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Predators, Flames turning heads in NHL

While folks in Western New York were counting Buffalo’s early losses, recent wins and ridiculous snowfall totals, a quarter of the NHL season slipped by. Here’s a look at some of the biggest stories:

• Surprises near the top of the standings.

OK, so who had Nashville leading the Central Division and Calgary in second place in the Pacific? The Predators and Flames are easily the biggest shockers so far.

Nashville (13-5-2) is getting it done with goaltending. Pekka Rinne, who missed most of last year because of two hip surgeries, leads the league with 13 victories and is fourth in save percentage (.930) and goals-against average (1.92). Rookie Filip Forsberg, 20, leads the Preds with nine goals and 22 points.

The Flames, on the other hand, are winning by scoring. Calgary (13-7-2) is fifth in the NHL at 3.09 goals per game. Defenseman Mark Giordano is getting early Norris Trophy consideration with six goals, 23 points and a plus-10 rating. Rookie Johnny Gaudreau, who excelled at Boston College, has 12 assists and 15 points.

“The passing grade in the NHL is to be a playoff team,” said Flames coach Bob Hartley, whose team hasn’t made the postseason since 2009. “Right now we’ve only had a few tests, so we’re not moving up to the sixth grade right away. We’re still in fifth grade. We have to keep it going.”

• Two of the Sabres’ three first-round picks probably won’t be in the draft lottery.

Buffalo owns the selections of the St. Louis Blues and New York Islanders, and both teams are thinking playoffs. The Blues, as expected, are contenders in the Western Conference. They trail the Predators by one point.

The Islanders, meanwhile, are tied with Pittsburgh for first place in the Metropolitan Division. Their preseason acquisitions of Johnny Boychuk (13 points, plus-7) and Nick Leddy (nine points, plus-8) dramatically improved the defense and showed the rest of the team that management was serious about winning.

“This is a new hockey club with a new attitude,” Islanders coach Jack Capuano said after Saturday’s 4-1 victory over the Penguins.

• Buffalo has company in the basement.

As expected, the Sabres (6-13-2) are last with 14 points. However, they are tied with injury-riddled Columbus (6-12-2) and perennial punching bag Edmonton (6-13-2). Carolina (6-11-3) is just one point ahead.

A preseason injury to Jordan Staal got the Hurricanes off on the wrong foot. They’re not deep enough to overcome ailments and figure to linger near the bottom.

The Blue Jackets’ health woes could keep them in the running for the first overall pick. Nathan Horton’s career is probably over, while Sergei Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Murray, Fedor Tyutin and Mark Letestu have joined him on the injured list for extended periods of time.

Oilers goaltenders Ben Scrivens (.887) and Viktor Fasth (.890) have subpar save percentages, while recent draft picks Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov have failed to cover for injured Taylor Hall.

The Sabres, riding a three-game winning streak, host Winnipeg on Wednesday in their next game. They sent goaltender Nathan Lieuwen back to Rochester on Sunday, which means Michal Neuvirth is healthy again. Neuvirth left Tuesday’s game against San Jose after one period with a lower-body injury.

• Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel have lived up to the hype.

Before breaking his hand in a fight, McDavid put up 16 goals and 51 points in 18 games. The center should return before the world juniors next month. Eichel, a freshman at Boston University, leads the Terriers with seven goals and 19 points in 10 games.

The team that finishes last is guaranteed to draft one of them.

“This is like choosing between Kate Upton and Kate Upton,” wrote Kris Baker of SabresProspects.com.

• Sidney Crosby is still great, but others have impressed, too.

Hockey’s best player continues to prove it. Crosby has 26 points in 19 games, but that’s good for only a second-place tie. Philadelphia’s Jakub Voracek leads the NHL with 29 points and 22 assists. The 25-year-old set a career high with 62 points in 82 games last season.

Crosby is tied with Tyler Seguin, who has made a home in Dallas after a trade from Boston last season. Seguin leads the league with 15 goals, one more than Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. Seguin’s team, however, is just 8-9-4 and in sixth place in the Central Division.

“We have to be better,” Stars coach Lindy Ruff said. “We’ve got some guys that have to grab ahold of moments in a game and be able to change it.”

email: jvogl@buffnews.com

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