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Sean Leahy

At the break: The NHL's five biggest surprises

Sean Leahy
Puck Daddy

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We're still a week away from the NHL returning from its Olympic vacation, but let's take a look back, as well as look forward, at the 2009-10 season.

1. The Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes

Between the five Puck Daddy contributors that gave predictions for the Western Conference wayyyy back in September, Lambert was the only one to not have the Avalanche and Coyotes both in last place in their respective divisions. He had Phoenix in second place and like the rest of us, Colorado in last.

(And that's why we don't run a gambling site.)

The Avs and Coyotes successes have been a great story and explain why they're both currently sitting pretty in the middle of the Western Conference standings. Both teams sport new coaches behind the bench and both went through off-season issues with Colorado losing their captain, Joe Sakic(notes), to retirement and Phoenix having to deal with the entire Jim Balsillie mess. Joe Sacco has been able to inspire his youthful team led by rookie Matt Duchene(notes), while backstopped by Craig Anderson's(notes) dream season.

In Phoenix, Dave Tippett implemented a system that's resulted in balanced scoring across the board. A sure-fire Vezina Adams Trophy candidate, Tippett was thrown into the Coyotes mess right before training and in a short time has yielded positive results. Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) has been fantastic. Scottie Upshall(notes) was having a career season before tearing his ACL. And captain Shane Doan(notes) has helped lead Phoenix to his best season in almost a decade.

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2. Marian Gaborik's(notes) health

He may have entered the Olympic break injured, but what kept Gaborik out of the New York Rangers' game against Tampa Bay and majority of their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins was a freak accident. Other than that one game, Gaborik has been completely healthy and we're again seeing what he's capable of doing when not watching from the press box. Without Gaborik, who knows how much further down in the standings the Rangers would be. He is their offense. With 35 goals and 69 points, the closest Rangers to him on the stat sheet is Ryan Callahan's(notes) 15 goals and Vinny Prospal's(notes) 47 points. In fact, when Gaborik is held without a point, New York is 2-12-3. The fact that he's averaging over 18 minutes of ice time with Slovakia shows that his leg injury shouldn't be a concern when he returns to the Rangers next week.

3. Tyler Myers(notes) and Jonathan Quick(notes)

Tied for third in rookie scoring and in the top 30 in time-on-ice for all NHL defenseman with 23:33, Myers has been more of an asset to the Buffalo Sabres' blue line than anyone could have expected for the lanky 19-year old. His play is why he's considered the front-runner for the Calder Trophy and had Myers kept his American citizenship, Buffalo head coach Lindy Ruff believed he would have been named to the U.S. squad.

Quick, on the other hand, leads all NHL goaltenders with 35 wins and is second behind Martin Brodeur(notes) in minutes played. Having worked with former Stanley Cup champion Bill Ranford, Quick has grabbed the Los Angeles Kings starting job when just a few years ago, everyone was talking about Jonathan Bernier(notes) being the up-and-coming netminder. After years of rebuilding, the Kings' time has come and with a lineup surrounded with young talent, the stability of having Quick play lights out hockey every night has allowed Los Angeles to become a dangerous team in the always tough Western Conference.

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4. The injury cloud hanging over the Detroit Red Wings

There's been an annual theme heading into each of the past few seasons of knocking the Detroit Red Wings down a peg. "Oh, they're getting old." "They've played a lot of hockey lately." "They're goaltending isn't strong enough." Well, if the Red Wings don't make the playoffs this season (they're one point behind Calgary for eighth in the Western Conference), it'll be because of the numerous missing components out of their lineup throughout the season. Only three Red Wings - Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), Todd Bertuzzi(notes) and Brad Stuart(notes) - have played all 61 games this season. Injuries to Niklas Kronwall(notes), Johan Franzen(notes), Tomas Holmstrom(notes), Dan Cleary, and Kirk Maltby(notes) among others have hindered Detroit from being, well, Detroit. Luckily for Red Wings fans, rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard(notes) has emerged as the team's number one and the lineups put out by Mike Babcock have managed to keep the team in playoff contention. Now with the team getting healthy as the final month of the season is upon us, that's bad news for the rest of the West.

5. Tim Thomas(notes) goes from Vezina to bench

There was a lot expected out the Boston Bruins this season after finishing first in the Eastern Conference a year ago, but with a rash of injuries and mediocre play from Thomas, they're hanging for one of the final playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.

Thomas had a dream season in '08-09, taking home the Vezina after leading the NHL in goals-against average and save-percentage. The former journeyman earned himself a nice, fat contract and was ready to lead the Bruins in another shot at the Stanley Cup. A funny thing happened along the way. Boston players started getting picked off one-by-one with injuries and Thomas' game began to slide. Head coach Claude Julien wasn't shy to give Tuukka Rask(notes) more work in goal and the decision has paid off. Rask has kept the Bruins in the playoff hunt by posting a 14-7-4 record compared to Thomas' 13-15-7. The emergence of Rask saw the beginning of rumors about the Bruins dealing away Thomas, despite his no-trade clause and large contract. Thomas is in Boston to stay and will need to recapture the glory he found season ago if he's to ever regain full control of the Bruins net again.

Tomorrow, the NHL's five biggest disappointments so far.

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