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Hradek: Eberle, Hartnell, Howard first-half surprises

by EJ Hradek
While the Bruins and their fans will disagree, I feel Brendan Shanahan knocked it out of the park in slapping Brad Marchand with a five-game suspension for his low-bridge hit on Vancouver defenseman Sami Salo, who suffered a concussion as a result of the dangerous play.
Shanahan's video explanation of his rational was compelling and crystal clear. I thought it was particularly enlightening to view the play in its entire context. Just 16 seconds earlier in the shift, Marchand and Salo came together in nearly identical fashion. In that earlier instance, Marchand took a different approach, opting for a straight shoulder-to-shoulder hit with the bigger Salo.
In the second go-round, I believe Marchand made a calculated decision to go low on Salo, who didn't have the puck and had no way to anticipate such a move. Certainly, I'm not buying the team's assertion that Marchand was defending himself. I mean, that was Salo moving slowly toward him, not Kevin Bieska.
Marchand brings a lot to the table. He has terrific speed, good hockey sense and a nice finishing touch around the net. As a rookie, he was a big part of the club's championship run. In this case, however, I think he stepped over the line.
In issuing the five-game ban, Shanahan is making a sharp statement that this type of play will not be tolerated. And it most certainly shouldn't be. The job of handing out supplementary discipline in the NHL is, at best, an inexact science. In this particular circumstance, the extra punishment definitely fit the crime.
And now, here's our regularly scheduled program …
With many of the teams having hit the half-way mark of the season, I thought I'd dedicate this week's edition of the Tuesday 10 to players who, for one reason or another, have impressed me (listed in alphabetical order) in the opening months of the season.
Michael Del Zotto, D, Rangers

After a strong rookie campaign as a 19-year-old in 2009-10, Del Zotto spent the second half of last season in the AHL. The No. 20 pick in the 2008 Draft, he seemed to have quickly fallen out of favor in New York. Entering training camp, Del Zotto wasn't assured a spot on the NHL roster.
A smooth-skating, puck-mover, the third-year defender regained the confidence of the coaching staff with a more focused approach. Along with Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, he became a go-to guy on a New York blue line that was without incumbent No. 1 defenseman Marc Staal.
Through 39 games, Del Zotto's plus-25 rating is tops among non-Bruins and he trails only Boston captain Zdeno Chara among all defensemen in that category. Averaging 22:48 of ice time per game, he is the club's fifth-leading scorer with 23 points.

Jordan Eberle, F, Oilers

Though an injury suffered in a game against the Stars in Dallas on Saturday figures to keep him on the shelf for a while, Eberle has taken a significant step forward from a solid rookie year in 2010-11.
Through 41 games, the 21-year-old has 43 points, matching his total in 69 games last season and placing him ninth on the League's scoring list, a point behind established stars Evgeni Malkin and Marian Hossa.
The No. 22 pick in the 2008 Draft, Eberle doesn't get the attention that the club's past two first-rounders (Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins) receive on a daily basis; but the slick scorer is another big part of the team's future.
Brian Elliott, G, Blues

Brian Elliott
Goalie - STL
RECORD: 15-5-0
GAA: 1.62 | SVP: 0.940
In 2010-11, the former University of Wisconsin star found himself working behind two of the League's worst defensive teams, the Senators and Avalanche. Not surprisingly, his numbers (and his confidence) took a beating.
Over the summer, Blues GM Doug Armstrong took a low-risk chance on Elliott, who got no big-league promises in signing a two-way deal ($600,000 NHL/$105,000 AHL). Elliott earned a spot in St. Louis with a strong camp and he hasn't let up yet.
Elliott was particularly good in the first six weeks of the season when starter Jaroslav Halak struggled to find his game. His steady hand just might have saved the team from capsizing early.
In 21 games, Elliott has rung up a 15-5 record with a stingy 1.62 goals-against average and a tidy .940 save percentage to go along with five shutouts. Those numbers are nothing short of sensational.
Scott Hartnell, F, Flyers

Before the season, there was talk that the veteran winger might become a cap casualty in Philly. Looking back, the Flyers have to be glad it didn't come to that. Hartnell has fit like a glove alongside dynamic pivot Claude Giroux and legendary veteran Jaromir Jagr on the club's top line.
Through 40 games, Hartnell has 18 goals, tying him with Giroux for the team lead. He's second on the club's point list with 37 and he leads all Flyers with a plus-19 rating. Of course, that doesn't include the physical presence he brings to the rink. The 29-year-old has earned some serious All-Star consideration with his play in the first half.
Jimmy Howard, G, Red Wings

