With the first quarter of the 2013-14 season complete, NHL.com looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.
There is no question the goaltending position has evolved in the past couple of decades, and the statistics back up the idea that the standards in net have risen to never-before-seen levels.
Hockey-reference.com tracks the NHL's average save percentage back to 1983-84, and the collective best in a full season was .914 in 2011-12. That mark topped the previous high of .913, established the prior season.
Through games Wednesday, the League average save percentage was .915. The collective goals-against average has been stagnant the past couple of seasons, but teams are getting slightly more shots on goal and the goalies are stopping them.
As recently as 2002-03, the Vezina Trophy winner, Martin Brodeur, had a save percentage of .914. That would place a goaltender 23rd on the qualified leaders list in 2013-14.
There are some new names, not to mention a couple of surprising ones, among the top contenders for the Vezina through the first quarter of the 2013-14 season.
Tuukka Rask, Boston Bruins -- Rask would not be the sentimental favorite (that's obviously the guy listed next). He also doesn't lead the League in any of the major goaltending categories. He is close though, and the combination of his sparkling play and his workload make him the top pick at this point.
He has yet to spend a full, 82-game season as the Bruins' unquestioned No. 1 goaltender, but Rask already has an impressive resume and might be getting better. Rask has a .946 save percentage and a 1.61 goals-against average while starting 18 of his team’s 21 games. As a result, the Bruins have yielded the fewest non-shootout goals in the League.
Rask's .953 even-strength save percentage is second among all goalies with at least six starts.
Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild -- What Harding has accomplished is not unprecedented in hockey, it is unprecedented in professional sports. Harding not only is playing while managing a potentially debilitating disease, he is taking a starring role in Minnesota.
Harding's numbers are astonishing. He's 13-3-2 with a .939 save percentage and 1.48 goals-against average. Those are NHL 14-on-beginner-mode numbers. The Wild began the season 3-3-3 but have roared toward the top of the Western Conference while Harding has supplanted Niklas Backstrom as their No. 1 goaltender.
His form even has sparked talk of Harding joining the discussion for a place on Canada's entry at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. His desire to keep the focus on his team's play and not his disease is admirable, though his ability to keep playing has made him a wonderful role model for others dealing with it. His play has been remarkable. He's unquestionably one of the great stories of the 2013-14 season.
The reason Rask gets the nod is workload, in number of starts (18 for Rask, 16 for Harding) and in-game action. Minnesota has been the best shot-suppressing team in the League (24.7 per game, nearly six fewer than the League average and five a game more than the Bruins), and because of both of those factors Rask has faced 116 more shots this season than Harding.
Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning -- Bishop's inclusion on this list isn't as astonishing as Harding's, but he's had a great start to the season and would be a breakout star if he can keep it up. He was battling just to be the second or third choice with the St. Louis Blues and the Ottawa Senators, but Bishop was given an opportunity to compete for a starting gig in Tampa Bay and he's thrived to this point.
He has 13 wins, a .921 save percentage and a 2.29 GAA. In the two games following a potentially devastating injury to forward Steven Stamkos, Bishop helped foster belief among his teammates that the winning could continue by stopping 52 of 54 shots in wins against the Montreal Canadiens and Anaheim Ducks.
Whether he can maintain this pace or even something close to it remains to be seen. Without Stamkos, the Lightning are likely to play a more defensive style, which could help, but the absence of Stamkos' ability to produce offensive-zone time, let alone goals, will put more pressure on the defense and goaltender.
There were five great NHL goaltenders at Olympic orientation camp in Arlington, Va., for the United States before the season began, but Bishop has outplayed all of them to this point.
There are several other candidates who have a convincing argument to be third on this list. The Canadiens' Carey Price has been phenomenal. Both goaltenders for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer, have been excellent despite the team's inability to make puck possession a fair fight most nights.
And though the numbers don't measure up to this group, Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres has been tremendous in the face of on-ice adversity. There's no question he's facing more quality scoring chances per game, but he's been the best player on the ice in a losing effort on at least a half-dozen occasions already.
It has been a great season so far for goaltenders, with a mix of proven stars and new faces trying to prove they belong among the elite masked men in the NHL.