to this season could not have gone much better. They won 14 of their first 16 games before a three-game losing streak.

Rookie coach Patrick Roy has brought his famous brand of tenacity to the club and the Avalanche are answering. Until recently, their goaltending tandem of Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere has been simply outstanding. They have even been able to play through the adversity created by Varlamov's arrest on domestic violence charges last month.

Three games and you're out

The Philadelphia Flyers were 0-3 and outscored by a 9-3 margin in their first three games, so general manager Paul Holmgren fired coach Peter Laviolette and replaced him with assistant coach Craig Berube. Holmgren fired Laviolette because he felt the poor start came on the heels of a bad training camp.

The Flyers, who didn't make the playoffs last season, lost three of their first six games under Berube, including 7-0 to the Washington Capitals on Nov. 1 in a game marred by a line brawl early in the third period. The melee included a fight between goalies Ray Emery and Braden Holtby. The Flyers are 4-1-2 since that nightmare.

Leafs hot goaltending, injured centers

James Reimer
Goalie - TOR
RECORD: 5-2-0
GAA: 2.27 | SVP: 0.942
The Toronto Maple Leafs got off to a strong start in large part because goalies Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer developed into one of the League's top duos. Bernier, who was acquired in a trade from the Kings, has seven wins in 13 appearances, a 2.05 GAA and a .938 save percentage. Reimer has five wins in nine starts, a 2.27 GAA and .942 save percentage.

They've had to be good, because the Maple Leafs are allowing an average of 35.8 shots on goal per game. Only the Senators and Sabres are giving up more per game, at 36.0.

Toronto, though, is thin down the middle now because of injuries to Dave Bolland and Tyler Bozak. James van Riemsdyk moved to center and the Maple Leafs acquired Peter Holland from the Ducks to fill a hole. Trevor Smith and Jerred Smithson have filled in as well.

Bolland, who had 10 points in 15 games and was arguably the Maple Leafs' best center before he got hurt, had a tendon in his left ankle accidentally severed by an opponent's skate Nov. 2. He had surgery and is currently on crutches, but no timeline has been given for his return. Bozak has missed nine straight games with a hamstring injury sustained Oct. 25. He had six points in 11 games.

It doesn't help that Nazem Kadri is still serving his three-game suspension for goalie interference on the Wild's Niklas Backstrom.

Bishop is king

Goaltending was a problem for the Lightning over the past two seasons, but Ben Bishop appears to be the solution. He leads the NHL with 13 wins and the Lightning are first in the Atlantic Division with 28 points, including a 2-1 record since Stamkos went down with his injury. Bishop has a 2.11 GAA and .927 save percentage.

Bishop, 26, has been waiting for his chance to be a No. 1 goalie in the NHL. He never had a legitimate shot when he was with the St. Louis Blues. The Ottawa Senators traded him for Cory Conacher last season because they needed they already had Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner, but needed to upgrade their offense.

The Lightning needed to upgrade their goaltending and with Bishop they have, enough to become a playoff contender.


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