Jimmy Howard
Goalie - DET
RECORD: 24-10-1
GAA: 2.05 | SVP: 0.924
Night after night, the former University of Maine standout works the crease for Hockeytown's team. And he's been consistently excellent, giving his team a chance to win just about every time he plays.
Working in 35 of the club's first 41 games, the 27-year-old stopper has posted a League-best 24 victories to go alongside a strong 2.05 goals-against average, a .924 save percentage and four shutouts. After back-to-back 37-win seasons, Howard seems ready to crack the 40-win mark.
Gabriel Landeskog, F, Avalanche

While 2011 top pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and, more recently, Devils center Adam Henrique, have been talk of this freshman class; the No. 2 pick in the '11 Draft has been putting together a pretty complete first-year resume in the Mile High City.
Landeskog leads the Avalanche with 128 shots (12 more than Daniel Winnik) and a plus-10 rating. He's among just a handful of Avs' regulars to have a plus-rating. The big 19-year-old winger has most certainly earned the confidence of head coach Joe Sacco, who is offering him, on average, near 18 minutes of ice time per game.
Joffrey Lupul, F, Maple Leafs

After moving between Anaheim (twice), Edmonton and Philadelphia and dealing with a few significant physical issues, Lupul seems to have found a home for himself working on a line with Phil Kessel in Toronto. The Leafs' dynamic duo has combined for 43 goals in 41 games. With 47 points, Lupul stands fourth in the League scoring race, just two points behind the leader, Canucks center Henrik Sedin.
The 28-year-old Lupul, who was the No. 7 pick of Anaheim in 2002, has never put up more than 53 points in one season. At his current pace, he might better that single-season number by the end of next week.
Sheldon Souray, D, Stars

Sheldon Souray
Defense - DAL
GOALS: 4 | ASST: 12 | PTS: 16
SOG: 109 | +/-: 9
After falling out of favor in Edmonton, Souray was sent to the American Hockey League for the 2010-11 season. Afterward, the Oilers finally opted to buy out the final year of a five-year deal he signed in the summer of 2007, making him an unrestricted free agent.
The Stars decided to take a chance on Souray, who signed a one-year deal in Dallas. The 35-year-old defender, who can still hammer the puck from the point, has shown to be a worthwhile pickup. In 34 games, before suffering a high-ankle sprain on Dec. 23 (he could return Tuesday night against the Ducks in Anaheim), Souray put up 16 points and a plus-9 rating, averaging 20:59 minutes per night. Clearly, the burly defenseman has more game left in the tank.
Kris Versteeg, F, Panthers

The 2010-11 season wasn't nearly as kind to Versteeg as the '09-10 campaign when he was part of a championship team in Chicago. Just weeks after raising the Cup, Versteeg was shipped to Toronto as part of the Hawks' cap-cutting measures.
The speedy forward, who dealt with a nagging injury problem throughout last season, was moved to Philadelphia later in the year. He couldn't gain a foothold with the Flyers, who subsequently sent him to Florida in the offseason.
Healthy and re-united with several former Hawks, including ex-Chicago GM Dale Tallon (who holds the same position in South Florida), Versteeg has played a key role in the Panthers' first-half resurgence. Playing on a line with center Steven Weiss and winger Tomas Fleischmann, Versteeg has piled up 17 goals and 39 points (leading the Cats in both categories).
While he's struggled a bit of late, putting up just two points in his past seven games, Versteeg figures to be a key figure on the Panthers' quest to end 12-year Stanley Cup Playoff drought.
Marc-Edouard Vlasic, D, Sharks

For my money, Brent Burns' arrival in San Jose was a huge plus for the young veteran, who's already played five full NHL seasons at the ripe old age of 24. Now, Vlasic can settle into a role that better fits his abilities. In other words, he can be more of a quality support player as opposed to being one of the lead dogs.
In 38 games, working an average of 23:15, Vlasic has contributed 15 points and he's a team-best plus-20. If Vlasic can bring a solid, steady game into the postseason, the Sharks figure to have a better chance of getting where they desperately want to go.
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