The NHL's Top 5 Most Surprising Stories of the First Half
Source: Sergei Belski/USA Today Sports
As the NHL comes out of the all star break I dive in to my top 5 most surprising storylines of the first half of the season. Teams who have played better than expected and players who have shocked the hockey world for good or bad.
1. The Montreal Canadiens
As a long time Leafs fans it's hard to see Montreal having a good season despite preseason expectations. The Habs coming into this season was supposed to be playing for a lottery pick for the second straight season yet Montreal has been playing at a post-season caliber type team. Habs GM Marc Bergevin made some moves this past off-season including trading former top 3 pick Alex Galchenyuk to Arizona for Max Domi. Montreal easily won this as Domi leads the Habs in scoring with 44 points and is second on the team in goals at 16. Galchenyuk only has 25 points in 40 games in the desert. Carey Price has been having a better season compared to last year. Price had a career low in wins last year while dealing with injuries. Price could be hitting the 30 win mark by season's end, and if he can stay healthy the Habs could have a spot in the Eastern Conference. Tomas Tatar and Jonathan Drouin have produced for the Habs and rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi has shown some flashes this season as well. The Canadiens have played more like a unit and if when Brendan Gallagher can get going Montreal will be tough to play. Claude Julien has changed the attitude of the locker room and has made his players believe in the system. Julien could be a potential Jack Adam's winner by the end of the season. Montreal has shown up the critics so far this season.
2. Robin Lehner's Bounce Back Season
The 27-year-old Swede has been having a renaissance of a season so far. Lehner played decently in his first season in Buffalo as the Sabres were rebuilding with their young core. Lehner had a save percentage close to .920 and played like he could be the Sabres starter in years to come, but last season Lehner struggled mightily. Lehner only won 14 games in 53 starts. He had the second worst G.A.A of career at 3.01 and the Sabres were not going to re-sign him. Last Summer the New York Islanders signed him to a year contract and he's exceeded expectations and is one of the reasons why the Islanders are in a playoff spot. Lehner wrote a personal letter to the Athletic last September about his addiction to drugs, alcohol, depression and his bipolar disease. He even had ongoing thoughts of suicide. Lehner has been clean and mentally strong. The Swedish netminder has gotten help with his addiction and is on the top of his game. He leads the league in goals against (2.02) and saves percentage (.931). He could be playing some playoff hockey this season, a first since the 2012-13 season. If Lehner continues to play the best hockey of his career he'll be getting a nice contract going into this summer's free agency. He's been one of the best positive stories this season.
3. Mikko Rantanen's Breakout Year
Call me crazy to put Rantanen on this list but who expected him to score at the pace he has this season? Mikko has 74 points so far and is going to smash his career numbers in goals, assists, and points. Rantanen is second in scoring only behind Nikita Kucherov, who himself has been scoring on an insane pace this season. He is averaging close to 1.5 points per game and is on pace to hit 119 points. The most since former Avs captain Joe Sakic hit 118 points during the 2000-01. Rantanen, even strength has averaged close to a point a game and is top 3 in 5-on-5 points and assists. Rantanen is just as deadly on the power play as well. The Finnish forward is 4th in power play points (26) and tied for third in power-play goals (11). Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have been a force for the Avs, and they'll need to keep producing if the Avs are going to hang on to the last spot in the playoff race. Short and sweet Rantanen has turned into one of the premier all-around players in the league.
4. Vegas Golden Knights Not a One Hit Wonder?
Last season the Golden Knights were the best expansion team in North American sports history. They were three wins away from winning the Stanley Cup, obviously, the Knights played far better than many expected. Coming into this season I didn't believe in the hype of Las Vegas. The question is can they repeat and make the playoffs for a second straight year? As of now, they're third in the Pacific division and 10 points up from both wild card teams the Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars. Earlier in the season, the Knights went cold in October going below 500. Since October the Knights have gone 23-13-3. The Knights had a seven-game winning streak almost a month ago and a season-high ten-game point streak. Marc-Andre Fleury has continued to be the backbone of the Golden Knights while being an all-star in both seasons with Vegas. They have also been one of the best defensive teams in the league. and have been relying on it heavily to win games. Vegas is fifth in the league goals allowed and second in shots given up. Their penalty killing is in the top 5 as well. Offensively they're not as strong as last year's team, but the Golden Knights play a tough rugged style that's hard to beat. The streak of making the playoffs could be at 2.
5. William Nylander's Struggles
It was no surprise the Leafs and Willie came to terms. However, it took much longer than expected. To make matters worse Nylander hasn't been playing well since rejoining the Leafs. Toronto was 20-8-0 without Nylander, but since his return, they have stumbled with a 10-9-2 record. Not playing for two months would hurt anyone but the way it has hurt Nylander has made this contract signing look terrible. Nylander only has 7 points in 20 games with just one goal. The good news is Nylander had 3 assists against the Capitals last week before the all-star break. He helped with two of Nazem Kadri's goals and the two looked like they had some chemistry playing on the same line. If this is the start of Nylander getting back to his old self then Toronto will be a serious threat for the Stanley Cup.