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Steen, Harding, Avalanche among top 10 surprises

by Dan Rosen

With the first quarter of the 2013-14 season complete, looks at some of its biggest storylines and award contenders.

Some of the NHL's biggest surprises this season can be found atop the leaderboards for goals, assists, points, wins, save percentage, goals-against average and shutouts.

A who's who of NHL superstars it is not, but with a quarter of the season now complete, the players and teams at or near the top of the stat sheets and standings deserve to be taken seriously.

Here are the top 10 surprises so far in the 2013-14 NHL season (listed in no particular order):

Steen rockets up the scoring charts

St. Louis Blues forward Alexander Steen has been carrying the hot stick into every game this season.

His 26 points are second in the League to Sidney Crosby's 28, and he is tied with Alex Ovechkin for the League lead in goals with 17. He had points in 13 straight games and 17 of his first 18 before getting shut out in the past two. Steen has scored at least one goal in 14 games this season, including three two-goal games.

"I think the offense is a direct reflection of a lot of things with him," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock told earlier this season. "It's an accumulation of a guy that plays with a great conscience. He's constantly in the right position defensively, and that allows him to be in the right position offensively."

Harding is the Wild's new hope

Josh Harding's recent start against the Montreal Canadiens notwithstanding, the Minnesota Wild goalie has been nothing short of brilliant. He has 13 wins, a 1.48 goals-against average and .939 save percentage following Minnesota's 4-3 win against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday.

Harding's story is made all the more heartwarming because he's becoming a star in the NHL in spite of his disease.

Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis last year, but to his credit he will not talk publicly about playing with the disease this season because he wants to keep the focus on his team and, if necessary, his play.

"Life is full of uncertainty. You never know what will happen, but right now he's just a good NHL goaltender," Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher said. "There doesn't need to be any asterisk with what he's doing."

Roy's impact

The Colorado Avalanche have a chance to go from worst to first in the Western Conference under rookie coach Patrick Roy, who has brought his brand of fiery intensity and years of experience behind the bench in junior to the rejuvenated franchise.

The Avalanche have gotten superb goaltending from Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. They are allowing a Western Conference-low 2.10 goals-per game despite giving up 32 shots on goal per game.

Matt Duchene was off to a torrid start before sustaining an oblique injury. Paul Stastny has played well. Gabriel Landeskog is healthy and producing. Ryan O'Reilly's holdout from last season is all but forgotten. PA Parenteau has been solid and rookie Nathan MacKinnon, the No. 1 pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, has been as good as advertised for an 18-year-old.

"When you've tasted losing, it breeds more losing," Duchene said before sustaining his injury. "When you taste winning, you get that hunger for it. I've never wanted to win games more than right now in my entire career. It's heartbreaking when we lose right now."

Lightning near the top of the Atlantic Division

Jon Cooper has brought the right message and systems to the Tampa Bay Lightning, and Ben Bishop clearly has been the right goalie, because the team, which hasn't reached the Stanley Cup Playoffs since 2011, is currently second in the Atlantic Division, one point behind the Boston Bruins.

The Lightning, though, will have their hands full in the coming months because Steven Stamkos is on the sidelines recovering from surgery to repair his fractured tibia. Tampa Bay won its first two games without Stamkos, but has since lost two in a row, giving up 11 goals.

Malkin's goal drought

Evgeni Malkin's goalless drought is at 15 games after he was held without a goal in the Pittsburgh Penguins' 4-0 victory against the Washington Capitals on Wednesday night. It is the longest goalless drought of Malkin's career.

He's still producing points (14 assists during the drought), but without Malkin's typical production, the Penguins' offense had dipped (32 goals in the past 14 games). However, what's amazing is Malkin is still a point-per-game player without scoring a goal since Oct. 17. He has 22 points in 22 games.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Hertl

There are plenty of early-season candidates for the Calder Trophy, but none of them burst onto the scene with as much flair as San Jose Sharks forward Tomas Hertl.

