Mike Russo's Sunday NHL Insider

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 24, 2013 - 8:13 AM

With last year’s lockout feeling like a bad memory, here are some story lines that few could have expected at the quarter pole of this season:

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The Wild’s Josh Harding is healthy as a workhorse, ranking high among the league’s best.

Photo: DAVID JOLES • djoles@startribune.com,

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1. West’s dominance of the East

The East might as well be a different league. Because of last year’s lockout, there was no cross-conference play, so we forgot just how much the West usually has the East’s number.

But this season has been ridiculous and has completely skewed the NHL standings. Before Saturday’s games, the West had a 94-39-17 record (.683 points percentage) against the East. The top eight teams in the West were 61-17-11 (.747) against the East.

The seventh- and eighth-place teams in the West, the Wild and Los Angeles, were each on pace for 114 points, while the eighth-place team in the East, New Jersey, was on pace for 85.7.

The top team in the East, Boston, wouldn’t even make the playoffs in the West (30 points).

2. Josh Harding’s excellence

The Wild goalie has been one of the great stories in the NHL. Last season, Harding missed two months of a three-month season because of complications with his medication to treat multiple sclerosis. This season, Harding has been healthy and taken the reins as the Wild’s No. 1 goaltender for the first time in his career.

He had to be good, not just because Niklas Backstrom’s had an injury-plagued start, but because his game wasn’t up to par early.

Through 19 games, Harding matched his career high of 13 wins (in 34 games in 2011-12), was second in the league in victories, was leading the NHL with a 1.48 goals-against average and was second with a .939 save percentage.

3. Taking the league like an avalanche.

Some felt the Avs would be the Central Division’s X Factor, but few thought they would stand above such teams as Chicago and St. Louis during the league’s first six weeks. That has changed lately thanks to a few losses, but Colorado responded by annihilating the Blackhawks, expunging thoughts that they were falling back to reality. After all, most feel their blue line can be exposed.

But Patrick Roy, the Hall of Fame goalie, has returned to Denver to guide this ship. He immediately got his team’s attention by almost pushing a glass partition onto Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau at the end of a season-opening battle. Up front, Colorado is deeper than most teams in the NHL and it’s easy to see why Semyon Varlamov and Jean-Sebastien Giguere have been so good when they’re coached by Roy and famed goalie coach Francois Allaire.

Other positive surprises include Anaheim (subpar blue line), Phoenix (Dave Tippett teams always exceed expectations, but this Coyotes team can score but not defend) and Tyler Seguin (youngster run out of Boston for allegedly being a malcontent blowing up in Dallas).

4. Senseless Sabres

The Buffalo Sabres were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NHL and almost seemed to be embracing that at the start of the year. They preached patience, letting everybody with ears know and understand that this would be a rebuilding year.

They fired Lindy Ruff last year as coach, traded captain Jason Pominville and all but warned fans to be ready for the eventual trades of Thomas Vanek and Ryan Miller.

So what’s so surprising? The Vanek trade to the Islanders came sooner than most people thought, and a few weeks later, the man allowed to make that trade, Buffalo’s lifer of a GM Darcy Regier, was given the ax. In came Pat LaFontaine to run the rebuild and ultimately hire a GM. Along for the ride, oddly, is former Sabres coach Ted Nolan with the interim tag.

Other negative surprises include Edmonton (en route to yet another lottery pick), Claude Giroux (two goals in 21 games), Columbus’ Sergei Bobrovsky (mortal 2.77 goals-against after winning the Vezina) and Florida (well, that’s never a surprise).

SHORT TAKES

Sabres turning wheels

The Buffalo Sabres already have received permission to talk to Boston Bruins assistant GM Jim Benning about the vacant GM’s post. He’s considered the front-runner because he spent several years in Buffalo as a scout.

Pittsburgh assistant GM Jason Botterill, a former Sabre, is also considered a candidate, while Nashville assistant GM Paul Fenton, who once upon a time interviewed for the Wild GM job, badly wants an interview.

Montreal Canadiens assistant GM Rick Dudley, who lives north of Buffalo and used to play and coach the Sabres, seems like a natural fit, but he may have no shot. LaFontaine is looking for a youngster he can help mold. Dudley does things his way and has managed Ottawa, Tampa Bay, Florida, Atlanta and helped guide Chicago to a 2010 Stanley Cup as chief talent evaluator.

Valuable guy

Brent Burns, a power forward after turning into a defenseman in Minnesota, returned to San Jose’s lineup after a facial injury. He scored against struggling Steven Stamkos-less Tampa Bay. Well, actually, Joe Thornton’s shot glanced in off him: “I didn’t do anything on that, but, hey, I don’t say no to them.”

The Sharks are 8-0-1 with Burns in the lineup and 6-3-4 without him.

Another of San Jose’s former Wild players, out-of-favor Martin Havlat, was a healthy scratch against Edmonton last week. That led to trade rumors, but agent Allan Walsh noted on Twitter that Havlat has a full no-move clause.

Steen but not heard

Russo quarter-pole award winners: Hart Trophy: Alex Steen, St. Louis; Vezina: Josh Harding, Wild; Norris: Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Phoenix; Calder: Tomas Hertl, San Jose; Jack Adams: Patrick Roy, Colorado; Selke: David Backes, St. Louis; Lady Byng: Logan Couture, San Jose.

THE WILD’S WEEK AHEAD

Monday: at St. Louis, 7 p.m. (NBCSN)

Wednesday: vs. Phoenix, 7 p.m. (FSN)

Friday: vs. Colorado, 5 p.m. (FSN)

Saturday: at Colorado, 8 p.m. (FSN+)

 Player to watch: Alex Steen, St. Louis

In a breakout season for the Winnipeg-born son of former Swedish NHLer and Wild pro scout Thomas Steen, the St. Louis Blues forward was second in the NHL with 17 goals and tied for second with 26 points before Saturday’s games.

 VOICES

« They just kind of do it for fun now. »

Wild winger Dany Heatley, who demanded out of Ottawa in 2009, on the half-hearted boos from Senators fans.

 

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