The one-third mark of the NHL season doesn’t sound like anything special. On the contrary, it is still the perfect time to pause, reflect on the season thus far, and say, “Damn, I didn’t see that coming.”
The beauty of sports is that there are always surprises — and hockey is no exception. At the quarter mark of the season, not enough has happened; at the halfway mark the focus is already on the playoffs. Just before the holidays is a perfect point on the NHL calendar to reflect, especially when it comes to moments that astonished us. Here are six surprises from the 2016–17 NHL season.
Surprisingly good team
The Columbus Blue Jackets have surprised us with their skill. This, of course, has a little bit to do with how poorly they played at the start of last season. But CBJ has undoubtedly made a nice recovery from the 2015–16 campaign. After an expectedly slow start to the NHL season, the Blue Jackets prove to be unexpectedly good.
One of the brightest spots comes from a bevy of talented young players, the most impressive being rookie defenseman Zach Werenski. While the spotlight mostly focuses on the rookie arsenal up in Toronto, Werenski has built his game up to the point that he is in the Calder Trophy conversation, contributing on both offense and on the blue line — and on CBJ’s miraculously-improved power play.
The other big boost comes from an improved season (so far) from Sergei Bobrovsky. The starting netminder currently has a .932 save percentage and leads all NHL goaltenders with 17 wins.
Surprisingly blah team
The Florida Panthers surprised us with their boring play. Maybe it’s due to the high expectations they faced following a Cinderella-like regular season and active offseason. Maybe it is because this season lacks “Spacey in Space.” Or maybe it was the unsavory exit of coach Gerard Gallant in late November. Whatever the reason, the Panthers are missing some je ne sais quoi through the first third of this campaign. And they are losing games in the process.
This is only December hockey, so a turnaround for Florida could be right around the corner. Heck, a winning streak on top of Jaromir Jagr and Roberto Luongo chasing respective milestones would be the perfect medicine.
Team that surprisingly hasn’t come back down to earth after a hot start
This is a tie between the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers.
As far as the Habs go, it is pretty safe to say that even the fans who hoped for a miracle at the start of the NHL season weren’t quite prepared for how good the Canadiens continue to be. (Well, save the night that the Blue Jackets walloped them 10-0.) But after a 2015–16 season when Montreal spiraled out of control following a 9-0-0 season start, the Canadiens started hot and are staying put. Carey Price returned to elite goaltending status in no time, and newly-acquired Shea Weber instantly fit with their game plan.
The Oilers, on the other hand, have inhabited the bottom of the Pacific Division for multiple seasons — even in Connor McDavid’s glitzy debut last year. But now bench boss Todd McLellan’s team is keeping a strong hold on the division’s top tiers. Looking ahead, there are rumors that Edmonton will be active at the trade deadline. Who knows how long they can stretch out their dominant ways.
Surprising scoring trend
The most shocking scoring trend: All the games being decided by just one goal.
It was noted on November 26 — the quarter mark of the season — that only one goal decided eight of nine games played on that evening. Entering the third period, 194 games (62.2%) at the same quarter mark were tied or within one goal, according to Elias Sports.
It’s hard to tell what that means for the league. Is it harder to score goals? Have blue lines across the league gotten tougher? The answer is a bit of a mystery, but the stat itself is still interesting.
Most surprising fight
Plenty of interesting fisticuffs have gone down this season. But it is safe to say that the most surprising was the all-team debacle between the Canucks and Leafs. There was bound to be some kind of skirmish following the nasty hit that Nazem Kadri laid on Daniel Sedin. The surprise came with the number of players who got involved and the difficulty that the officials had in breaking the fights up.
Oh, and it featured a goalie fight. There are few things as rare and astonishing as a goalie tussle, which brings us to …
Most surprising player to throw a punch
Carey Price with the blocker punch. Take a good look below, because this may never happen again.