Slow starts and impressive beginnings

It was a nasty game in Belarus Monday between the Minsk Hussars and Lisbon HC with a fight and a lot of penalties, and Lisbon had no right to be within a goal in the dying seconds. But there they were, goalie Kari Ramo skating quickly to the bench in favor of an extra attacker. Coach Willie Desjardins sent Magnus Paajarvi over the boards. Maybe Paajarvi’s goal earlier in the third period convinced the coach the young Swede had a hot stick. Desjardins had a good hunch. As luck would have it, a deflected puck went right onto Paajarvi’s stick blade as soon as he entered the slot and he instinctively fired a wrist shot that beat Minsk goalie Anton Khudobin … and rang off the crossbar. No game-tying goal, no point in the standings, not even a shot on goal.

That’s how it’s been going this season for Lisbon. A 3-6-1 start is not what GM Bryan Camara – or anyone else – expected from a team that finished fifth overall a season ago with 108 points. Only 2 goals from four Lisbon left wingers in 10 games isn’t helping. But Lisbon has the horses to pull through this muck. Joe Pavelski, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares, Drew Doughty, Dustin Byfuglien and Marian Hossa won’t stand for it and fans in Portugal should see better play soon from their star players. It reminds a lot of longtime EURO League observers of Season 1, when a very promising St. Petersburg team got off to a prolonged poor start, prompting a disgusted GM to resign, and then the team picked it up, surged into the playoffs and finished as one of the most dangerous teams in the league. The same thing happened with Bratislava a couple of seasons later. GM Chuck Massaro was floating trade proposals, ready to pack it in, when the team suddenly took off and comfortably made the playoffs.

Lisbon isn’t the only team that is surprising onlookers early this season. St. Petersburg is just 1-8 so far, giving up more goals than any other team despite being in the middle of the pack in terms of shots against per game. Athens, which finished fourth in the league in goal scoring last season is fifth worst in that category right now.

At the other end of the standings, Madrid and London are not only running with the big dogs, they have their tails in front of most of them. Scandinavia is well represented at the top with Helsinki and the two Swedish teams all in the top 8.

Stockholm-Ryan

Looking at individual statistics, the most surprising development is the great performance of a trio of Stockholm forwards. Bobby Ryan, Brendan Gallagher and newly-acquired Eric Staal are all in the top 10 in scoring even though not one of them shows up in the top 29 in shots on goal. Ryan is tied for the league lead in scoring and he leads in power play goals.

Copenhagen’s Johnny Gaudreau is making a great first impression in Europe with 8 goals and 13 points in 9 games. He leads all rookies in scoring by a wide margin so far.

Another surprising stat is that Anze Kopitar already has 4 shorthanded goals this season in just 9 games. Colin Greening hasn’t been known as a big bully so far in his career, but that might be changing for the Copenhagen winger. He has been in a league-leading 4 fights this season, winning 2 of them, and he is third in penalty minutes behind league leader and PIM record-holder Mark Fraser of Gothenburg and Bern’s Johnny Boychuk.

A couple of top-tier forwards are having a lot of trouble finding the back of the net. Ryan O’Reilly of Athens has just 1 goal in 41 shots, and Bratislava’s Jonathan Toews is scoreless in 33 shots on goal. T.J. Oshie of Athens is also off to a slow start, with just 2 points, giving him the lowest point total among forwards who average 22 minutes or more per game.

But some things in the EURO League are as they should be. Paris and Minsk are performing as expected – at the top of the league – and Belfast will be with them soon. And Helsinki leads the league in penalty minutes. Shocking.

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