Posted: Monday October 31, 2005 2:00PM; Updated: Monday October 31, 2005 3:26PM
Manny Legace ranks fifth in the league with a 1.81 goals against average.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Darren Eliot will periodically answer questions from SI.com users in his mailbag.
We've all heard the adage that it's not how you start, but how you finish that matters. But given the circumstances under which the first month of this NHL season was played, the beginning of the 2005-06 campaign holds more interest than usual.
Much of the attention has to do with the new league-wide standard of rules enforcement, along with several new rules implemented to improve game flow. The other major point of interest has to do with how well teams are coming together after a year-and-a-half layoff and most teams sporting rosters with 50 percent turnover. With one month in the books, some interesting developments -- too early to call them trends -- have emerged.
One of the best stories in the early going is Carolina. Led by super soph Eric Staal, the 'Canes have scored the most goals in the East and are 5-0 at home -- with large, raucous crowds showing up to support the NHL on Tobacco Road. This from a team that scored the fewest goals the last couple of seasons and finished the 2003-04 campaign five games below .500 on home ice. Staal has been a revelation. After scoring 31 points on 11 goals and 20 assists as a rookie, he benefited from a season in the AHL, where he put up 77 points for Lowell. He's a stronger, faster, more confident player, and competing with an assuredness that seems to indicate he has arrived as an impact player.
Another exciting storyline is the Detroit Red Wings. Hockeytown didn't know what to expect in the salary cap era, but with Manny Legace playing brilliantly in goal, the Wings went 11-1 in October, the best start in franchise history. The formula for success, though, is tried and true. Not only are the Wings getting top-notch goaltending, but they also rank in the top five in the power play and penalty kill.
That combination always yields results, but it's even more important this season, given that special teams' play is up over 62 percent. The New York Rangers owe their surprisingly good start to the great goaltending of rookie Henrik Lundqvist, the PK effort and Jaromir Jagr's prescience on the power play. Same for the Minnesota Wild, which added longtime special teams specialist Brian Rolston and is now a top five power-play team, a vast improvement over its 2003-2004 ranking (28th).
At the other end of the spectrum are the Atlanta Thrashers and Calgary Flames. Both teams had high expectations coming into the season, yet have struggled because they can't stay out of the penalty box. The Thrashers have been shorthanded more often than all but one team in the league over the first month. Accordingly, their PK efficiency ranks last in the league. Complicating matters, the Thrashers had five different starters in goal in the first 10 games of the season, the first time that had happened in NHL history.
The Flames, meanwhile, are two spots higher than Atlanta in manpower disadvantage and rank 28th in PK effectiveness. Their aggressive style has cost them because goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff has struggled with the increased lateral movement in the offensive zone.
Still, it's a long season, with plenty of time for several teams to put an emphasis on how they finish. But in several other locales, strong starts may have already set teams up for fine seasons.