Ask most hockey fans or analysts why the Los Angeles Kings won the Stanley Cup last season and the most common response will probably be Jonathan Quick, the Conn Smythe-winning goaltender who was nearly unbeatable during their postseason run.
It wouldn't be a wrong answer.
It also wouldn't be wrong to suggest the play of Quick was one of the biggest reasons the Kings, in their quest to defend the franchise's first championship, stumbled out of the gate in the first half of 2013, winning just five of their first 13 games. Some might have called it a Stanley Cup hangover. Another way to look at it would have been that it was a good team that was playing better than its record would have indicated and was simply getting crushed on unsustainable percentages, including those from its starting goaltender.
Halfway through the season Quick, regarded as one of the NHL's best netminders after his performance a year ago and the recipient of a staggering 10-year contract extension in the summer, is near the bottom of the league in several key categories, including total save percentage and even-strength save percentage. That's probably not what anybody expected. And quite honestly, he's been every bit as bad as those numbers indicate, even getting a few more games on the bench in favor of backup Jonathan Bernier than he otherwise probably would have received this season.
What should have been expected this season was a little bit of a regression in his numbers as, realistically, no goalie can maintain the production we saw from Quick on a year-to-year basis. But I don't know that anyone expected him to fall down to his current level that's seen him stop fewer than 90 percent of the shots he's faced this season, and that includes his 23-for-24 performance on Monday night in a 3-1 win over the Calgary Flames.
But you know what's incredible (and a very good sign) for the Kings?
For as bad as Quick has played at times this season, they're still one of the best teams in the NHL, which just goes to show that last year's team was a lot more than just a hot goaltender carrying them through the playoffs.
As of Tuesday the Kings have the sixth-best points percentage in the NHL, third-best in the Western Conference, and if the season weren't compressed and cut short due to the lockout they might have had a chance to catch the Anaheim Ducks for first place in the Pacific (given that there's only about 20 games left in the season that ship has probably already sailed).
In the first half of last season it was Quick who helped keep the Kings afloat in the Western Conference as their offense struggled to find the back of the net. (They broke out in a big way in the second half and playoffs and were actually one of the better offensive clubs in the league in the second half.) This year it's the rest of the Kings helping to bail out Quick, not only by starting to score more goals, but also by simply not allowing teams to get anywhere near their struggling netminder.
Even with Quick's struggles, the Kings are still one of the best teams in the league in terms of goals against. Why? Because they're only allowing 24 shots per game (second-lowest in the league).
This is why the Kings are so good (and this is also a big reason why they won the Stanley Cup last season): They own the puck, they outshoot and outchance their opponents every night, and they defend by keeping the puck as far away from their own net as they possibly can. It's a pretty good recipe for success.
What should be exciting for Kings fans (and equally terrifying for the rest of the Western Conference and the NHL) is that Quick is probably going to get better as the season goes on. A lot better. Save percentages fluctuate throughout the season for goalies with peaks and valleys. They have cold streaks and they have hot streaks. Quick just so happened to start the season with a cold streak. One that's not going to last all season. While he's probably never again going to put up the type of numbers we saw last season, he's also shown that he's not a sub-.900 goaltender, either.
He's already showing signs of starting to come out of his early season funk, and once he does it's going to make what is already one of the best teams in the NHL just that much better.
How about some other first-half surprises from around the NHL?
As it turns out Toronto didn't need Roberto Luongo
Remember when the Vancouver Canucks were guaranteed to trade Roberto Luongo, and Toronto was the team at the top of the rumor mill? Well, we're halfway through the season and Luongo is not only still a member of the Canucks, it turns out the Maple Leafs didn't even need him anyway.
Toronto's first-half success may prove to be a mirage in the end, much like their fast start a year ago, but the play of James Reimer and Ben Scrivens has been, to this point, better than even the most optimistic Maple Leafs fan could have imagined.
Randy Carlyle may get a lot of the credit behind the bench for Toronto's turnaround, but the story of the Maple Leafs' success this season begins and ends with the play of their two young goaltenders.
They enter Tuesday in the top-10 in the NHL in save percentage (Scrivens has a .920 mark, while Reimer checks in at .919) and have solidified a position that has been a constant weakness for the past seven years.
The Maple Leafs will go as far as these two guys take them this season.
Michel Therrien's second Montreal stint has gone surprisingly well
When the Montreal Canadiens brought Michel Therrien back this past summer, after he had been out of the NHL since he was fired by the Penguins back in February of 2009, it was a move that seemed to receive more jeers than cheers.
When he banned Carey Price and P.K. Subban from doing their triple-low five celebration, it seemed like a coach, who has a reputation for being a strict disciplinarian, dropping the hammer for no particular reason (well, other than him hating fun).
None of it seems to matter now. Here we are halfway through the season and the Montreal Canadiens, after being one of the worst teams in the NHL last season, are at the top of the Eastern Conference. Didn't see that coming. At all.
And their early season success looks to be for real.
The three years Therrien spent away from the NHL seemed to do him some good, as he's come back with a completely different on-ice approach for his team. His former teams in Montreal and Pittsburgh were passive, defensive-minded clubs that seemed to be more willing to collapse in around their own net and just wait to block shots and wait for the other team to make a mistake they could capitalize on.
This resulted in almost all of his teams being among the worst puck possession teams in the league. As well as being relatively boring. This was even true with his super-talented Penguins teams in the mid-2000s that needed a new approach and system under Dan Bylsma to get over the hump to win the Stanley Cup in 2009.
This Canadiens team is the exact opposite of Therrien's earlier NHL teams. They're more aggressive on the forecheck and in the offensive zone, and they do a great job keeping the puck away from their opponents. The NHL today is all about puck possession, keeping the play moving north as quickly as possible and establishing a presence in the offensive zone.
Therrien seems to have figured this out during his time away from the NHL, and it's paying off in a big way for the Canadiens.
Chris Kunitz: Scoring machine
It shouldn't be a shock that Pittsburgh's Chris Kunitz is having a strong season. He's a good player and has been throughout his career.
I think we sometimes forget that this is a player who was a top-six forward on two different Stanley Cup winning teams (he was the fourth-leading scorer on Anaheim's 2007 team, and a top-line player alongside Sidney Crosby and Bill Guerin in Pittsburgh in 2009). It's just that his contributions tend to sneak under the radar and don't always show up in the box score in the form of a goal or an assist.
He's always been a guy who is strong in every area but isn't really outstanding in any one particular one. But when he's on the ice, the play is always moving in the right direction and he's been one of the best possession players in the NHL in each of the past five seasons. When he's on the ice, his team gets more shots than the other team and more goals than the other team.
This year a lot of those goals (17, as of Tuesday morning) just so happen to be going in off of his stick.
He gets the benefit of playing alongside the best player in the world, and he's surely had some good luck on his side (that 28 percent shooting percentage isn't going to last forever), but he's always been a legitimate top-line player in the NHL. As I mentioned a week ago, Penguins fans have been screaming for the team to find Crosby a long-term winger for years and simply overlooked the fact that the team already had one for him.