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Several surprises among first-quarter storylines

by Dave Lozo
Twenty games does not make a season, but it does serve as a good sample size to examine trends across the League.

So, with a quarter of the season in the history books, it's time to look at seven of the most surprising story lines in the NHL so far this season.

1. Tim Thomas is practically unstoppable

What a difference a year makes.

Goaltender Tim Thomas was left for dead last season. After winning the Vezina Trophy in 2009, his game fell apart. It led to Tuukka Rask taking the starting the job with the Bruins and carrying them into the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Entering this season, the only discussion around Thomas was how the Bruins could get his $5 million cap hit off the books. The experts deemed Thomas untradeable, which is exactly what he is now -- except for all the right reasons.

The 37-year-old Thomas has come up as big as the Chrysler Building. He's first in GAA (1.46), save percentage (.955) and shutouts (4) and fourth in wins (11), just two back of leader Carey Price. Thomas earned a shutout against the Phoenix Coyotes during the Bruins' opening-weekend games in Prague and hasn't let go of the starting job since.

Not only is Thomas among the front-runners for the Vezina Trophy, but he could receive consideration for the Hart Trophy if he keeps this up.

2. We get older, they stay the same age

Most players struggle to find employment in the NHL when they reach their mid-30s, forget about excelling once they hit the big 4-0.

But Mark Recchi, Teemu Selanne, Nicklas Lidstrom, Dwayne Roloson and Mike Modano -- the only players in the NHL who are 40 or older -- aren't showing too many signs that time is gaining on them.

Recchi is the League's oldest player at 42, but he has 4 goals and 11 assists in 20 games. Modano's game might have slipped the most out of this foursome, although he's not being asked by the Red Wings to contribute offensively like he did during his prime with Dallas. He has just 2 goals and 6 assists in 19 games, but he's been coming on lately with a goal and 6 assists in his past nine games.
Lidstrom and Selanne, meanwhile, must be taking post-game soaks in the fountain of youth.

Selanne is on a point-per-game pace with 8 goals and 14 assists through 22 games. He still possesses enough speed to force defenseman to back off and his shot is a major weapon on the Ducks' power play. He's currently dealing with a groin injury, but it's not believed to be anything serious.

Some said last season was a sign that Lidstrom was finally starting to see his game slip. Throw that idea away this season. With 3 goals and 17 assists in 20 games, he's thrust himself into contention for his seventh Norris Trophy. He's also playing an average of 24:19 per game, good for 20th in the League.

Roloson's record isn't impressive -- he's 2-9-1 for the Islanders -- but it's not for his lack of fine play. His 2.58 GAA and .912 save percentage while playing behind a team that's allowing 30 shots per game shows there's still plenty left in his tank.

3. The logjam in the Western Conference

It's not that there were eight clear-cut favorites who were going to run away with the West after 20-plus games, but usually sitting in first place in your conference provides some security at this point in the season.

Consider the Detroit Red Wings, who are in their familiar position at the top of the West through Wednesday's games. Nothing surprising there. What's unexpected is the Wings are a two-game losing streak away from finding themselves barely hanging onto a top-8 spot.

That's because the Chicago Blackhawks, currently sitting in ninth place, are just four points out of first place. The two teams behind the Blackhawks -- the Dallas Stars and Anaheim Ducks -- are just five points behind the Red Wings. Just six points separate first from 13th in the West.

If you think this is just the result of the season being in its early stages, think again. On this date last year, the first-place San Jose Sharks and 13th-place St. Louis Blues were separated by 16 points. Two years earlier, the first-place Sharks held a 17-point lead on the Blues, who were coincidentally in the same place in the standings.

4. They're not illusions, they're hat tricks

Through Monday's games, there have been 26 hat tricks this season. At the same point last season, there were only 13.

There are far too many names to list all of the hat tricks, but Tampa Bay's Steven Stamkos has two of them. The Caps' Alex Semin also has two. The Flyers' Jeff Carter had a natural hat trick, and the Rangers' Derek Stepan scored the first three goals of his career on opening night.

Stars have had had tricks -- Jarome Iginla, Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and Evgeni Malkin. Players not known for their offense have had hat tricks -- Jay McClement, Ed Jovanovski, Brad Richardson and Anthony Stewart.

The Phoenix Coyotes, meanwhile, boast a League-high four players who have recorded hat tricks -- Jovanovski, Ray Whitney, Vernon Fiddler and Lee Stempniak.

5. Keith giving it away

Perhaps this is a strange statistical coincidence that's not indicative of a player's overall performance, but it definitely falls under the category of surprising when last season's Norris Trophy winner is leading the League in giveaways.

After committing a mere 59 giveaways in 2009-10, Duncan Keith coughed up the puck 31 times through 23 games, putting him on pace for 111.

Just how many giveaways is 111? It would be the most since Jaromir Jagr had a record 126 in 2006-07 for the Rangers. But it's not as though having your No. 1 defenseman lead the League in turnovers is a detriment to team success.

The most giveaways by a defenseman since 2005-06 was 110 by Edmonton's Chris Pronger, who helped the Oilers reach the Stanley Cup Final that season.

6. And, so are the Devils

The Devils have been as close to a lock to make the postseason as any team in the NHL the past two decades. They missed the playoffs once in the past 20 seasons. It happened in 1996 when they lost on the final day of the regular season to the Ottawa Senators.

Atlantic Division champions last season, the Devils made the biggest splash during the summer by adding free agents Ilya Kovalchuk, Anton Volchenkov, Jason Arnott and Henrik Tallinder.

Forget about simply making the playoffs; the Devils entered this season on the short list of Stanley Cup favorites.

The dream season quickly turned into a nightmare. The Devils have been at the bottom of the League standings since losing on opening night. The new faces haven't meshed under new coach John MacLean, veterans have been underperforming and the injuries have been so overwhelming that it's almost comical.

Martin Brodeur, Zach Parise, Volchenkov, Jamie Langenbrunner, Brian Rolston, Bryce Salvador, and Jacob Josefson are among the key components to miss extended time for New Jersey. Thanks in part to thos injuries, the Devils have used 12 rookies this season.

The result has been the second-worst start in team history.

7. Where are all the shootouts?

No, Wyatt Earp hasn't become commissioner of the NHL. But shootouts are on the decline this year.

Through Sunday, just 26 of the 62 games that have gone to overtime have been decided by a shootout. During the same stretch a season ago, 52 of the 77 games that went to OT were decided by a shootout.

What's the reason for the lack of shootouts?

Perhaps it was the NHL devaluing shootout wins in the tiebreaker format, making the urgency to win in OT stronger. Maybe teams have less confidence in their ability to win a shootout and are going all out in OT. Or, maybe, some teams have realized that teams that prefer the shootout are playing just to survive the five-minute OT and capitalizing on their lack of aggression.

Whatever the reason, shootouts are way, way down.

Montreal, Tampa Bay and Ottawa have still yet to get to a shootout this season in a combined 60 games. Through the same amount of games last season, those teams took part in 12 shootouts.

Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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