Few things in sports are certain these days. I mean, who would’ve thought in April, or even in early October, that the Anaheim Angels of all teams, would win the World Series? And if anyone would have told me in August that Kurt Warner was going to start the NFL season with a 0-6 record, I would have told them to get their heads examined. What’s next? A 28-year old gets hired to end an 85-year World Series drought?

The NHL season, although it is not even one third completed, has progressed just as unexpectedly. Thought by many to be the team that could finally turn the “big three” Western Conference teams of Detroit, Colorado and Dallas into the “big four,” the San Jose Sharks have been stuck in last place in the Pacific Division all season. Their early season struggles prompted them to fire coach Darryl Sutter in an attempt to right the ship before it sinks too deep.

The Avalanche haven’t looked quite right either, but they have at least put themselves in playoff contention. Peter Forsberg is back after taking last season off, and Patrick Roy is coming off one of the best seasons of his Hall of Fame career, but the Avs are just one game over .500 so far, putting them in a tie for eighth in the Western Conference along with Los Angeles and Anaheim, just two points behind Edmonton.

After signing Tony Amonte, the Phoenix Coyotes expected a better start than 8-12-4-2, and after starting the season 5-3-3-2, the Calgary Flames are just 2-10 over their past 12 games, which led to the firing of coach Greg Gilbert this week. Nashville did nothing to improve during the offseason, and it shows on the ice so far. They have just 16 points, and will remain in the cellar for the rest of the season. Without Theo Fleury, the Blackhawks have kept themselves in position to make a playoff run if and when he returns. Just behind them is Columbus who has played well early this season, and with their speed, the Blue Jackets might just remain in the playoff hunt all season.

The two biggest surprises in the West so far both come from the Northwest Division. The Minnesota Wild started the season on a tear, going 8-1-2 over their first 11 games, which put them atop the Western Conference going into November and in position to make a run at their first ever playoff appearance. They have since returned to earth, but their 32 points are the third best in the Conference, behind only Dallas and Vancouver. While Dallas was expected to be among the top teams in the league, the Canucks were thought to have enough scoring to stick with the likes of Detroit and Colorado, but their goaltending was the big question. Dan Cloutier has responded, leading the Canucks to a 10 game winning streak, as he earned NHL Player of the Month honors for November.

Last season, it was the Islanders who rebounded from an awful season and jumped to an early lead in the Eastern Conference following an 11-1-1-1 start. This time around, Tampa Bay was the big surprise in the East early on, as they finished October with a 7-1-2 record. November wasn’t as kind to them, however, as the Lightning went 5-6-1-1 for the month, putting them sixth in the East. Just ahead of the Lightning in the Southeast Division is Carolina. After last season’s Stanley Cup Finals appearance, no one is surprised by the ‘Canes early season success. But this season, the man between the pipes has changed. After Arturs Irbe struggled early, Kevin Weekes took his spot and goal, and since then Carolina has been one of the hottest teams in the league.

The Boston Bruins entered last year’s playoffs with the top spot in the Eastern Conference, only to be knocked out by Montreal. After allowing Bill Guerin to sign with Dallas, Byron Dafoe to start this year without a team only to settle for Atlanta, and Kyle McLaren to remain an unsigned, restricted free agent, all the Bruins have done is go 16-3-3-1 during the first two months of the season, putting them back atop the conference. Behind the stellar play of goalies John Grahame and Steve Shields, and center Joe Thornton, Boston’s 36 points is tied with Dallas for the league lead. In the midst of a 10 game unbeaten streak, the Ottawa Senators are second in the Northeast with 29 points, led by Marian Hossa’s 15 goals.

In Montreal, the big story is the struggle of MVP goalie Jose Theodore. With 25 points, they are still in playoff contention, but Theodore will have to return to normal if the Habs want to improve on last year’s second round defeat. On Nov. 2, the Maple Leafs lost to Montreal 5-2, putting their record at 3-7-2. But then Ed Belfour started playing like the Leafs knew he could. Since then Belfour is 9-3, and Toronto is back above .500, just two points behind the Rangers for the final playoff spot.

That the Rangers are just barely clinging to the last spot is a joke in itself. Bobby Holik and Mike Richter have been injured throughout the season so far, but on a team that includes Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros and Brian Leetch, that’s hardly a viable excuse. Mark Messier has played well, but at 40 years old, he shouldn’t be the Blueshirts’ leading scorer.

No player has impacted his team as much as Mario Lemieux. After last season’s injuries, Lemieux has yet to miss a game, and has averaged more than two points per game this season, making a case again that he is the greatest player of all time. Defenseman Dick Tarnstrom was given the chance to quarterback the Pittsburgh powerplay, and he has become the top scoring defenseman in the league, although he is currently injured.

To nobody’s surprise, Martin Brodeur is off to a good start, and as Brodeur goes, so go the Devils. Their steady play has left them in a battle with Philadelphia for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, a fight that may go down to the final weeks of the season. Philly has played well, but with John LeClair out for the next three months, other players must step for the Flyers to remain in contention.

Other than the Sharks, the biggest disappointment in the NHL thus far has been the Islanders. Although captain Mike Peca returned from knee and shoulder surgeries a month earlier than expected, slow starts by goalie Chris Osgood and center Alexei Yashin have left the Isles stuck in last place in the Atlantic Division. Former Islander Olli Jokinen has been the biggest surprise for Florida, a young team that has remained in the playoff hunt so far. Jaromir Jagr remains a scoring threat for the Capitals, but he will need more offensive support for the Caps to make the playoffs.

Atlanta recently signed Byron Dafoe, and has been around .500 since then, but their 0-8-1-1 start will end up biting them. The Buffalo Sabres were 3-2-1 on Oct. 25, but since then they have just one win. The new ownership will turn things around in Buffalo in the next few years, but for now they will continue to struggle.



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