New York Rangers coach Alain Vigneault put the pressure on goalie Henrik Lundqvist in their exit meeting after last season by telling him to be prepared to be better at the start of the season. It was a message based on Lundqvist's recent history of starting poorly.
Lundqvist has done better than just respond to Vigneault; he's put himself on pace to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player. He is off to arguably the best start of his 11-season career with 12 wins, a 1.94 goals-against average and .939 save percentage through 18 games.
He is first in the NHL in GAA and save percentage among goalies who have appeared in six or more games.
Lundqvist's save percentage is the best he has ever had through the first 18 games of a season. His win total is tied for the best he's ever had through 18 games. It's also just the third time in his 11 seasons that he has a sub-2.00 GAA through 18 games.
By comparison, Lundqvist was 9-6-3 with a 2.57 GAA and .911 save percentage through 18 games last season. He was 7-10-0 with a 2.51 GAA and .917 save percentage through 18 appearances at the start of the 2013-14 season.
"We count on him to be our best player," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "And I think we've leaned on him a little more heavily than we have in the past few seasons. He's been huge for us."
A big part of why he's been so good is he took Vigneault's message at the end of last season as both a challenge and an opportunity to reassess his mental approach.
In his analysis, Lundqvist discovered that he wasn't coming into training camp with the proper focus. He realized he was waiting until the start of the regular season to begin trying to find his game when he should have been doing that in camp. He also discovered he is at his best when he finds the balance between being intensely competitive and relaxed.
Together with goaltending coach Benoit Allaire, Lundqvist put together a schedule he felt would give him the best chance to be at his best at the start of the season. It's working about as well as anyone could have hoped.
Lundqvist even admits he's playing the best hockey of his career.
"I think so, just because of the way I feel," Lundqvist said. "I'm more relaxed this year. I've always been intense. I've tried to take that down a notch just to be more aware. I think the awareness has been the best part of my game so far. I try to be relaxed, but at the same time have that compete level that I need."
He has needed his focus because the Rangers are, as Staal said, relying heavily on Lundqvist to win games.
New York is tied for 26th in the League in shots on goal allowed per game (31.4) and 28th in shot attempts percentage (45.88). They're also last in the League in 5-on-5 scoring chance differential (minus-77), according to war-on-ice.com.
"Goaltending is a big part of their success," Montreal Canadiens coach Michel Therrien said. "Lundqvist probably is playing the best hockey of his career."
Therrien's opinion on this is interesting because what Lundqvist is doing for the Rangers so far this season is quite similar to what Carey Price did for the Canadiens last season.
Price made up for Montreal's deficiencies in shots on goal against (30.1 per game), puck possession (48.50 SAT%) and 5-on-5 scoring chance differential (minus-116) by finishing first among goalies with 30 or more appearances with a 1.96 GAA and .933 save percentage.
Behind Price, who won 44 games, the Canadiens finished first in the Atlantic Division with 110 points. It was no surprise that Price cleaned up at the 2015 NHL Awards by winning the Hart Trophy, Vezina Trophy, Ted Lindsay Award and the William M. Jennings Trophy.
If the status quo remains for Lundqvist and the Rangers, he'll be the big winner at the 2016 NHL Awards.
"I haven't seen every game, but the thing that I saw is Lundqvist is a big difference every night," Therrien said.
Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks: Kane has had strong start in past seasons, but nothing he has done compares to what he is doing so far in 2015-16. He leads the NHL with 21 assists and 34 points through 22 games, and his 13 goals are tied for second. Kane is on pace for 126 points. Jamie Benn led the NHL with 87 points last season. Kane has at least one point in 17 consecutive games and in 20 of his 22 this season. He has already had 10 games of two or more points, including three with three or more. He had four points, including the winning goal, in a 4-2 win against the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 8. Kane has been moving well, particularly without the puck. He hasn't at all been predictable when he gets the puck, and he's shooting more than ever. Kane is averaging 3.68 shots per game (81 in 22 games); his career average entering the season was 2.99. It also helps that rookie Artemi Panarin has played well on the opposite wing, creating a matchup problem for the opposition.
Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars: Benn has picked up right where he left off last season, when he won the Art Ross Trophy with 87 points, including 10 in his last three games and four in the season finale. He is second in the League with 32 points and first with 16 goals. He has scored two goals in each of the past two games, giving him four games with two goals this season. He has points in 18 of 22 games, including goals in 12. More importantly, Benn's production is leading to wins this season. Dallas leads the Western Conference with 17 wins and 34 points. Benn has points in 14 of Dallas' 17 wins. He has scored three game-winning goals. He also has three points in shorthanded situations. His time on the penalty kill (1:36 per game) is the only thing that separates him in this category from teammate Tyler Seguin, who has 31 points on 12 goals and 19 assists.