While it seems like the 2005-06 NHL season started only yesterday, the reality is the season has reached the quarter pole, which is a logical time to assess the good and the bad of the season thus far.
Toronto Maple Leafs
A fast start quieted criticism that the Sabres had been too quiet during the free-agency period. But when rookie goalie Ryan Miller broke his hand, much of the positive vibes that had surrounded the Sabres went to the injury list with the goalie.
Daniel Briere remains a talented, hard-working forward, but he needs help on a more frequent and consistent basis if Buffalo is to remain in the playoff mix.
Surprises -- Miller has had a couple cups of coffee in the NHL, but had grabbed the reins and was set to become the team's No. 1 goalie when he was injured. That injury proved to be very painful to both player and team.
Disappointments -- The inability of Martin Biron and Mike Noronen to handle the load after Miller was injured was especially unsettling for the Sabres.
What's ahead -- A swift return to form by Miller would seem to be vital to the cause here. So too would more offense from everyone not named Briere. The Sabres were banking on the players they have been developing to move this team into playoff contention and now those players need to pick up the pace.
Great anticipation has become mediocre results for the Bruins, who have struggled to generate positive momentum over the first quarter of the season. A sprained knee to defenseman Brian Leetch didn't help matters, but Boston was expecting bigger things from the Bruins after adding Leetch, Alexei Zhamnov, Dave Scatchard, Brad Isbister, Tom Fitzgerald and Shawn McEachern.
Joe Thornton has been producing at well over a point-per-game, but even his play has been subject to criticism.
Surprises -- Brad Boyes' a former first-round pick of the Leafs, has found a home centering the Bruins' fourth line on mist nights and has chipped in consistently despite limited minutes.
Disappointments -- Just about everything can fall into this category for the Bruins. Certainly the season is far from lost, but the Bruins haven't been able to generate much positive momentum, with injuries to Leetch and Zhamnov proving damaging to the overall effort.
What's ahead -- Should this group not pick up the pace, it wouldn't be surprising to see GM Mike O'Connell make some changes. Bruins management was excited about this team's chances this season and won't let the season slip away without fixing the problems.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The visions of disaster that clouded the minds of many Leafs fans during the pre-season haven't materialized, as Toronto has been a decent club this season and had Mats Sundin not missed the majority of games over the first quarter recovering from an eye injury, then the Leafs might be in an even better position.
With Sundin healthy, the Leafs figure to get better, but running veteran Ed Belfour out there 16 times in the first quarter may be too much.
Surprises -- The Leafs' kids -- Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood and Matt Stajan -- have all contributed and worked their way into the lineup as regulars.
While it isn't technically surprising that Jeff O'Neill is scoring goals, his contributions have been solid.
Disappointments -- Mariusz Czerkawski hasn't been the offensive contributor many hoped he would be and there is impatience with Jason Allison's game, which is daft since he has missed two seasons with injury and needs more than a quarter of a season to get things rolling.
What's ahead -- The Leafs will be in the playoff pack for the rest of the season, perhaps not as high in the mix as in the recent past, but in the midst
The Canadiens didn't make a lot of splashy changes headed into the season, so one had to wonder if they would be able to keep up with a powerhouse like Ottawa and a team like Boston that imported a lot of veteran players.
But the Habs have done quite nicely thank you, relying on a team-first approach that has paid dividends. The usual suspects have played a large part in the team's success, with Saku Koivu leading the way offensively and Jose Theodore winning games in net despite stats that are inflated thanks to the more offensive nature of today's game. Until injured, Alex Kovalev also was a consistent offensive contributor, so the team's play in his absence bears watching.
Surprises -- Steve Begin already is closing in on career highs offensively. That's not to say he will make anyone in Montreal forget Guy Lafleur, but putting up points while playing a good all-around game never hurts. Alexander Perezhogin also has impressed during his rookie season.
Disappointments -- Veteran Radek Bonk hasn't been able to get going offensively. He had four-straight 20-goal seasons with Ottawa until 2003-04, and the offensive struggles have followed him to Montreal.
What's ahead -- The Canadiens don't beat themselves, a credit to coach Claude Julien and GM Bob Gainey, who has intelligently constructed the roster. The Canadiens are strong in the key positions and have an interesting mix of young players and experienced faces. Filling the void until Kovalev returns bears watching, but the Canadiens have the look of a playoff team.
The Sens came into the season as one of the East's heavily favored teams and they haven't disappointed in the slightest. Ottawa has pretty much hit on all cylinders all season and doesn't look like it will stop anytime soon.
Surprises -- Both Dominik Hasek and Dany Heatley aren't technically surprises, but there were a couple questions about them headed into the season.
On Hasek, there was some concern about how not playing for almost two full seasons would affect him. But rust hasn't been a concern. Even in the more wide-open climate of the NHL today, Hasek is his old stingy self.
Heatley asked for a trade from Atlanta, hoping to put the past behind him. Questions about Heatley stemmed from a lackluster trip to Europe and subsequent injury during the lockout and his ability to remain focused. He has answered those questions and then some, rebound to the ranks of elite forwards.
Disappointments -- Next!
What's ahead -- The Sens hope more of the same. What can't be good news to the opposition is Daniel Alfredsson's contention that the team can still get better. The Senators also are deep, so even a major injury wouldn't guarantee a significant drop in production.