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Steen, Harding lead first-quarter breakout stars

by John Kreiser

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

One is a veteran player who has already scored twice as many goals as he had all last season. Two are goaltenders who have made the most of their chance to play -- one with the team he's been with for years, the other with a new club. Two others are highly drafted forwards who have taken their play to a higher level, one with the team he rooted for as a kid, the other in a new home after being cast off by a Stanley Cup contender.

What do they have in common? All five have had breakout performances in the season's first quarter:

Alexander Steen, St. Louis Blues -- The son of former Winnipeg Jets star Thomas Steen managed all of eight goals in 40 games in 2012-13 and has never scored more than 24 in any full season. He's already blown past last season's total and seems sure to have a career season at age 29.

Alexander Steen
Center - STL
GOALS: 17 | ASST: 9 | PTS: 26
SOG: 67 | +/-: 11
Steen scored 17 goals in the St. Louis Blues' first 19 games. He's scoring at a pace no one wearing the Blue Note has matched since Brett Hull's blazing start (19 goals in 19 games) fueled an 86-goal season in 1990-91.

"I don't think we should be comparing myself to Brett Hull," Steen said.

No one is suggesting he'll hit the kind of numbers Hull put up on his prime, but Steen was the NHL's First Star of the month for October. He shares the NHL lead in goals and is No. 1 with 26 points, one less than he had all last season.

But Steen's offensive success hasn't come at the expense of his defensive responsibilities. He was plus-11 through 19 games on one of the NHL's stingiest defensive teams.

"To me, Alex's confidence comes from his preparation, his commitment to conditioning," Blues coach Ken Hitchcock said. "He's a perfect example of a player that's been diligent at making himself better. I think he's just a great example of what happens when you put your best foot forward work-wise, conditioning-wise. I think he said it best: He feels like he's fresh on the ice. When you're fresh, you're confident, and that's how he feels right now."

Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild -- Before this season, Harding was likely better known for his battle against multiple sclerosis than his performance in goal. That all began to change after Wild starter Niklas Backstrom was injured in the first period against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 8.

Harding entered that game and has been almost unbeatable since. In his 17 appearances, he's 12-2-2 with a 1.26 goals-against average, a save percentage of .945 and two shutouts. He is 10-0-0 at Xcel Energy Center and has allowed fewer than two goals 11 times, helping the Wild to a 13-4-4 start.

The 29-year-old feels playing on a defense-first team has been a major benefit.

"I think the team's helped me out a lot," he said. "I don't think it has much to do with me at all. I'm just trying to come out here, give the team a chance to win every night. You just have to be solid and make that timely save."

Harding's problems with MS limited him to five games last season. Coach Mike Yeo feels Harding now has the confidence to continue to play at a high level.

"Confidence is a big part of it," Yeo said. "Last year it was difficult dealing with his situation. He never got a chance to get in a rhythm of any kind. He was out pretty much the whole year. But the year [before], we saw him play at this level before. The great thing is that he's able to sustain it enough."

Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning -- Bishop was the odd man out in the Ottawa Senators' crease last season. Now he's the biggest reason the Lightning are looking down at the rest of the Eastern Conference.


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With Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner on hand, the Senators traded Bishop to Tampa Bay in April at the NHL Trade Deadline. Bishop's 3-4-1 record and 2.99 GAA were nothing special, but his .917 save percentage on a defensively challenged team persuaded general manager Steve Yzerman to sign Bishop to a two-year extension.

Yzerman's faith has been rewarded. Bishop is 13-2-0 in his first 15 appearances with a 2.11 GAA and a save percentage of .927. He's given the Lightning the kind of goaltending they haven't had since Dwayne Roloson took them to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final in 2011.

"Ben is stopping all the pucks he should stop and he's mixing in a few he shouldn't stop," coach Jon Cooper said after a 4-2 win against Edmonton on Nov. 7 in which Bishop made 38 saves. "And when your goaltender does that for you it gives you a really good chance to win."

Bishop's performance could earn him a spot on the U.S. Olympic Team.

"He's played terrific," U.S. team general manager Dave Poile told the Tampa Bay Times earlier this month. "He's definitely on our radar.

"Especially for goalies, we need guys who are playing well this year," said Poile, the GM of the Nashville Predators. "Certainly that favors somebody like Ben with how he's playing."

Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche-- The Avalanche are perhaps the biggest surprise in the first quarter, and the play of Duchene is a big reason for their early success.

The Avalanche took Duchene, a speedy center, with the third pick in the 2009 NHL Draft. It was a dream come true for Duchene, who grew up as a big fan of the Avalanche and, as he told the NHL Network's Kathryn Tappen earlier this month, "Worshiped Patrick [Roy], [Joe] Sakic, [Peter] Forsberg and Adam Foote."

Maybe it was Roy's return to the franchise as coach that did it, or maybe it was the five-year, $30 million contract extension he signed during the summer, but Duchene's play has taken a big step forward this season.

Duchene went from 67 points (27 goals, 40 assists) in 80 games in his second NHL season to 28 points (14-14) in 58 games during an injury-filled 2011-12 season. He had 17 goals and 43 points in 47 games last season, and is on pace to surpass the point-a-game level for the first time in his career with 12 goals (including a couple of highlight-reel tallies) and 20 points in 19 games.

"I think he's one of the top young players in the game right now," Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill told earlier this month after his team played Colorado for the second time this season. "He's on top of his game; he's got great speed; he sees the ice well; he's a got a great ability of when guys go to check him in the corner he uses that to push off with and gets away from it; he's got a great ability that way. He's hard to contain; he's a handful."

Tyler Seguin, Dallas Stars -- Being traded from the Boston Bruins, a team that's been in two of the past three Stanley Cup Finals, to the Stars, a club that hasn't qualified for the playoffs since 2008, is just what Seguin needed to blossom.

Tyler Seguin
Center - DAL
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 11 | PTS: 23
SOG: 55 | +/-: 8
Seguin was the second player taken in the 2010 NHL Draft and played a small but useful role the following spring when the Bruins won their first Stanley Cup since 1972. Though he led the Bruins in scoring in 2011-12, by last spring he was being regarded as immature and a bad fit for a team whose system had moved it among the NHL's elite. He scored only once last spring as the Bruins advanced to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final.

The Bruins sent Seguin to the Stars during the summer as part of a package that sent veteran Loui Eriksson to Boston, and for Seguin, it's been a rebirth. Playing in the middle with Benn on his left has turned Seguin, still only 21, into the offensive force he was projected to become.

"Whenever you give that guy time and space, he's going to make you pay," Benn said after setting up Seguin for four goals against the Calgary Flames last week.

Seguin has taken enough advantage of that time and space to put himself into the NHL's top 10 in goals (12) and points (23). He's a big reason the Stars finished the first quarter with an 11-7-2 record.

"I think his play for us has been real good," Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. "Offensively he's got good numbers, defensively he's played well. I think there are areas we keep trying to improve. For playing center for the first time in a couple years, Tyler has done a nice job."

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