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Sidney Crosby, Avalanche, Sharks among NHL's best early stories

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

Sidney Crosby's amazing scoring pace is one of the season's best stories to date. (USATSI)
Sidney Crosby's amazing scoring pace is one of the season's best stories to date. (USATSI)

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The way this NHL season is going, you have to wonder if any hockey is actually being played. There have been four players leaving the ice on stretchers, seven suspensions and there's always the ever-present fighting debate. It's easy to forget that there are some pretty incredible things happening in the league.

Controversy makes the world go round and gives people like myself something to write and talk about. However, if you're anything like me, maybe you're sick and tired of the tedium that is constant debate, especially the kind that never leads anywhere. That seems to be what this year's rash of dirty hits and unfortunate injuries has brought about, and rightfully so.

Debate is a good thing. It is important to have these discussions, but sometimes it's nice to take a break from all that and simply focus on the positive for a short while. There's a lot of good hockey happening in the NHL. A lot. So let's focus on that, shall we?

Here's a look at five things that are worth getting excited about in the NHL.

Sidney Crosby off to best start of career

Remember when there was a time a lot of hockey fans were so sick of only hearing about Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin? Here is Crosby, off to the best start of his career and it has basically been a minor footnote this young season, buried by questionable hits and other debates. Who would've thought?

With 17 points through his first nine games for the Penguins, Crosby is on pace for 154 points this season. Reaching that level seems far-fetched, but it's not altogether impossible.

No player has had more points than Joe Thornton's 125 in 2005-06 in the salary-cap era. Crosby came close in 2006-07 with his career-best 120 points. Crosby is two points better at this point this year than he was during his 120-point season through the first nine games.

Obviously, Crosby has to stay perfectly healthy if he has any hope to maintain his current pace and reach 150-plus points, a total that hasn't been attained since Mario Lemieux put up 161 in 1995-96.

I don't think The Kid will surpass 150 points this year. So much would have to go right, but could he put up the highest total since Thornton's 125? Highly possible, which would be incredible in its own right seeing as no one has even reached the 120-point plateau since Crosby in 2006-07. It has been too long.

Our own Brian Stubits already touched on Ovechkin's goal-scoring prowess earlier this week, which is another point of huge excitement. So we have two of the game's best players producing at a high clip, which makes for really great theater.

Even though the debate has changed a bit in the past few years, the whole Sid vs. Ovi angle is good for the game. People seem to enjoy when the league's biggest stars are both healthy and playing well. Weird, right?

Neither Crosby nor Ovechkin is beloved by all, but seeing them do what they do best is rather entertaining for most folks and they're doing it right now.

Colorado Avalanche's insane start

Unsustainable is a word most often tied to the Colorado Avalanche's remarkable 8-1-0 start. As accurate as that may be, the word I've most associated with any viewing of a Colorado game this season is fun.

What makes it even more fun at this point is watching how far they can take it. Because many of us believe Colorado's start to be an aberration in an 82-game season, each time the team wins at this point, its improbability increases the intrigue. The "How did they do that?" quality of the Avs' season makes them worth watching.

Things that can't be explained happen in sports all the time, like the fact that Colorado's goaltending tandem -- that includes 36-year-old Jean-Sebastien Giguere -- has a .962 save percentage through nine games. The unexplainable and unexpected is a big part of what makes sports so fun.

It's not just that the Avs are winning. It's how they're winning and how these players are playing.

Only three times this season has Colorado failed to score at least three goals.

Through the first three weeks of the season, Matt Duchene has consistently been one of the most exciting players in the league. He has six goals and nine points to start the year.

The rest of Colorado's forward crop has plenty of intrigue as well, including the quick start of rookie Nathan MacKinnon, and the solid play from stalwarts Gabriel Landeskog, Ryan O'Reilly and P.A. Parenteau.

This is all without even mentioning head coach Patrick Roy, whose season-opening through-the-glass exchange with Bruce Boudreau gives him that "I need to see what he does next" vibe. It's that volatility that also makes us want to see what happens if and when Colorado starts to struggle.

The Avs might fall off a cliff at some point, they might not be as good as they look now, but they are good right now and a joy to watch.

Teenagers making major impact

I have had a lot to say about rookies recently, but it bears repeating. Of the top 10 players in rookie scoring, five are still teenagers. In fact, 19 players 19 or younger have seen action in the NHL this season and only three of them have yet to register a point.

It seems like there has never been a time in recent memory where so many teenage players have made such a large impact so quickly. It's no wonder most NHL teams are keeping their youngsters as opposed to sending them back to juniors for another round of trips on the bus.

Just Thursday, Pittsburgh confirmed it would keep 19-year-old defenseman Olli Maatta, while Toronto made the same declaration about Morgan Rielly. This all came a day after Calgary confirmed Sean Monahan, the team's leading scorer, would stay with the big club for the duration of the year.

While Tomas Hertl, MacKinnon, Monahan and Seth Jones have gotten the bulk of the ink, Aleksander Barkov is quietly having a terrific start in Florida with seven points through his first 10 NHL games. Another little-mentioned prospect, Hampus Lindholm, is playing his way into a more prominent role with the Anaheim Ducks, averaging more than 19 minutes a night. Before his scary injury suffered crashing into the boards, Winnipeg Jets defenseman Jacob Trouba was playing a top-four role already in his first pro game.

