Natural gas prices have endured yet another free-fall during recent months, abruptly amputating about one-third of the $6 handle that the fuel fetched as we entered 2010. But while many natural gas companies suffer in tandem, one energy contender might be bucking the trend.

Shares of natural gas producers have mostly dipped year-to-date, albeit to different degrees. Oil-heavy Anadarko Petroleum (NYSE: APC) and buyout-buoyed XTO Energy (NYSE: XTO) have only recently turned negative for 2010. Prior to Monday's European-bailout-driven monster rally, even relative laggards Chesapeake Energy (NYSE: CHK) and Devon Energy (NYSE: DVN) were only down 15% and 12%, respectively. When commodity product prices slide faster and farther than the shares of their respective producers, investors turn rightfully cautious.

Enter Cimarex Energy (NYSE: XEC), which comfortably exceeded expectations for first-quarter earnings with adjusted net income of $2 per share. This company is firing on all cylinders, crushing its own internal production guidance with 584.5 MMcfe per day. Pushing full-year targets to the upside, Cimarex now expects to sustain average daily production near current levels, to achieve 570 to 595 MMcfe per day. Thanks to effective exploration on the Gulf Coast, and continued success at the attractive Cana-Woodford play, Cimarex posted a 25% sequential surge in production, from 467.6 MMcfe per day in the fourth quarter of 2009.

By all measures, Cimarex is on a roll. At a time when gas-heavy producers like Chesapeake are feeling the pain from weak gas prices, Cimarex turned in a product mix skewing more heavily toward far more profitable oil and natural gas liquids (NGLs). Some of that success relates to a strong liquids component in the granite wash plays, where fellow operator Newfield Exploration (NYSE: NFX) has reported flows as high as 1,000 barrels of NGLs per day.

Closing out 2009 with a bang, Cimarex replaced 185% of 2009 production with the addition of 312Bcfe in proven reserves. Importantly, a full 77% of those added reserves came from proved developed producing reserves (PDPs) ... which provide a significantly more reliable gauge of productive potential than proved undeveloped reserves (PUDs). This will help to sustain Cimarex's impressively reliable reserve base, compared to other operators with more to prove. Finally, Cimarex continues to clean up its balance sheet, with a welcome $60 million surge in cash reserves underscoring a reduced 14% debt-to-total capitalization ratio.

With all of these improving metrics in play, it's no wonder that Cimarex has lurched ahead of the pack. Even prior to Monday's 7% intraday surge, Cimarex shares had already tacked on some 15% year to date.

Although I can scarcely imagine natural gas prices remaining so deeply disjointed from crude oil and coal prices, I am compelled to urge at least a cubic foot of caution before investors dip into higher-flying, trend-bucking stocks. Still, if you prefer to stick with the strongest performers, regardless of relative strength among the shares, Cimarex could be just the well of opportunity you're looking for.

Chesapeake Energy is a Motley Fool Inside Value selection. The Fool owns shares of Chesapeake Energy, Devon Energy, and XTO Energy. Try any of our Foolish newsletters today, free for 30 days. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

Fool contributor Christopher Barker can be found blogging actively and acting Foolishly within the CAPS community under the username TMFSinchiruna. He tweets. He owns no shares in the companies mentioned. The Motley Fool has a highly liquid disclosure policy.