by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

After a brief review of the some of the NHL underachievers in our last update, we take a quick glance at the other side of the spectrum and teams that have proven pleasant surprises thus far.

Although few are shocked that Chicago has emerged as an apparent serious contender, not even Bill Murray could have envisioned his beloved Blackhawks having avoided defeat in regulation time through the first month of the season. And not many Chicago fans expected such stellar work from goaltenders Corey Crawford (1.65 GAA) and Ray Emery, who have combined for a 1.82 GAA in the first 15 games of the season. Crawford, in particular, has raised his game, not coincidentally with rumors of possible Blackhawks interest in available Canucks GK Roberto Luongo. Emery has also been up to the task, as he was on Sunday between the pipes for a game against the visiting Cup holder Kings, a game in which Chicago prevailed 3-2 with Crawford temporarily sidelined (more below in the Ticker notes).

Goaltending has been mostly a sore spot for the Hawks since Antti Niemi abandoned the Windy City for San Jose following the Stanley Cup season of 2009-10, so Crawford's emergence is a very big deal for a team that seems to have all of the other pieces in place for another Cup run, including young stars winger Patrick Kane and center Jonathan Toews, who comprise two-thirds of one of the most-lethal lines in the league. The availability of winger Marian Hossa, back at full strength after being KO'd by that hard hit from the Coyotes' Raffi Torres in the playoffs last spring and on his usual scoring trajectory with six goals and 12 points in 15 games, has been another plus.

It's no surprise that Chicago is now listed as the favorite to lift the Stanley Cup; the Hawks are being quoted at 6/1 or thereabouts to win the title as we move into late February.

Giving chase to Chicago is surprising Anaheim, which continues its own remarkable start to the campaign and sits on 23 points thru 15 games, trailing only the Hawks in the West. We talked late last week about the emergence of GK Viktor Fasth; since then Fasth has won again (at Nashville) and has improved his record to an amazing 8-0-0, with a 1.78 GAA. Only the aforementioned Ray Emery (in his Ottawa days) and Bob Froese (from his early days with the Flyers in the '80s) have ever won their first eight starts as goalies in the NHL. Fasth's success and 93.3% saves suggest that former first-stringer Jonas Hiller, who has struggled in limited work early this season and now battles a lower-body injury, will proceed in a backup role until further notice.

But the Ducks, left at the starting gate and too far out of the playoff mix to make a postseason run after former Caps HC Bruce Boudreau was hired to replace Randy Carlyle in early December last season, have not put themselves in the same hole this term with their 11-2-1 start. Their ability to win shootouts (four of 'em) has been a plus that might be hard to sustain, but Boudreau is getting contributions from a variety of sources (13 different Anaheim players have already scored this season prior to Monday's game vs. the Blue Jackets). Bobby Ryan and Daniel Winnik each have scored five goals to lead the team, but contributions have been widespread, with 2007 Cup holdovers Ryan, fellow winger Corey Perry, center Ryan Getzlaff, and the ageless winger Teemu Selanne (tops on the team with 15 points in 14 games!) all in productive form, while vet center Saku Koivu provides an important pivot point in the middle of the Selanne-Winnik line.

Meanwhile, raise your hand if you expected surprising Carolina to break so quickly from the gate. The Hurricanes are keeping on the heels of East leaders Pittsburgh and Boston, thanks to surprising and unexpected success away from Raleigh, as Carolina was 4-0-1 its last five away prior to Monday night's game at Montreal. Moreover, the Canes have been lethal, scoring a whopping 20 goals in those last five road outings.

Star center Eric Staal's team-high eight goals and nine assists have all come during his current 11-game point streak. And production from unlikely sources such as defenseman Joe Corvo, who had keyed the recent Carolina surge with five points in four games since being a healthy scratch for three straight contests Feb. 2-7, has further fueled the uprising for Kirk Muller's troops.

Adding Eric Staal's younger brother, star defender Jordan, in the offseason from the Penguins, has also been a plus; Jordan Staal can control the puck along boards and win puck battles, and he also leads the team with 10 assists in the early going. Another offseason addition, ex-Cap Alex Semin, is the ultra skilled right winger the Canes have needed for a long time. Semin's presence has also bolstered the line featuring Eric Staal, who is getting great benefit from Semin's ability to control the puck, making it harder for defenders to concentrate upon the multi-skilled Eric.

Proceeding forward, Muller is going to need more consistency from his special teams, as both the power play and penalty kill have been middling at best. And he'll need better work from goalie Cam Ward, who was instrumental in the Hurricanes' Cup win back in 2006 but has been laboring with a 3.22 GAA in his first ten games this season. His improvement will be key, although useful veteran backup Dan Ellis is proving a handy second option in goal, with a 3-1-0 mark, 1.75 GAA, and 94.3 save percentage in the early going. In upcoming games, Muller could be tempted to use more of Ellis, which might not be bad thing. Stay tuned for further developments.

