Originally written on NESN.com  |  Last updated 2/14/13

BUFFALO, NY - NOVEMBER 28: Thomas Vanek #26 of the Buffalo Sabres controls the puck near the side boards against the Carolina Hurricanes during their NHL game on November 28, 2009 at HSBC Arena in Buffalo, New York. The Sabres defeated the Hurricanes 5-1. (Photo by Rick Stewart/Getty Images)

Most teams in the NHL have only played about 12 or 13 games this season, but considering we’re dealing with a lockout-shortened schedule, we’re already at the quarter point of the season. That being the case, it’s the perfect time for some reflection. Here’s a look at three big surprises in the early part of the season: Chicago Blackhawks Sure, we all understood that the Blackhawks were a capable team heading into the season and one that could possibly contend for a Stanley Cup if they caught some breaks. However, we’re a quarter of the way through the regular season and nobody thought the Blackhawks would be this good. Chicago is the only team in the NHL that has yet to lose in regulation. Their 44 goals scored are the most in the West but nobody questioned their offense. The real difference has been the performance of goaltender Corey Crawford. After posting a 2.72 GAA and a .903 save percentage last season, Crawford has stepped up his game in a big way. He has a case to make for being among the most improved players in the NHL as his GAA currently sits at 1.65 and his save percentage is at .935. They are now the " target="_blank">Stanley Cup favorite according to the oddsmakers at Bovada Bovada" target="_blank">at 13-2. Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres From an individual perspective, you’d have to say Vanek has been quite a surprise. He was definitely All-Star caliber before but so far this season, the Sabres sniper has been a Hart and Art Ross Trophies contender. Vanek’s best output in an 82-game season is 43 goals and 84 points. Through 13 games this season, he has 11 goals and 23 points, which puts him on pace for 41 goals and 85 points in just 48 games. We’ll see if he can keep it up but for now, Vanek has been playing out of his mind. Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers Going from the most valuable to the most disappointing, has there been a single player that has disappointed more than Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux? Sure, Brian Elliott makes a pretty good case but remember that Giroux finished third in the NHL last season with 93 points (in just 77 games) while potting 28 goals. To say that No. 28’s start has been slow would be quite the understatement. So far, he has just three goals and eight points in 14 games. His disappearance is a big reason why the Flyers have dropped to 22nd in goals per game (2.43) after tying for second (3.17) a year ago. It’s part of why we no longer see the Flyers atop the NHL futures NHL futures" target="_blank">board at Bovada any longer. Odds to win 2012 Stanley Cup Chicago Blackhawks 13-2 Pittsburgh Penguins 15-2 Vancouver Canucks 9-1 Boston Bruins 10-1 New York Rangers 10-1 St. Louis Blues 12-1

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