San Jose Shark forward Patrick Marleau stood alone atop the NHL goal-scoring derby before Thursday's slate of nine games, pursued by a half-dozen players.
Some usual suspects lurked. Zach Parise, Marian Gaborik, Marian Hossa and Jeff Skinner all had five goals, four behind Marleau. Then there were the unusual suspects: Daniel Winnik of the Anaheim Ducks and Zack Kassian, the Vancouver Canuck sophomore who entered the season with four career goals.
The hulking Kassian appears to have transformed himself from project to first-line object. He's on the top unit with the Sedin twins both at regular strength and on the power play. He's still humble, too, and had a hearty chuckle when asked if he dared to dream about the Rocket Richard Trophy.
"No, no," he said following practice Thursday. "I'm doing well now but obviously it's just six or seven games in. There is still a lot of work to be done. So far, I feel pretty good. Obviously playing with two great players and getting lots of ice time really helps. I'm definitely more comfortable offensively but it's only been two weeks and goals sometimes can come in bunches."
Kassian, 22, was an elite prospect and drafted 13th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 2009. He had 63 points and 136 penalty minutes in his draft year and his package of size - a listed 6-3, 214 pounds - toughness and skill proved irresistible. He won a Memorial Cup with the Windsor Spitfires in 2010 and played for Team Canada in the 2010-11 world junior tournament.
He was not without pedigree. "I came through the rankings as a player who was physical, hard to play against but also someone who could put up points," Kassian said. "I think I'm just finding my game at the pro level. Obviously last year was just my first year professional and I was getting my feet under me. Right now, my confidence level is pretty high and I'm doing the things I think, and know, I can do."
Surprisingly, only two of Kassian's five goals have been put on a platter for him by the Sedins. One was a total solo effort against Calgary while the other two were on feeds from defencemen Alex Edler and Dan Hamhuis. Maybe Kassian is cleverly using the Sedins as decoys, rather than the other way around.
On his goal Wednesday, he was abandoned by the Colorado Avalanche penalty killers and was able to manoeuvre himself into scoring position for an easy re-direct of the Hamhuis feed.
"The twins kind of sucked all the play to them," Kassian said, insisting they deserve credit even though they didn't earn assists.
"They created the whole thing. They won a battle along the wall and did everything to get the puck back to the point." Alex Burrows blossomed into a scoring star playing alongside Henrik and Daniel and sees no reason why Kassian can't do it as well.
TALE OF DALE: Canuck grinder Dale Weise, who was involved in a fight Wednesday with the Avs' Cody McLeod, missed practice Thursday with what coach Alain Vigneault explained was a stiff neck. His status for Friday's game against Chicago was in doubt.
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