Phil Kessel's revenge; sickness hits NHL; more plusses, minuses
The week's most notable positives and negatives from around the NHL:
• Perhaps no player in the NHL takes affronts and insults to heart more than Phil Kessel. When he was booed frequently upon his return to Boston, he said it didn't get to him. Yet this was an All-Star who slumped badly as a visitor in the Bruins’ home building. Of course it got to him. The guy who was once the last pick in the players’ draft at the NHL All-Star Game, however, can also use personal wounds to become a better player. During a home game on Wednesday, Kessel scored twice—beating Bruins’ goalie Tuukka Rask once from each wing in the game’s first 21 minutes—to lead the Maple Leafs to a 6-1 victory against his former team. Granted this game was played in Toronto, but this was a huge boost for Kessel and the Leafs against a club that used to own him. Prior to the game, he'd scored only three goals in 27 previous matches against Boston.
• Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2007, the Ducks have been labeled as more of a regular-season force than a title contender. So we say this with an asterisk, but the Ducks’ rally against the defending champion Kings on Wednesday was very impressive. After Anaheim goalie Fredrick Anderson let in a horrible goal from a distance, leaving his team down, 3-1, coach Bruce Boudreau replaced him with journeyman backup Jason LaBarbera and then the Kesler show began. The ex-Canuck scored twice, added an assist, and scored again in the shootout to win the game. Yes it’s only November, but this is a team that still has a bad taste from its seven-game second round loss to the Kings last spring and a rally such as this one is a big step, especially for a player such as Kesler who is still in the process of fitting in.
• Did you bet on this? For a city that is all about fantasy, Las Vegas is now apparently a leader to get an NHL team. Who knows when, but apparently, the Maloof brothers and billionaire businessman William Foley, Chairman of Fidelity National Financial, will combine resources to put the first Big 4 Sports team in Sin City. The team doesn’t even exist, but that is Vegas in a neon nutshell. Here’s hoping that Joe and Gavin Maloof fare better there than their family did with the NBA team in Sacramento. The NHL isn’t ready to make a move to anywhere just yet, but when it moves all-in on expansion or realignment, this could be one of the places.
• Montreal forward Dale Weise recorded a Gordie Howe hat trick in the first two periods of Montreal’s 5-1 win against the Bruins on Thursday night despite playing just four of the game’s first 40 minutes. Yes, a Gordie Howe hat trick in four minutes! Weise apparently was on the receiving end of some threats from Boston’s Milan Lucic while the teams were in the handshake line during the playoffs last spring, but it was certainly Weise who had the last laugh on Thursday. He scrapped with Gregory Campbell early in the game, scored on a penalty shot, and set up Max Pacioretty for an insurance goal late in the second period. Weise finished the game with 8:50 of playing time and a night to remember against Montreal’s chief rivals.
• Flyers forward Jakub Voracek has quietly amassed 22 points in 14 games to lead his team in scoring. That number is second only to Sidney Crosby in the NHL. Voracek also ranks second in the league with 16 assists. He has failed to record a point only once all season and is the first Flyer since Chris Pronger (remember him?) in 2011 to record a point in Philadelphia’s first five games of a season. The 25-year-old Czech winger, who had three assists against Colorado last Saturday night, is on pace for 128 points—no he won't get that many—and he hasn’t even scored a power play goal yet. Claude Giroux gets most of the ink and the chatter as the Flyers’ main scoring weapon, but Voracek has quietly gone from good to sizzling. Where would this average team be without him?
• Here they go again. Listen to the calls for a coaching change in San Jose. This is a club that is always supposed to contend for the Cup, but the Sharks have endured one playoff collapse after another and despite a roster loaded with talent, they have never reached the Cup final. After a 4-0-1 start, they are looking at an uphill climb before the holidays even kick in, this after an impressive win in Tampa Bay on Thursday. Normally you would think that the Sharks are the kind of team that always turns it on in time to finish with a good record, but the victories that could have calmed any hidden anger over veteran Joe Thornton's loss of the captaincy are not there. Sure San Jose has only played five home games this season, but the Sharks are also just 2-3-0 at the Tank. Their coach, who is already under the gun, could soon be the first bench boss to get the heave-ho.
• Here’s another Shark. Tomas Hertl was the best thing going in the NHL a year ago. He started with 15 goals in his first 35 games, including a four-goal effort against the Rangers. One of those tallies was both a source of highlight-reel fodder and controversy. With the game firmly in hand, Hertl put his stick between his skates and beat Rangers goalie Marty Biron, leaving some people to give him the hot dog label. Then Hertl suffered a knee injury on Dec. 19 and missed the next 45 games. When he returned, he failed to record a point in his last two regular-season games. This season was supposed to be the time for him to fulfill the promise he showed last season. Instead he has just three goals in 18 games and was recently demoted to San Jose’s fourth line after seeing time periodically with Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau. The 21-year-old Czech has been one of the season’s early underachievers.
• During a season that has already seen a host o players battling serious illnesses and afflictions—Kimmo Timonen (blood clots), Josh Harding (multiple sclerosis), Olli Maatta (cancerous thyroid tumor), Nathan Horton (debilitating and possibly career-ending back injury)—we've now received the worst news of all: Senators GM Bryan Murray revealed that he's battling Stage 4 colon cancer and there is no hope for a cure now that it has spread throughout his body. The prayers of fans and everyone in the league are with him.
• The mumps have reared their ugly head. Warning signs began when eight members of the Blues sat out the same practice session in late October because of what the club originally described as a bacterial infection. When center Jori Lehtera missed a game, the team said he was out with the flu. Give St. Louis credit for playing well, even when both its goalies, Jake Allen and Brian Elliott, came down with the mystery bug. The Ducks have been without Corey Perry and Francois Beauchemin, who were diagnosed with mumps. The Wild lost Keith Ballard and Christian Folin, and now Jonas Brodin and Marco Scandella to the virus. Minnesota coach Mike Yeo believes the club picked it up during a recent West Coast swing. Could that have been in Anaheim, where Minnesota played last month? Who knows where the virus will strike next.
• Colorado managed to hide its tendency to give up too many shots on goal for most of last season. Even though the Avalanche got bounced from the playoffs early last spring, hopes were high for the team to build on its regular season success. But they now sit with just 15 points after 18 games, including Thursday’s win against the Rangers. Over their last seven games, the Avs are 2-4-1 and have been outshot, 243-192. Coach Patrick Roy is trying to coax his team to play a sort of zone defense after the man-on-man approach failed to yield early results, but that sort of transition takes time for any team, especially a young one. And signs of this being a young team are everywhere. Semyon Varlamov is simply being forced to do too much work in goal and Colorado’s feel-good season has been followed by still more growing pains.
• The news from Las Vegas shouldn’t concern the good people of Quebec, but in a way it does. Maybe when the NHL does expand, it will do so with two teams at a time. Maybe the struggles of the Coyotes are forcing the league to think in terms of relocating a single team a couple of years down the road and further expansion another four or five years later. Still, for people in a fabulous hockey market, this news reads like the second coming of the Lightning, Hurricanes, Stars, Panthers, you name the non-traditional market, where interest in the game comes and goes—and when the team struggles, it really goes. The move of the Thrashers to hockey-mad Winnipeg gave some hope to the land that once had the Nordiques. Quebec City is building a new $400 million arena that will include the luxury boxes that the Le Colisee lacked. The city is also trying to host a winter Olympics at some point. Maybe it will still get an NHL franchise, but the news out of Las Vegas must feel like a slap in the face. Sacre bleu.