Early looks, for just a quarter

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:39 AM ET

BUFFALO -- In past years, some of Lindy Ruff's comments about Darcy Tucker have included the type of colourful language we can't print here.

The Buffalo Sabres coach has not always enjoyed Tucker's alleged tactics, especially last season when he accused the Maple Leaf winger of going after the knee of Jochen Hecht.

So, imagine our shock this week when we approached Ruff and asked him who has been the biggest surprise thus far in the young NHL season.

"The surprise for me right now is Tucker and the amount of goals he has for Toronto," Ruff said. "He's been a pleasant surprise. I would not have picked that."

For the record, Tucker, with 15 goals already -- three against the Sabres -- is on course to challenge the 50-goal mark, an impressive pace for a guy seeking a long-term extension from the Leafs.

Tucker's sizzling start, which includes 11 power play goals, is one of the many interesting stories thus far in the 2006-07 season, which officially reached the quarter pole on Wednesday.

While coach Paul Maurice has the city of Toronto feeling warm and fuzzy about its Leafs again, how about the tale being written two hours to the south in Buffalo? Ruff's Sabres are in line to finish the campaign with 137 points, which would be a league record.

Here then is a look at some of the highlights and lowlights throughout the NHL at the quarter pole:

THUMBS UP

- Buffalo Sabres: Daniel Briere, Chris Drury, Max Afinogenov, Tomas Vanek, Brian Campbell, Ryan Miller ... this is a squad bursting with Hart Trophy candidates and Stanley Cup aspirations.

- Anaheim Mighty Ducks: Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer living up to the pre-season hype.

- Nashville Predators: Loss of Jason Arnott (knee surgery) hurts.

- Atlanta Thrashers: Is a post-season berth finally in the cards?

THUMBS DOWN

- Philadelphia Flyers: Slow defence proved to be the undoing of coach Ken Hitchcock and general manager Bob Clarke, who no longer are on the scene. Overpaid a year ago for plodding blue liners Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher.

- Columbus Blue Jackets: Hitchcock comes in looking to kick some butt. Maybe that's what is needed for this underachieving bunch.

- Phoenix Coyotes: Too old? Too injury-prone? Not the way The Great One imagined his coaching career would evolve.

- Ottawa Senators: Starting to find their way.

EARLY MVP CANDIDATES

- Jaromir Jagr (Rangers): Edged out by Joe Thornton last year. Doesn't want history to repeat itself.

- Chris Pronger (Ducks): Has anyone had a more positive effect on a team's won-lost record?

- Ilya Kovalchuk/Marian Hossa (Thrashers): Pick your poison.

Honourable mentions: Shanahan (Rangers); Scott Niedermayer (Ducks); Briere/Drury/Afinogenov/Vanek/Campbell/Miller (Sabres); Sidney Crosby (Penguins); Alexander Ovechkin (Capitals); Rod Brind'Amour/Eric Staal (Hurricanes); Martin Brodeur (Devils); Tomas Kaberle (Maple Leafs); Miikka Kiprusoff (Flames); Thornton (Sharks); Nick Lidstrom (Red Wings); Marty Turco (Stars).

RAVISHING ROOKIES

- Evgeni Malkin (Penguins): We knew he was good, but this is ridiculous. Many teams don't have one franchise player. The Pens have two -- Malkin and Sidney Crosby -- both under 20.

- Anze Kopitar (Kings): Might not be getting the ink, but this kid is the real deal.

- Phil Kessel (Bruins): Getting better and better.

MILESTONE MEN

- Mats Sundin (Leafs): The man does have a flair for the dramatic. Scored his 500th career goal in overtime while shorthanded to complete his hat trick and give his team a victory over the Calgary Flames last month.

- Teemu Selanne (Ducks): Notched his 500th goal against the Avs on Wednesday night. Seems like a lifetime ago that he was scoring 76 times as a rookie with the Winnipeg Jets, doesn't it?

- Teppo Numminen (Sabres): Played more NHL games than any European born and trained player, surpassing the previous mark of 1,251 held by Jari Kurri earlier this month.

STORIES THAT CAUGHT OUR ATTENTION

- Penguins sale: Blackberry magnate Jim Balsillie came in to save the day. Hopes to keep the team in Pittsburgh, but skeptics wonder how long before the franchise relocates and becomes the Kitchener Crosbys.

- Flyers' house-cleaning: The Flyers without Clarke is like Philly without cheesesteaks. It just seems weird.

- Survivor, Long Island: Panthers goalie Alex Auld had to be stitched up after an alleged incident involving teammate Ed Belfour last month. Reports suggested an intoxicated Eagle had to be escorted out of a Long Island bar. Belfour claims he and Auld were just "horsing around" in the hotel lobby. You be the judge.

SHOOTOUT SPECIALISTS

- Henrik Lundqvist (Rangers): The Swedish goaltending star has overcome migraine problems to provide headaches to the opposition, stopping all 19 shootout attempts against him this season.

- Mikko Koivu (Wild): Winger leads all NHLers in shootout goals, draining four of his six attempts so far this season. Honourable mention goes to Minnesota's Petteri Nummelin (3-for-3), Buffalo's Daniel Briere (3-for-5), New Jersey's Brian Gionta (3-for-4) and Atlanta's Vyacheslav Kozlov (3-for-4)

SAY, WHAT?

- "I would have loved to go out on the ice and bust my stick over (Neil's) head, the way he was following Darcy around." -- Leafs enforcer Wade Belak after Ottawa's Chris Neil attempted to goad Darcy Tucker into a fight.

- "It's like the movie Groundhog Day. Every day is the same." -- Sami Kapanen on the Flyers soap opera.

- "I never thought you could push a 737 down a runway." -- Flames coach Jim Playfair, after training and coaching staff were forced to help to shove the team charter, which was stuck on the tarmac in St. Louis.


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