A look at the NHL’s surprises, disappointments so far after a quarter of season has been played

WATCH ABOVE: Some recent videos from the world of hockey.

The NHL recently passed the quarter mark of another season played under the pandemic’s long shadow.

With that milestone in mind, The Canadian Press takes a look at some of the highlights — and low lights — from the first two months of the schedule, and some of the things to watch for going forward.

Biggest surprise: team

The Calgary Flames weren’t expected to do much in 2021-22.

Coming off a disappointing season in the one-and-done North Division, there were big questions, including the future of forwards Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, and what Darryl Sutter could get out of the roster in the first full season of his second stint as head coach.

Well, the Flames have silenced the doubters in impressive fashion.

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READ MORE: Calgary Flames stay hot on the road with 3-2 win over Los Angeles Kings

Click to play video: 'Checking in on the red-hot Calgary Flames'
Checking in on the red-hot Calgary Flames

Heading into Friday’s slate of games, Calgary occupied top spot in the Pacific Division, was fourth in the overall standings, and sat tied for fifth in points percentage.

The recipe? The Flames have done it with defence and goaltending.

Calgary Flames goaltender Jacob Markstrom, center, celebrates his shutout of the Pittsburgh Penguins with Mikael Backlund (11) and Blake Coleman (20) at the end of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Jacob Markstrom leads the NHL with five shutouts — backup Dan Vladar has two of his own — on a team that had surrendered a league-low 45 goals against in 23 games heading into the weekend.

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Biggest surprise: player

There are a number of candidates, including Anaheim Ducks winger Troy Terry and Colorado Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri for their eye-popping point totals, but Calgary forward Andrew Mangiapane gets the nod.

Calgary Flames left wing Andrew Mangiapane (88) reacts after scoring a goal in the second period of an NHL hockey game past New York Islanders goaltender Semyon Varlamov (40), Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021, in Elmont, N.Y. AP Photo/Adam Hunger

The 25-year-old registered a career-high 18 goals during last season’s 56-game campaign, and has already found the back of the net 16 times in 2021-22.

READ MORE: Mangiapane scores twice as Flames make it 4 in a row with 5-3 win over Devils

Mangiapane’s total was just four back of Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers, with 10 of his goals coming at even strength.

Edmonton Oilers’ Leon Draisaitl (29) battles for the puck with Winnipeg Jets’ Blake Wheeler (26) during second period NHL Stanley Cup playoff action in Edmonton on Friday, May 21, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

While still a longshot for Canada’s Olympic team in Beijing — if the NHL does indeed send its players to China — the Toronto native has at least pushed his name into the conversation.

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Click to play video: 'Andrew Mangiapane wins MVP at the 2021 IIHF World Hockey Championship'
Andrew Mangiapane wins MVP at the 2021 IIHF World Hockey Championship

Biggest disappointment: team

While the Montreal Canadiens, New York Islanders and Ottawa Senators are among the clubs that haven’t come close to meeting expectations for a variety of reasons, the Vancouver Canucks’ performance — or lack thereof — is on another level so far.

The team went about a roster renovation over the summer, including the acquisition of defenceman Oliver Ekman-Larsson from the Arizona Coyotes, but a group that expected to be back in the playoffs has instead made headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Watch below: Some recent videos from the world of hockey.

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Prior to recent road victories over the Canadiens and Senators, the Canucks were on a disastrous 1-8-1 run that raised serious questions about the job security of both head coach Travis Green and general manager Jim Benning.

Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green, back, stands on the bench behind Brock Boeser, from left to right, Jason Dickinson, Juho Lammikko, of Finland, and Tyler Motte during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the Colorado Avalanche in Vancouver, on Wednesday, November 17, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Questionable roster construction, poor play from almost top to bottom, and rumours of locker-room strife have all added fuel to the fire on the West Coast.

Benning is in his eighth season in charge, and has made the playoffs twice.

Biggest disappointment: player

Canucks centre Elias Pettersson, who put up back-to-back 66-point seasons to begin his career with jaw-dropping skill that wowed fans, has been a shell of himself.

The 23-year-old Swede has four goals and 12 points through 24 games. Before picking up a point in consecutive contests against Montreal and Ottawa, he’d registered a solitary assist in his nine previous outings.

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Vancouver Canucks’ Brock Boeser (6) stands by the bench with teammates Nils Hoglander (21), Elias Pettersson (40) and Conor Garland (8) during an official review following a Boston Bruins goal that was disallowed in the third period of an NHL hockey game, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Boston. AP Photo/Michael Dwyer

Having signed a three-year contract worth US$7.35 million annually after missing a chunk of training camp, Pettersson has averaged roughly 13 minutes of ice time in four of Vancouver’s last five games — five minutes less than his career average.

The 2019 Calder Trophy winner as the NHL’s rookie of the year hasn’t scored at even strength this season.

Biggest story to watch

The NHL’s decision on whether or not it will participate at the Winter Olympics in Bejing will be a major focus between now and the Jan. 10 deadline to withdraw without financial penalty.

Players have been adamant about their wish to compete on the world stage, but the league and NHLPA have an out clause if COVID-19 conditions render participation “impractical or unsafe.”

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READ MORE: NHL players will suit up in upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing

With a new variant of concern and an significant increase in the number of players entering the NHL’s virus protocol in recent weeks, the league tightened some of its rules ahead of the holiday season.

The NHL’s board of governors — historically lukewarm about the Olympics even under ideal conditions — are set to convene next week for their annual meeting in Florida. Whether or not the league goes to China will no doubt be a top of discussion.

Early contenders for awards

Oilers captain Connor McDavid already looks primed to win his second consecutive Hart Trophy, and third overall, as the NHL’s most valuable player.

Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid skates up the ice during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Vegas Golden Knights Saturday, Nov. 27, 2021, in Las Vegas. AP Photo/Chase Stevens

Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar‘s hot start has him as the front-runner in the Norris Trophy race ahead of the New York Rangers’ Adam Fox, who took last season’s honours as the league’s best defenceman.

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Colorado Avalanche’s Cale Makar (8) and St. Louis Blues’ Colton Parayko (55) chase after a loose puck along the boards during the second period of an NHL hockey game Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in St. Louis. AP Photo/Jeff Roberson

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy is in the driver’s seat for the Vezina Trophy, but there are plenty of quality candidates, including Igor Shesterkin (Rangers), Jacob Markstrom (Flames) and Jack Campbell (Toronto Maple Leafs).

Minnesota Wild right wing Ryan Hartman (38) shoots a puck at Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy as Wild left wing Kirill Kaprizov, left, and Lightning defenseman Mikhail Sergachev look on during the third period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in St. Paul, Minn. AP Photo/Craig Lassig

As for the Calder race, Red Wings forward Lucas Raymond has grabbed plenty of attention, while defenceman Moritz Seider — his teammate in Detroit — and Anaheim Ducks centre Trevor Zegras are also in the conversation.

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Detroit Red Wings right wing Lucas Raymond (23) drives toward the goal against Seattle Kraken center Colin Blackwell (43) during the first period of an NHL hockey game Wednesday, Dec. 1, 2021, in Detroit. AP Photo/Duane Burleson

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