Wednesday night, 18-year-old blueliner Nikita Zadorov scored his first NHL goal in just his second career game for the Sabres after missing the first bit of the season with an injury.

In fact, Buffalo employs four teenagers on its roster, most of any team in the salary-cap era. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Buffalo's four teens are the most since 1995-96. It might not be going so well for the Sabres, but that's kind of what rebuilding teams can look like sometimes.

With so many young players making an instant impact in the NHL, we're seeing the future of the league unfold before our very eyes.

San Jose Sharks more machine than team

Watch any San Jose Sharks game this season and it is not hard to let your mind wonder silly things, like will this team ever lose in regulation? Even Thursday night, when the Sharks fell to the Boston Bruins, the Sharks were only 0.8 seconds away from earning at least a point. A David Krejci goal at that point ended the Sharks' remarkable season-opening run. Even in defeat San Jose looked dominant, outshooting the Bruins 39-17.

The team still has the best record in hockey at 8-1-1, has scored a league-best 41 goals and has a plus-23 goal differential.

This is a team with pretty much everything clicking. Antti Niemi is in great form tending goal, while five players have already achieved double digits in points led by Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau with 12 each. Those same five San Jose players are in the top 20 in scoring in the league with Pavelski, Marleau, Logan Couture (11 points), Joe Thornton (11) and Tomas Hertl (10). Now that's some serious scoring depth.

There's a real entertainment value to what the Sharks are doing as well. Hertl, the rookie sensation, has had his controversial flare for showmanship, while Marleau has shown he still has the natural goal-scoring ability that has highlighted his career with eight goals in 10 games. Additionally, Couture continues to stake his claim as one of the league's rising stars and Thornton continues to defy logic with his incredible playmaking ability.

The Sharks are not going to blow every team out, but they're going to win an awful lot of hockey games this year. The fact that they looked mostly dominant even in a loss is telling. Sure, they still need to show this kind of play in the playoffs, but this is clearly a team to be feared all year. It's well built.

Hockey Fights Cancer

A lot of pro leagues have taken on cancer in a variety of ways, like the pink and blue bats in the MLB and the pink equipment in the NFL, and the NHL has participated as well with its Hockey Fights Cancer initiative.

In its 15th year, Hockey Fights Cancer seems to be bigger than ever before. All 30 teams have held or will hold special Hockey Fights Cancer Nights in October, players have gotten individually involved and the league as a whole seems to have brought more exposure to the initiative.

The league actually has five primary benefactors of this cancer-related charitable work and distributes money to each club for local organizations as well. It is meant to benefit victims of all forms of cancer.

Creating awareness, raising money and providing public support for cancer victims is obviously of huge importance, since everyone knows someone impacted by cancer. There have been a lot of heart-warming moments that remind you of the great distraction sports can create.

Like Phil Kessel inviting 24 child cancer patients to a Maple Leafs game and adding icing on the cake with a hat trick. Kessel, of course, is a cancer survivor himself, dealing with the disease as a rookie with the Bruins. That's a pretty special night for both him and his guests.

Anze Kopitar got involved in the cause with an appearance on Ellen Degeneres' daytime talk show. He fired pucks at plates, earning $1,000 toward breast cancer research with each plate he broke. The Kings also matched the donation for a total of $20,000.

Among the many teams that have hosted Hockey Fights Cancer Nights, the Capitals raised nearly $40,000 during their event. The Kings had many initiatives involved in their Hockey Fights Cancer Night including a booth for a bone marrow drive, where fans could get tested to see if they're a match for someone who needs marrow as part of the "Be The Match" charity. The Chicago Blackhawks were joined by several children battling cancer on the ice, including 9-year-old Jack O'Donoghue who was part of a tear-jerking ceremonial puck drop.

Hockey Fights Cancer raises a lot of money and awareness. It's something all leagues do now, but what the NHL has accomplished over the past 15 years is no less special. Having the league support such an important cause and have the level of engagement from the players that it does is rather touching.

Other fun things this season

Own goals: There have been a bunch this year, each more spectacular than the last.

Olympic chatter: Is it just me, or is the added storyline of a player's performance impacting his Olympic candidacy add a little spice to early season hockey talk?

Mighty Ducks return: Those eggplant and aqua jerseys really need to stay forever.

Mark Arcobello: The 25-year-old rookie, who paid his dues over the past three years in the minors, had 10 assists through Edmonton's first 10 games. According to Elias Sports Bureau, only Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane accomplished that feat in the past 20 years. Not bad for an undrafted player signed out of Yale four years ago.

Toronto Maple Leafs: The Leafs keep defying logic, routinely getting outshot, but still finding ways to win thanks to an ability to make the most of their few chances. It probably can't last, but it has been incredibly interesting to watch.

Teemu Selanne: Still a legend who everyone loves.

We certainly love a good debate, but sometimes it's just fun to kick back and enjoy the more fun parts of the game, of which there has been no shortage this season.

 
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