As the NHL season speeds forward, surpri

February 25 [Mon], 2013, 12:15
This unusual NHL season is already one third of the way over, with roughly two more months for teams to grind through the lockout-condensed schedule. With so many games packed into the winter, unpredictable developments were, well, predictable. Here's a rundown of some of the biggest surprises so far:

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THE HAWKS ARE HOT

The Chicago Blackhawks, still fueled by the core of their 2010 championship club, were certainly in the conversation this year about the league's elite. But nobody could've expected their opportunity to set the NHL record for most games in a row with at least one point. They'll play Friday to try to stretch the streak to 17. For any team, regardless of talent, to start so strong after a six-day training camp is a remarkable feat.

Goalies Corey Crawford and Ray Emery have had a lot to do with this. The Hawks have a 1.88 goals against average, down from 2.75 last season, which put them in the NHL's bottom third.

___

WILL THERE BE A CHANGE IN CHAMPS?

The Los Angeles Kings looked like a legitimate candidate to become the first team in 15 years to take consecutive titles with every significant player returning from last season's Stanley Cup winners, but they've required a recent 10-day surge of four victories in their last five games to even climb back in contention.

The Kings have begun to pick up the gritty wins that defined their championship run last spring, but the 7-6-2 record they took into the weekend was below the playoffs cut. Over their first 15 games, Jeff Carter was the only player with more than four goals, and only two teams had scored less than the Kings entering Thursday. Goalie Jonathan Quick, the backbone of last year's title team who led the league with 10 shutouts, doesn't have one yet. His goals against average, which was a robust 1.95 last season, has risen to 2.58.

___

FREE AGENTS AREN'T FREE

The Minnesota Wild caused the splash of last summer when they signed the prizes of the market, left wing Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter, to $98 million, 13-year contracts. But despite the boost to their attack by the relentless Parise, who had seven goals in their first 15 games, the Wild are the NHL's lowest-scoring team. Suter had eight assists but no goals and a minus-5 rating entering Thursday.

Meanwhile, the clubs they left are faring just fine. The Nashville Predators are playing again like the perennial Western Conference playoff team they were with Suter. The New Jersey Devils have been near the top of the Eastern Conference all season, with David Clarkson, Patrik Elias, Ilya Kovalchuk doing their best to make their fans forget about Parise.

___

AFTER ROUGH START, RUFF'S FINISHED

Lindy Ruff's run as the longest-tenured coach in the league is over.

With Buffalo in a 4-10-1 skid over the last 15 games, Ruff was fired Wednesday by his near-lifelong team. After playing 10 seasons for the Sabres, Ruff took over on the bench in 1997 and lasted nearly 16 years until being replaced on an interim basis by Ron Rolston.

That Ruff's reign is finished shouldn't be a shock. Despite taking Buffalo to the Stanley Cup finals in 1999 and the Eastern Conference finals in 1998, 2006 and 2007, Ruff's teams have reached the playoffs only twice in the previous five seasons. The Sabres lost in the first round both times.

___

THE HABS ARE HAPPY

The proud Montreal Canadiens, who haven't won the Stanley Cup in 20 years or won a playoff series in three seasons, have found themselves on top of the Eastern Conference.

Thanks to the resurgence of Rene Bourque, the energy of rookie Alex Galchenyuk and the grit of newcomer Brandon Prust, the Canadiens have a fresh outlook on the ice and off it with new general manager Marc Bergevin and the return of former coach Michel Therrien.

___

HAVE THE CAPITALS CRUMBLED

Alex Ovechkin hasn't played like "Alexander the Great" for three years now, so the demise of the Washington Capitals had already started before this season. After averaging more than 51 goals over his first five NHL seasons, Ovi has ceased to be an elite scorer. He had five goals in the first 15 games this season.

But the whole team, badly missing injured center Brooks Laich, has failed to find a rhythm under first-time head coach Adam Oates. The Capitals entered Thursday in last place in the Eastern Conference.

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Follow Dave Campbell on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/DaveCampbellAP



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