Following is a quick personnel/injury "Ticker" update from around the NHL...

CHICAGO...Keep tabs on key defender Johnny Oduya, who suffered a possible concussion on Sunday vs. the Kings and is questionable for Tuesday's game vs. Vancouver. As is the aforementioned GK Corey Crawford, dealing with an upper-body injury that might jeopardize his status for that early-season showdown vs. Vancouver, which did beat the Hawks in a shootout at Rogers Arena back on February 1. Ray Emery, in the nets for the 3-2 win vs. the Kings on Sunday, starts again if Crawford can't make the post.

MONTREAL...Don't worry if you don't see GK Carey Price or defender P.K. Subban in the lineup for Les Habitants on Monday vs. the visiting Hurricanes; both had been temporarily knocked out with a bad case of the flu over the weekend, but any absences are likely to be short-lived. As is that of winger Max Pacioretty, suffering from an upper body injury and a nasty cut that knocked him out of the Saturday game vs. the Flyers but who is not expected to miss much, if any, ice time beyond perhaps Monday's game vs. Carolina. Not so lucky is promising rookie winger Brendan Gallagher (five goals), KO'd by a concussion in last Saturday's win over the Flyers and out indefinitely. The Canadiens, however, seemed to have turned the corner after bottoming out in a recent 6-0 home loss to the hated Maple Leafs, completing a brief but ineffective barren stretch in which they allowed 12 goals in three games. Since the loss to Toronto, Montreal has allowed just four goals while winning three in a row prior to the visit by Carolina on Monday night.

PHILADELPHIA...Sources say that center and team captain Claude Giroux read the riot act to the troops after their uninspired 4-1 loss on Saturday at Montreal. Giroux was also addressing himself, with a minus-6 rating and mere 10 points through 16 games after finishing third in the NHL last season with 93 points. He's not the only Flyer who has struggled, as those ranks would also include winger Max Talbot, who has no goals after scoring a career-high 19 last season; defenseman Braydon Coburn, whose -9 rating is among the league's worst; and center Sean Couturier, who had 27 points as a rookie last season but had no goals and a mere two assists over the past eight games prior to Monday's game against the Islanders. Although maybe something that Giroux said happened to work, as the Flyers looked like a different team in the Presidents Day matinee at the Nassau Coliseum, burying the host Islanders 7-0. It was a good time for the Flyers to run into the Isles, who have now lost 14 of their last 15 at home vs. Philly. And the Flyers are an overwhelming 29-3-1 their last 33 vs. the Islanders after the rout that featured a couple of overdue goals from Giroux and four assists from winger Jakub Voracek. Flyers coach Peter Laviolette was also undoubtedly pleased with the performance of GK Ilya Bryzgalov, who had been extremely erratic all season but who stepped forward with his first shutout win of the season on Monday. There's still work to be done, as the Flyers had been allowing a hefty 3.5 goals pg on the road prior to Monday, but a settled Bryzgalov could solve some of Laviolette's GK headaches and suggest better things to come in Philly.

ST. LOUIS...The Blues are looking for some help in goal, with Jaroslav Halak slowly recovering from a groin strain and Brian Elliott having lost all confidence after repeated shellings and one of the worst GAA marks (3.57) in the NHL, as well as a dreadful .791 save percentage on a recent winless four-game homestand. Blues HC Ken Hitchcock has turned to young Jake Allen, a 22-year-old rookie who was recently recalled from Peoria of the AHL. Allen posted a 2.58 GAA in winning all three games on the Blues' recent road trip, capped by a 28-save performance Sunday in a 4-3 shootout win over Vancouver, temporarily plugging what had become a gaping hole in the St. Louis defensive dike. The power play continues to work for the Blues, converting a league-best 34.6% with the man advantage, and young Swedish center Patrik Berglund is already on 8 goals. St. Louis will be moving forward, however, without useful vet winger Jamie Langenbrunner, who is now out for the season after undergoing surgery on an injured hip.

SAN JOSE...What's wrong with the Sharks? The talk of the league along with Chicago in the first two weeks of the season when breaking from the gate with seven straight wins, San Jose instead enters the week in the throes of a mysterious 7-game losing streak (with three of those in shootouts that at least salvaged a point for Todd McLellan's troops). Problem areas have been easy to identify, especially on attack, where goals have dried up after San Jose scored 23 of them in the first five games; the Sharks have tallied only 12 in their last nine games thru Feb. 18, with Patrick Marleau's blazing start (nine goals in the first five games!) now a distant memory with only one goal in the last nine. Marleau and Joe Thornton amassed 14 points over the first six games, but have combined for only two points the last eight. Goalie Antti Niemi has also conceded some egregious goals in recent outings. And at the midpoint of difficult six-game road trip (next stop Tuesday at St. Louis), not sure the Sharks can turn things around quickly.

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