It’s hard to believe the NHL season is already 25 days old. Seems like just yesterday the Leafs were undefeated, and we were talking about headshots every day. Wait, we’re still talking about headshots? Yep, we are. I don’t know how else I’d fill this weekly look back on the happenings around the league.
At first it can seem like a quirk, or an early season slumber. But now my calendar says November, a time when slumps can turn into spirals. You hear that, John MacLean?
The problem with October is that we’ve waited four months–four months!–for meaninful hockey to return, so each game is greeted with the kind of fervour usually reserved for 12 year olds at a Justin Bieber concert. The games aren’t meaningless; far from it. But the winning and losing streaks should be greeted with your grain of salt handy.
Two weeks ago panic buttons were being pushed in Ottawa and Calgary, two teams that could very well need their parachute to avoid a crash landing soon enough. But now a sense of relative calm has been restored. Well, sort of.
Most teams have now played at least 10 games, meaning that we’re quickly approaching the quarter pole of the season. That’s a scary thought, and it makes November a time when the losses and wins begin to weigh more heavily, and early season struggles need to be corrected swiftly.
Week 3 Headlines
I am contractually obligated to write about headshots and questionable hits
I’ve dwelled on this before, but the rare times when my two blogging homes here at The Score intersect highlight the obvious differences between the fans and media following hockey and football.
My six loyal readers know that I also write for our NFL blog, the Goal-Line Stand. The two leagues are so dramatically in contrast in terms of their popularity south of the border that any link was hard to imagine prior to about two weeks ago. Much like hockey, the NFL had its own string of dangerous, head-hunting hits, a problem that was dealt with quickly.
The fire raged initially amongst the media and fans about football’s re-vamped legislation to curb questionable hits. But now just two weeks later, headshots are a side issues at best in the NFL.
The NHL can only dream of such a scenario. Headshots have been a major talking point for over a year, and it seems every week we have a fresh batch of hits to dissect. This week the magnifying glass was turned to Dustin Brown, Jordin Tootoo, and Niklas Kronwall. Tootoo and Brown were penalized during the game but did not face any disciplinary action afterward, while Kronwall just faced the wrath of Teemu Selanne.
All three were clean, solid hits, with Brown’s looking like it was the most questionable until it was put under the magnifying glass of modern technology. I still need large red arrows to notice key details in any replay, so thank God for Youtube:
I am not and never will be a hockey mom type wanting to eradicate any form of violence from the game. There will always be injuries, jarring hits and vicious collisions in hockey, and no amount of legislation can ever change that.
But just because a hit is deemed clean after it takes a spin on the Wheel of Justice doesn’t mean that it’s the kind of play that’s in hockey’s best interests. The rules put in place by the league late last season were not only meant to punish illegal hits, but also act as a proactive measure. By putting them in place the league indicated to players that headshots are a serious matter, and hitting should be done in such a way that the head isn’t targeted, and serious injuries are avoided.
NFL players learned pretty quickly how to hit within the rules. One day, NHL players will too, but until then we’ll keep debating hits daily.
The slow burn in New Jersey
Blame it on age, or just simply under-performance in the early going, but the Devils have looked downright flat. New Jersey has now plummeted to last in the Eastern Conference, and it won’t be long before that panic button is broken.
Ilya Kovalchuk will be part of the solution if this talented lineup is going to get moving, but right now he’s part of the problem. After his strange and still unexplained benching, Kovalchuk has only one point. Now Zach Parise is injured, bringing more worry to an offence that’s scored the fewest goals in the entire league.
What’s most alarming though is Martin Brodeur’s prolonged slump. The Devils went through a three-game losing streak extenuated by a 5-2 loss to San Jose last Wednesday, and during that stretch they were outscored 14-4. Brodeur is still stuck on three wins, and had seven at this point last year.
What’s eating Ryan Miller?
Going down the list of slumping star goalies, we arrive at Ryan Miller, who in the early days of October has gone past the point of regression from his remarkable Vezina campaign last year.
In his three starts last week Miller allowed 10 goals, and his October of 2010 was a far cry from his start last year that saw the Buffalo netminder record eight wins. Similar to the Devils, the Sabres are a team that depends on elite goaltending, and Miller needs to return to his Olympic form if the Sabres are to bounce back from a sluggish start.