The demonstrative, affable 20-year-old from the Czech Republic scored four goals in a 9-2 win against the New York Rangers on Oct. 8, capping his night with an artistic between-the-legs move to beat Martin Biron. Cameras caught his mother in the stands in tears. It was the third game of Hertl's career, but he was simply building on what he did three nights earlier, when he scored two goals in a 4-1 win against the Phoenix Coyotes.

Hertl cooled after that, scoring two goals in the next 11 games, but he has heated up of late, scoring four goals and adding three assists in the past seven games.

Seguin's restart in Dallas

Tyler Seguin left the Bruins with a battered reputation and so much to prove about himself, his play and his off-ice habits. He's doing that for the Dallas Stars this season.

Seguin has been a model citizen and a star player in Dallas, forming a connection on and off the ice with captain Jamie Benn that is helping the Stars stay above water in the Western Conference. They are fifth in the Central Division with 24 points, six short of the fourth-place Avalanche.

Seguin leads the Stars with 12 goals (his high in Boston was 29 in 2011-12) and is tied with Benn with a team-high 23 points. He scored four goals in less than 15 minutes of ice time in a 7-3 win against the Calgary Flames last week.

"He wants to show the world that whatever was out there was unjustified, that this is who he is as a player," Dallas GM Jim Nill told earlier in the season. "He's been one of the best players on the ice for us since Day One."

Upside down in Phoenix

The Coyotes have long been known as a team built around its defense and goaltending. They haven't finished in the League’s top 10 in goals since 2001-02.

This season, though, the Coyotes have been scoring more than at any point since the franchise moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996. They’re also giving up goals at a much higher rate than they've been accustomed to since Dave Tippett took over as coach in 2009. They were fourth in the NHL in goals per game (3.29), but 24th in goals allowed per game (3.05).

"Quite frankly, it's a little bit foreign territory for us," Phoenix GM Don Maloney told

Phoenix's power play has been a big reason the offense has been so dangerous. The addition of center Mike Ribeiro coupled with the play on the blue line from Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Keith Yandle has helped the Coyotes score on 22.4 percent of their power plays (sixth in the NHL). However, they were 24th on the penalty kill at 78.5 percent.

Moulson, Vanek and the blockbuster

The Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders sent shock waves through the NHL by pulling off the biggest blockbuster trade of the first quarter on Oct. 27. Buffalo sent Thomas Vanek to the Islanders in exchange for Matt Moulson and New York's 2014 first-round and 2015 second-round picks.

Ironically, Darcy Regier, the Sabres general manager who pulled off the trade, was fired Nov. 13.

Moulson and Vanek are scheduled to be unrestricted free agents following the season. They have gotten off to vastly different starts with their new clubs. Moulson has nine points in 10 games, but Vanek has three points in six games and has missed the past five games with an upper-body injury.

'The Professor' in pads

Ben Scrivens' teammates have started calling him "The Professor" for his linguistic abilities in front of the media. The Los Angeles Kings goalie, who went to Cornell University, typically offers intelligent, thought-provoking answers. He's even used the word "meritocracy" in a quote.

Scrivens, thrust into the starting role because Jonathan Quick sustained a Grade 2 groin strain Nov. 12, has been earning his playing time.

He has won four straight starts with two shutouts and only four goals allowed since Quick went down. Scrivens leads the NHL with a 1.35 GAA, a .935 save percentage and three shutouts. He was named the NHL's First Star of the Week for last week after sweeping through the New York metropolitan area with three wins and back-to-back shutouts against the New Jersey Devils and Rangers.

"You work hard and you want your efforts to be shown to show you're ready," Scrivens said. "Unfortunately, as a backup, a lot of times that doesn't come to fruition, but if you don't do that and a situation like this comes up, you've lost an opportunity to potentially give yourself a look somewhere else or give yourself a look here. There are only so many chances you get at this level, so you've got to be ready."

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