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Twelve things we learned in first quarter of season

by Dan Rosen

Predictions are great for clicks on a website and debates pretty much everywhere hockey fans gather, online or in person, but in reality they're meaningless because nobody making them has a crystal ball to see into the future. Storylines and trends have to develop. Teams and players have to deal with adversity by living through it or crashing and burning because of it.

Ultimately, a season in the NHL teaches us more than we ever could have predicted. Through 25 percent of this season, here are 12 things we have learned so far:

1. 3-on-3 in overtime makes a huge difference

The NHL and NHL Players' Association couldn't have asked for better results from the 3-on-3 overtime format than they've gotten in the first quarter of the season. The goal of reducing overtime to five minutes of 3-on-3 from five minutes of 4-on-4 was to reduce the number of games that go to the shootout. It's working. Through games played Saturday, 68.8 percent of games that extended into overtime have ended in overtime (44 of 64). Last season, it was 44.4 percent. It has never been better than 50 percent since the NHL introduced the shootout in 2005-06.

2. Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel are not a perfect match

The pair that so many thought would work mixed like oil and water when they played together at the start of the season. Kessel has since found a match with Evgeni Malkin, but Crosby is still struggling to find some consistent production and linemates; he has 11 points through 20 games. Kessel and Crosby have had difficulty meshing on the power play too, although they did cash in with the man advantage Saturday. The Pittsburgh Penguins were 23rd on the power play at 15.1 percent entering play Sunday. Crosby and Kessel are regulars on the top unit. Kessel and Crosby each have two points on the power play.

3. Montreal is more than Carey Price

Price missed nine consecutive games, but the Montreal Canadiens went 5-2-2 without him. Goalie Mike Condon started all nine games and had a .904 save percentage and 2.39 goals-against average. His numbers took a dip in his final four starts (1-2-1, .857 save percentage, 3.47 GAA), but that's why it was perfect timing to get Price back. The fact that the Canadiens were able to win without Price is big considering they might not have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season if not for Price's MVP season. The Canadiens are playing a more complete game, with possession a buzzword instead of a bad word now in Montreal. It's made a big difference.

4. Lundqvist isn't a slow starter anymore

New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist went away for the offseason with a challenge from coach Alain Vigneault to come back ready to be his elite self at the start of the season. Lundqvist had typically been a slow starter. Not this season. He's an early favorite for the Vezina Trophy with 11 wins, a .943 save percentage and 1.85 goals-against average. He has the best save percentage and GAA among starting goalies.

5. Rookie class is about more than Eichel, McDavid

Buffalo Sabres center Jack Eichel and Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid certainly look like they were worth the hype, even though McDavid is out of the lineup with a broken collarbone. But the hype now should be about the 2015-16 rookie class in general, because it is special. Artemi Panarin (Chicago Blackhawks), Dylan Larkin (Detroit Red Wings), Max Domi and Anthony Duclair (Arizona Coyotes), Nikolaj Ehlers (Winnipeg Jets), Colton Parayko and Robby Fabbri (St. Louis Blues), Sam Bennett (Calgary Flames), Jared McCann and Ben Hutton (Vancouver Canucks), and Oscar Lindberg (New York Rangers) are having impactful rookie seasons. The Calder Trophy race might be wide open because of McDavid's injury, but rookies across the League are making their cases for why they belong in the discussion now.

Artemi Panarin
Left Wing - CHI
GOALS: 7 | ASST: 14 | PTS: 21
SOG: 51 | +/-: 2

6. Chicago found another gem

The Blackhawks traded Brandon Saad to the Columbus Blue Jackets during the offseason because signing him to a long-term contract was prohibitive with their salary-cap structure. Panarin is more than making up for what the Blackhawks miss in Saad (they'd still love to have both). Panarin leads all rookies with 21 points through 20 games. He has been the left wing on an impressive line with NHL leading scorer Patrick Kane and center Artem Anisimov.

7. Scoring is actually an issue for the Lightning

In the category of didn't see that coming, the Tampa Bay Lightning are having scoring problems. They led the NHL with 259 goals last season (3.16 per game), but were 21st in the League with 2.41 goals per game this season (53 goals in 22 games). Injuries have been an issue. Top-six forwards Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat and Jonathan Drouin have missed time. They're not getting enough production from their defensemen. Goal production from their defensemen is also down. They're averaging 0.23 goals per game from defensemen this season (five in 22 games) after getting 0.39 per game from them last season (32 in 82 games).

8. Norris Trophy race has a new contender

Dallas Stars defenseman John Klingberg is building off a surprisingly successful rookie season and putting himself in position to be a Norris Trophy candidate by the end of the season. He is tied for first in scoring among defenseman with 22 points, including 10 on the power play. He was tied for fifth among all scorers in the NHL entering Sunday. Stars coach Lindy Ruff said Klingberg's defensive awareness has improved to the point where he's an all-situations defenseman now. He is playing more than 23 minutes per game. The Stars are first in the Central Division.

9. Kuznetsov is the real deal

Just as coach Barry Trotz hoped would happen, Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov picked up where he left off last season and has been a consistently dominant player. Kuznetsov is leading the Capitals with 21 points through 19 games. He made a seamless transition to the first line with Nicklas Backstrom out at the start of the season and played well enough to stay there before Trotz decided to shake things up.

10. Toughest task in hockey might be winning the Central Division

The Central Division is the best division in the NHL this season. Typically, we'd add the word arguably in that sentence to couch it a bit and leave it open for debate. There isn't a debate. Four of the top 10 teams in the overall League standings entering Sunday were from the Central Division. Five of the division's seven teams ranked among the top 14 teams in terms of points percentage. The Metropolitan Division had four, but it's an eight-team division. Four of the top 10 teams in terms of goals per game were from the Central. The top three scorers and seven of the top 13 come were from the Central. The seven teams in the division are a combined 62-34-10 in game against teams from outside the division for a .698 points percentage. The Metropolitan Division is second with a .560 points percentage against teams outside the division.

11. Zero for three in Calgary

The Calgary Flames were hoping by this point in the season that one of Jonas Hiller, Karri Ramo or Joni Ortio would have stepped out and earned the No. 1 goalie job. It hasn't happened. All three have struggled. Hiller is hurt, Ortio isn't getting many opportunities and the Flames have the worst save percentage in the NHL (.882). If you're looking for a reason for regression in Calgary, look no further than the crease. That said, the good news is Ramo, who has started 10 consecutive games, has allowed three goals in winning his past two starts. The better news is the Flames have allowed 39 total shots on goal in those games, a significant drop from their first 19 games, when they yielded 30.9 shots per game.

12. New Jersey and Arizona are playoff contenders

The New Jersey Devils and Arizona Coyotes weren't expected to be in the playoff race at any point this season. They're both within striking distance of a wild-card spot with 25 percent of the season complete. Devils coach John Hynes is making a difference. It's more than just the all-star season New Jersey is getting from goalie Cory Schneider. Hynes is getting more out of Travis Zajac than previous coach Peter DeBoer ever could. Mike Cammalleri is a point-per-game player. Adam Henrique is performing like a No. 1 center. The young defensemen are improving. Meanwhile, the Coyotes are thriving with rookies playing starring roles. Duclair and Domi have breathed new life into the organization.


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