1. Caps' penalty kill
When we visited Washington during training camp, Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau joked that the good thing about the team's penalty killing was it couldn't get any worse. After finishing 25th during the regular season and then giving up six power-play goals in seven games against Montreal in the playoffs, the Caps certainly had their work cut out for them heading into 2010-11. Throw in the fact Boudreau was going to rely heavily on youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner on the blue line and Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov in goal, and keeping other teams from capitalizing on the man advantage looked like an even bigger challenge. Yet through five games, the Capitals are perfect on the penalty kill, denying all 21 opportunities they've faced.
Boudreau praised Neuvirth's play (he's been terrific in all of the team's games so far as Washington is 4-1-0 out of the gates), but also noted the team is using more players on its penalty kill as it tries to pressure opponents. Boudreau said the team is managing to change personnel four and sometimes five times during a penalty kill.
"When you want to go high energy, you have to do that," Boudreau told ESPN.com on Monday. "It's exciting for us because we haven't had a lot of success at that [the penalty kill] the last couple of years."
2. Panthers show resolve
The Florida Panthers were the pick of many to finish at the bottom of the conference this season, yet they have shown some pretty impressive resolve so far, not to mention a defense that could rightly be called airtight. After losing two close games on the road in Edmonton and Vancouver to start the season, Florida bounced back for a big win in Calgary and then handed Tampa Bay its first loss of the season with a 6-0 rout Saturday night. Through four games, the Panthers have given up just five goals and, as of Monday, were one of two teams (see above) that had not allowed a power-play goal. The Panthers also rank sixth in the league, allowing just 26 shots per game (a year ago, they were dead last).
"Through 12 periods of hockey, I can't complain," GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com on Monday. "The attitude has been great."
In the preseason, Tallon highlighted a number of young Panthers who needed to assert themselves in the NHL if the perpetually rebuilding squad was going to move forward. So far so good for players like Shawn Mattias, David Booth, who is trying to recover from last season's devastating blindside hit by Mike Richards, and Rostislav Olesz. Olesz, the seventh overall pick in 2004, is tied for the team lead with five points (two goals and three assists).
"I don't think he realized how good he is and how important he is," Tallon said.
Of course, it is painfully early; but, for a team from whom little is expected, to bounce back so impressively after a disappointing start suggests the future may not be as bleak as many believed.
"We're selling hope here," Tallon said.
3. The balancing act
Having an efficient power play is a good thing. Earth-shattering news, we know. If you can score on the man advantage, it puts extra pressure on an opposing team not to commit fouls. But what happens when that's the only time you can score? Well, that's not necessarily a good thing.
Early on in this season, we've seen evidence of teams that have all of their offensive eggs in one basket, and it doesn't necessarily translate into points in the standings. The Minnesota Wild have the most prolific power play, producing eight goals on just 21 opportunities (through Sunday's games). That's good. The bad part is, the Wild have managed to score just two 5-on-5 goals through four games, which helps explain their 1-2-1 record.
Then there's San Jose. Yes, the Sharks have played just three games, but while they've managed to score five power-play goals on 18 tries, they have one lonely 5-on-5 goal. You know the Sharks' powerful lineup is going to generate offense, it just hasn't gotten around to it yet, which explains a pedestrian 1-1-1 start, including blowing a lead at home against Atlanta on Saturday night. As for teams that have been producing 5-on-5, no surprise that Dallas, Toronto, Nashville, Atlanta, Chicago, the New York Islanders and Washington ranked in the top eight in 5-on-5 production and were a combined 23-6-4.
4. Problem or blip?
The great and horrible thing about the start of a new season is trying to separate trends from blips on the radar. Because there is such anticipation, fast starts are heralded as breakthroughs, while slumbering starts are indicative of some sort of organizational rot, personal lack of focus or just plain lousiness. All of which may mean absolutely zero by the time folks put away their Halloween costumes.
That said, you can understand why there's more than a little angst among a trio of Eastern Conference playoff teams from last spring. Ottawa, New Jersey and Buffalo occupy the bottom three spots in the conference and were a combined 3-11-3 heading into this week with a combined minus-23 goal differential. Ouch. Each team has battled its own early-season demons, including injuries, inconsistent goaltending and lack of timely scoring. And while it's early, all three share the same concern that these first games reflect something more problematic than just a slow start.
5. Too much hype?
Every once in awhile, we hear a player described as "the best player not playing in the NHL." It can be a selling point for agents looking to land an NHL home for their client. It can also create a burden of expectation that can never be met. Often the reason the "best player not playing in the NHL" isn't in the NHL becomes painfully clear once they get there. And so it was late last week when the Dallas Stars sent one-time sought-after free agent Fabian Brunnstrom to the minors.
Even with the team devoted to getting younger with the departures of Mike Modano and Marty Turco during the offseason, Brunnstrom just didn't fit into the Stars' plans. Although he feared losing Brunnstrom through the waiver process, GM Joe Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com there simply wasn't a place for Brunnstrom in the Dallas lineup, especially with the team off to a blazing 4-0-0 start.
"He needs to play," Nieuwendyk said. "Austin is a good place for him."
Brunnstrom did have some early success, scoring 17 goals in 55 games in 2008-09, including a hat trick in his first NHL game, but his development has stalled.
Maybe it's a matter of a young man -- he's just 25 -- still coming to grips with playing the North American game. Or maybe it's just Brunnstrom, who signed a one-year deal worth $675,000 before the start of the season, is one of those players who simply isn't able to live up to the label assigned to him before he stepped into the NHL.