It wasn’t all bad for the puck stoppers this week though. Cast aside as a backup to Tuukka Rask, Tim Thomas has been rejuvenated in Boston, winning every game he’s started and posting back-to-back shutouts. Thomas has an eye-popping 0.50 GAA, a category which he leads all goaltenders in along with save percentage.
Thomas wasn’t alone as he piled up scoreless minutes, as Jaroslav Halak did the same in St. Louis. Much to the dismay of Habs fans, Halak also posted two straight shutouts.
- File this one under things that only interest me, but just how far will advertising go? It’s bad enough that Bell tries to swindle me with its latest cell phone scam as I’m standing over a urinal, but Wednesday night during the Blackhawks/Kings game I saw digital ads superimposed on the glass behind each goaltender.
- Evander Kane is maturing quickly as a goal-scorer. The 19-year-old had six goals over the season’s first month, and finished off October with five points over four games.
- The Montreal powerplay is happy to see the return of Andrei Markov. A unit that scored at a modest 21.8% clip last year had only three goals with the man advantage in October, and operated at a meagre 7.7%.
- The chant “thank you Kessel!” after Tyler Seguin’s goal in Boston last Thursday night is easily the most inventive and timely chant heard in an NHL rink. Prior to this the limits of fan creativity was a chorus of “bulls—!” after a perceived bad call.
- Nothing annoys me more at a hockey game than legions of fans yelling “shoot!” when a defenceman has the puck on the powerplay, and he’s staring into an opponent’s shin pads. Patrick Sharp is just giving these screamers more ammunition. I’m not much of a math guy–I’ll leave that to Willis, and Herkes’ abacus–but common sense will tell you that when a player has a ridiculously high shooting percentage, he’s due for a regression to a more average pace. The question is though, when will Sharp stop? In his last eight games Sharp has taken 43 shots, and scored on nine of them. Lee Stempniak knows the feeling.
- After a start that had many–including us–giving the standing eight count to his career, Alex Kovalev suddenly woke up, and scored three goals and four points last week. Long known for taking nights off, Kovalev has become the Randy Moss of the NHL. To complete this comparison Kovalev has to become a total jerk, get sent back to the Rangers where his career began, and then get waived four weeks later.
- The Blackhawks’ high octane offence does plenty of scoring, and the team does plenty of winning. But the defence doesn’t do much defending, and the goalie does do much goaltending. Despite being second in the Western Conference with seven wins in October, Chicago is 25th in the league in goals allowed (37). In Friday’s 7-4 loss to Edmonton, forwards Tomas Kopecky and Troy Brouwer combined to be -11.
- Leafs Nation is a sensitive bunch. This is not meant to be an insult towards Toronto fans; if anything, it’s a compliment. Leafs fans are passionate, and it shows after even the most mundane insults to the sacred blue-and-white. This trait is shared by any passionate fanbase, but it’s still entertaining when columnists take advantage of the fan’s zeal for their own entertainment. Howard Berger did just that last week, and Leafs fans feel for it hard.
Philadelphia Flyers: After a sluggish start that saw Philadelphia lose four of its first six games, the Broadstreet Bullies are back, and have now won four straight. It feels like we say this every year, but this time it really does look like the Flyers have found a sense of solidarity in the crease. Michael Leighton is just getting back on the ice after his back surgery, but in his absence Sergei Bobrovsky–a classic Russian goalie name–has been in goal for six of Philadelphia’s seven wins.
Buffalo Sabres: Beyond the struggles of Miller, it’s difficult to put a finger on what’s holding back the Sabres in the early going. They scored 24 goals in October last year, and have scored 30 this year. Tyler Myers is experiencing a massive sophomore slump, and has an ugly -10 rating heading into October. But four of the team’s other five defenceman have their plus/minus in the black, and the Sabres as a whole have a very average -1 rating.
Miller has already started four games in which he’s allowed four or more goals, a rare occurrence which happened only seven times all of last season.
- Chris Stewart: After scoring 28 goals last year, Stewart had a hat trick against Calgary on Thursday, and already has nine goals and 16 points.
- Patrick Sharp: He’s scored 13 points over his last nine games, four of which came last week.
- Tim Thomas: My apologies again for the repetition, but do you really expect me to keep a goalie with a 0.50 GAA and two shutouts last week off of this list?