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New-look Lightning lead surprise teams

by Dan Rosen /
With a new owner, a new general manager, a new coach and 10 new players who have played at least 24 games, the Tampa Bay Lightning went through a full overhaul this past summer. About the only thing the Lightning didn't change was their address and a couple of superstars that call the St. Pete Times Forum home.

Change apparently has done the Lightning well. Their new look from top to bottom has been a great fit, but it would be hard to find anyone who expected Tampa Bay to be leading the Southeast Division 50 games into the season -- ahead of the reigning Presidents' Trophy winners, the Washington Capitals.

Well, it is true. The Lightning have a four-point lead on the Capitals and shut out their division rivals twice in January. They also lead our list of the three most surprising teams in the NHL at the All-Star break:

1. Tampa Bay Lightning (31-15-5, 67 points) -- They're second in the Eastern Conference and third in the NHL at the break. The Lightning have pretty much established themselves as a playoff team for the first time since 2007, but how high will they finish?

As long as they keep to their current pace and fend off the Capitals, they'll at least be a top-three seed.

Steven Stamkos, who had 51 goals and 95 points last season, is on pace for 61 and 107 this season. He leads the NHL with 38 goals and 67 points, one more point than Sidney Crosby, who has missed the last nine games with a concussion.

Fellow All-Star Martin St. Louis is the yang to Stamkos' yin. He's fifth in the NHL with 60 points and second with 40 assists.

General manager Steve Yzerman's offseason acquisitions of Pavel Kubina, Sean Bergenheim, Brett Clark and Dominic Moore are working out. He's made perhaps the best in-season move of any GM by trading for goaltender Dwayne Roloson, who has three shutouts and a 7-3-0 record since coming over from the Islanders on Jan. 1.
The players bought into new coach Guy Boucher's style early in training camp and it's paying off in a big way.

The Lightning have had their bumps -- they've given up the first goal in 24 of their 51 games, but they've won 12 of those and picked up points in 14. They're a minus-3 in goal differential, yet they're still one of only six teams with at least 30 wins this season.

2. Dallas Stars (30-15-5, 65 points) -- Back-to-back springs with no playoffs seem like a distant memory in Dallas nowadays, with the Stars leading the Pacific Division by three points over the Anaheim Ducks.

The Stars are rejuvenated under general manager Joe Nieuwendyk and coach Marc Crawford

Kari Lehtonen and Andrew Raycroft have revived their careers between the pipes in the wake of Marty Turco's departure. It's odd that Dallas doesn't have Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen anymore, but a new wave of young players needed the opportunity for greater ice time and they're making it happen.

Loui Eriksson is an All-Star with 17 goals and 32 assists. James Neal has 20 goals and Jamie Benn has chipped in with 33 points. Leading scorer Brad Richards, as well as Mike Ribeiro and Brenden Morrow, who leads the team with 21 goals, provide the veteran pop to this forward group, but it's not all about them and that's good news.

The return of Jamie Langenbrunner via trade has given the Stars another reliable veteran presence. They've also gotten production from free-agent signee Adam Burish, who was looking for an established role after being in and out of the lineup the past two seasons with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The Stars hardly are out of the woods. An extended losing streak could drop them from their lofty perch in the standings, but they've set themselves up to play for a top-three seed down the stretch. And here we figured they'd be fighting to get into the playoff picture by the All-Star break.

3. New Jersey Devils (16-30-3, 35 points) -- We never said every surprise has to be good. This one has stunned the entire NHL community.

The Devils are last in the NHL at the All-Star break -- what are the odds? Isn't this the same team that won 48 games last season and earned 103 points to win the Atlantic Division? Isn't this the same team that has made the playoffs for 13 straight seasons?

Yes … and no.

It is the same franchise, but for most of the season the Devils have not been the same team. Injuries to key contributors like superstar left wing Zach Parise, forward Brian Rolston and the since-traded Jamie Langenbrunner, defenseman Bryce Salvador and even future Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur crushed the Devils earlier in the season.

Parise remains out with a knee injury and Salvador hasn't played all season with post-concussion symptoms.

Even the replacements got hurt, including defenseman Matt Taormina, who looked promising until going down with an ankle injury in mid-November. Mark Fraser and Jacob Josefson are two others that missed significant time. The Devils have lost 277 man-games to injury this season, and have had a team-record nine players make their NHL debut in 2010-11.

Ilya Kovalchuk has been healthy all season, but the superstar with the $100 million contract has been a shell of his former self. If he gets to 25 goals and 50 points this season -- and he'd have to pick up his pace to get there -- he'll still fall so far below his career averages.

More than anything, though, the Devils just never bought into the style that now ex-coach John MacLean wanted them to play. They couldn't break out of their zone, they established zero speed through the neutral zone, and puck possession basically was non-existent. Their entire game suffered as a whole.

This is not what we've come to expect from the Devils.

Jacques Lemaire, who replaced MacLean behind the bench Dec. 23, has gotten them back on track in the past couple of weeks, but they've got a long way to go before their abysmal record turns respectable.

Surprising? Considering the franchise, the Hall of Fame goalie and the $100 million man -- it absolutely is.

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