We’re about a quarter of the way through this truncated NHL season, and that seems like a good time to have a look at some of the players who are putting up impressive numbers so far.
But while it’s not exactly a shock to see names like Stamkos, Crosby, and Rinne near the top of various categories, some of this year’s other leaders are less predictable. Granted, we’re dealing with a dozen games or so in most cases, so your “small sample size” warning light should be blinking rapidly. But that doesn’t mean we can’t take a moment to recognize some early season surprises.
I can't say for certain, but there's a pretty good chance that the New York Rangers' John Mitchell was haunted by some fever dreams last night: Think something along the lines of Elephants on Parade, except with the Cheshire grin of Marc-Andre Fleury in place of all the Dumbo heads.
Fleury was in net Thursday night as the Penguins came to Madison Square Garden to take on the Rangers, who held a six-point lead over Pittsburgh in the Atlantic Division (and the Eastern Conference). By the end of the night, though, that gap had narrowed to four, as the Penguins defeated New York 5-2 based in large part on the play in net by the goaltender colloquially known to teammates as Flower. He stopped 29 of the Rangers' shots, five of which belonged to poor Mitchell, who was robbed every which way by the 27-year-old netminder. After one sequence in which Fleury, already down on his side after making some pad saves, managed to glove an attempt by Mitchell, the Rangers forward couldn't help but take out his mouth guard so he could laugh.
This week got off to quite a start for 22-year-old Washington Capitals goaltending prospect Braden Holtby. After making 34 saves for the AHL's Hershey Bears on Sunday in their 5-1 win over Wilkes-Barre Scranton, Holtby woke up Monday morning to find out that he was being summoned to Washington, presumably because the Caps no. 1 goalie Tomas Vokoun had the flu and they needed someone to back up Michal Neuvirth. Instead, when Holtby arrived around 2 p.m., he found out he was starting that night.
As the days tick down until the NHL trade deadline, these sorts of things can happen. Perhaps this was a showcase game for Holtby to let scouts take a look, or maybe the Caps organization wanted to see how they'd fare if they dealt another netminder and ended up having to use more of Holtby going forward.
Whatever it was, it did not end well: Holtby was in net for a 5-3 loss against the San Jose Sharks, a game in which the reality was somehow actually worse than the score. He bobbled a routine grab on a shot from beyond center ice, and he watched as a puck rolled up his arm, down his back, and into the goalmouth behind him. Tuesday morning he was sent back up to Hershey, back down to the AHL.
"I won't lie," Montreal goalie Carey Price told to NBC Sports during the NHL All-Star Game, seconds after a reflexive glove save left Ottawa's Jason Spezza chuckling in disbelief and NBC's announcers remarking that they wished there was a way Price could see what he looked like while flashing the leather. "I was checking myself out on the big screen."
Poor Mike Smith. In two recent games, the Phoenix Coyotes goalie has made saves — one during overtime and one in a shootout — that may well end up on year-end highlight reels. In both cases, though, he didn't get to go home with the win.
When Marian Gaborik, one of the best goal-scorers in the league this season, earned an overtime penalty shot in the New York Rangers' contest against Phoenix last week, it seemed like the game might be over. But Smith's improbable stick save kept hope and the game alive — for a short while, at least. (The Rangers ultimately won in the sixth round of a shootout.)