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NHL 2-on-1: Which fast-starting surprise team can keep it up?

By Eye on Hockey staff
Michael Grabner and Alex Galchenyuk are off to good starts, as are their teams. (Getty Images)

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This is 2-on-1, a weekly feature from Eye on Hockey in which Adam Gretz and Brian Stubits debate a topic in the NHL.

The New York Islanders and Montreal Canadiens are just two of the teams off to what many would call surprisingly good starts (we would also accept the Ducks, Devils, Jets and Oilers). Which team has the best chance of maintaining that success this season?

STUBITS: We do have a couple weeks' worth of games to assess play now, but we're still in that "small sample size" territory here. So it's tough to make any grand pronouncements or sweeping judgments. Then again, what fun is that?

Honestly, I think the Canadiens are the team that is better built to win now and is the safer pick in this case. But I'm going to go against my instinct and say the Islanders here. It's been a long time coming for them, and it has just seemed like it had to turn the corner at some point. They do have some talented players on their team.

What gets me about the Islanders is that they are actually fun to watch right now. A lot of fun. For years they have been boring, if we're being truthful, with low-scoring games that had little in the way of great play-making. It doesn't really matter, but if you're going to lose a lot wouldn't you rather lose in exciting games? Well, right now, the Islanders are getting those exciting games, and they're winning.

I do feel like I'm taking crazy pills by the bottle for saying this, but this will be the year the Islanders finally make the playoffs. Remember, this team has finished OK in recent seasons; it's been the starts that have doomed them.

GRETZ: I'm not entirely sold on either team, but I'll start with the Islanders since I just saw them crush the Penguins on Tuesday night (and it was pretty impressive). They're certainly more entertaining than they've been in recent years and have great team speed up front. John Tavares and Matt Moulson is a heckuva top-line duo, Frans Nielsen is one of the most underrated players in the game, and Michael Grabner makes all sorts of things happen with his speed. And let's not forget that Evgeni Nabokov has turned out to be a solid addition (and I still love the way they acquired him with no regard for the general managers good-ol'-boys network. Love it. More teams should do that stuff).

But my concerns are the fact that I'm not sure they're going to keep scoring the way they are, and their depth on defense. I guess it's possible this Lubomir Visnovsky thing could have a positive outcome at some point, and Mark Streit and Travis Hamonic are pretty legit. But after that, depth is a major issue for me. They're getting a lot of minutes from waiver pickups Brian Strait and Thomas Hickey, and I'm not sure how that's going to hold up.

Getting Visnovsky on the ice will be big for the Islanders. (Getty Images)

STUBITS: You're right, it's certainly not a defensive corps that makes you say "ooooh," but sometimes rag-tag groups can come together and actually work (or at least produce results). Never underestimate the power of working for a contract and to prove you belong in the NHL.

As you noted, the introduction of Lubomir Visnovsky to the lineup will obviously be key, too. He doesn't likely have what he did a few years ago left in him, but he's still going to be capable of moving the puck and producing some points from the blue line, something which would be a great relief.

So long as Evgeni Nabokov can continue to perform adequately (which he is now), they have a shot. There is offensive talent there to make it last, albeit the depth is lacking a bit.

GRETZ: They're on their way, but I'm not quite ready to say playoff team yet, especially in that division.

Montreal's fast start ran into a bit of a wall on Wednesday night in Ottawa, but getting P.K. Subban back is huge because, well, he's a top-pairing defenseman. Still, I imagine they will keep winning as long as their goaltenders keep stopping over 95 percent of the shots they face at even-strength and Andrei Markov stays healthy. I hope the latter continues, but I know the former won't.

I like Michel Therrien. But I've seen his teams play, and they're typically very passive and spend a lot of time in their own end.

STUBITS: At least if they're going to spend time in their own zone, then you might as well have a goalie like Carey Price.

I think last year we all knew the Canadiens weren't that bad. There are certainly some good players on that team; it was just a confluence of bad things that equaled out to one awful thing; their season. The positive of that was getting Alex Galchenyuk in the draft, and he's been solid so far, getting a little more ice time every time out.

However, I don't think you can expect the line of Galchenyuk with Brandon Prust and Brendan Gallagher to keep it up.

GRETZ: I'm going to introduce the New Jersey Devils into this discussion.

I know in most cases a defending conference champion getting off to a fast start wouldn't be viewed as much of a surprise, but it just seemed like nobody had any expectations for the Devils this year (I had them out of the playoffs, I think). They lost Zach Parise, and Martin Brodeur and Johan Hedberg are both pushing 40. I didn't think David Clarkson would repeat what he did last year, and they've yet to get a game from Adam Henrique.

Despite all of that, they enter Thursday night with a 3-0-2 record and are in the top spot in the Atlantic. That's a surprise, yes?

Ilya Kovalchuk's transformation from all-offense to complete-player/penalty killer has been remarkable over the past couple of years in New Jersey, and that's certainly helped. And I love the job Pete DeBoer's done there.

STUBITS: I don't have many doubts New Jersey can and will keep it up -- not at this pace necessarily, but certainly enough to get back into the postseason somewhat comfortably. I know Zach Parise was a big loss and I'm not trying to minimize that, but, really, this team is not much different than it was last season, which was a 100-point team and obviously a Stanley Cup Finalist.

This is what makes the NHL so fun and why you won't find me complaining about the regular season. The league is so balanced, and there are so many teams that surprise. Watching teams like the Isles, Habs and Devils (and don't forget the Oilers) grow is a lot of fun, you know, once they actually get past the growing pains' part and start reaping the rewards.

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