Dark horse MVP, fined divers, more in NHL's plus/minus for week
The week's most notable positives and negatives from around the NHL:
• Any discussion of MVP candidates through the first half of the season is going to yield the same names: Ryan Getzlaf, Pekka Rinne, Carey Price, and maybe Tyler Seguin. But here’s one to keep on the mental back burner: Lightning center Tyler Johnson.
And why not? To this point of the season he’s been the best player on the best team in the Eastern Conference, a point he reinforced by scoring four goals in road wins over the Senators and the Canadiens this week.
The goals were noteworthy because three of them came on the power play. Johnson leads the league with 36 points at five-on-five, but he hasn’t been a go-to weapon with the extra man. And that’s where this team needs some help. As good as Tampa Bay has been offensively this season—leading the NHL with 3.26 goals per game—the Bolts’ power play is mediocre, clicking at just 18.7%, which ranks just 16th in the league. Utilizing Johnson—who has a knack for finding open space and boasts an above-average release—as a triggerman rather than as a playmaker might get the unit out of the doldrums. Playing more with the man-advantage could also key a strong second half for the 24-year-old Johnson.
Of course there’s more than scoring touch in Johnson’s toolbox. He’s a catalyst in his own zone as well, providing a gritty, two-way presence that keys Tampa Bay’s possession game and powers his NHL-best +26 rating.
The undersized, undrafted forward might lack name recognition, but he’s been the heartbeat of this team. If the Lightning win the East, Johnson deserves to be in the mix for the Hart Trophy.
• The red-hot Rangers made it 12 of 13 on Thursday night, knocking off the Kings 4–3 at Staples Center (highlights). It wasn’t much in the way of revenge for the three losses that New York suffered there over the course of last season’s Stanley Cup finals, but it did give a good indication of what’s going right for a team that suddenly looks capable of taking another crack at the title. A commitment to defense has been the key to the Blueshirts’ turnaround, with their forwards providing heavy and consistent back pressure to support the blue line. During the past few games, however, New York’s power play has also been a difference maker. The unit has scored on 10 of its last 23 chances, including twice against Los Angeles. Coach Alain Vigneault has praised the heavy net presence of both units, but it’s not just the team’s big bodies, including Rick Nash and Chris Krieder, who are heading to the greasy areas. The team’s renewed effort while playing below the dots has been creating chances like the ones that led to Martin St. Louis’s game winner against the Kings. The willingness to pay the price down low also explains how New York has scored four or more goals eight times during the streak.
It was an emotional evening for the veteran goalie, who was making his first appearance in Rogers Arena since being dealt to Florida ahead of the trade deadline last season. Vancouver’s former captain tapped his heart and waved to the crowd after he was honored in a brief, 20-second tribute video. “I just wanted to give my thanks, my appreciation for not only the welcome, but for the eight years,” Luongo said. “There’s a lot of memories in those eight years and it was just my way to thank the fans.” He then went out and thanked his current employers with a 32-save effort that earned him the 289th win of his career, which ties Luongo with Dominik Hasek for 11th on the NHL’s all-time list.
As much as he loved his time in Vancouver, Florida is a better spot for Luongo. More than one scout has told SI.com recently that he seems to be a more comfortable and confident goalie now that he no longer has to deal with the relentless scrutiny of playing in a Canadian market.
• No one will remember it when the Goal of the Year talk cranks up, but Evgeni Malkin's marker 15 seconds into the third period against the Bruins on Wednesday night was as an absolute jaw dropper. Amazingly, Boston won the opening draw and had possession in the Penguins’ end before Brad Marchand got tripped up and turned the puck over. Pittsburgh blueliner Christian Ehrhoff picked it up out of a crowd and sent a perfect breakout pass into the neutral zone where Malkin corralled it, got a step on Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton and then hammered a shot from the top of the circle. The puck sailed over the shoulder of goalie Tuukka Rask, off the crossbar, the post and in. Watch the slowmo replay and marvel at the beauty of that puck in flight.
• Sharks GM Doug Wilson said before the season that his team was going to take a step back in 2014–15. That blunt assessment looks pretty accurate after San Jose was humiliated twice in the last week by the Blues, both times by the score of 7–2. Sure, the Sharks are missing No. 1 center Joe Thornton, but even the former captain wouldn’t have made a difference. By any measure, this is a deeply flawed team, plagued by inconsistent goaltending, inadequate defense and a deficit of NHL-caliber forwards. Antti Niemi started but failed to finish both games against St. Louis, allowing 11 goals on 48 shots. His even-strength save percentage is a miserable .918, 25th among keepers with at least 10 starts. The defense, especially the right side—led by Brent Burns and Justin Braun—is leaking chances. The struggles of Burns, forced back onto the blue line by the departure of Dan Boyle, are understandable. Being “versatile” doesn't equate to being a viable NHL defenseman (his coverage on T.J. Oshie's goal on Thursday night was Pee-Wee quality). Braun has been a major disappointment coming off a strong 2013–14. There are nights like Thursday when he seemed to be second-guessing his every decision, and that’s creating time and space for opposing attackers. The biggest concern is the lack of energy up front. There are talent issues, but when a team looks this lethargic, it’s on the coach. You have to wonder how many more efforts like this Todd McLellan can survive.
• Maybe it was playing on a young team that quickly revealed itself to be a medal-round pretender. Maybe he felt like he’d already mastered this stage of his development. Or maybe he just couldn’t be bothered. Whatever the reason, Kasperi Kapanen was widely regarded as the most disappointing performer at the recently concluded World Junior Championship. The Penguins’ 2014 first-round pick went pointless through the round robin. More concerning though was the general air of indifference in his game. “A lot of floating out there, a lot of going through the motions,” one scout told SI.com. “There were times in games when you were waiting for him to engage and he would back off or settle for the easy play. There are times when a player can leave you wanting more. He left me wanting just anything. A pulse would have been nice.” Ouch.
• Two more players this week were tagged as repeat offenders under the NHL’s new anti-diving campaign. The Red Wings’ Gustav Nyquist and the Panthers’ Vince Trocheck joined James Neal as recipients of a $2,000 fine. Nyquist was nailed after a two-footed leap fooled the officials into penalizing the Bruins’ Chris Kelly.
Pretty clear-cut case upon review, but it was nowhere near as comical as Trocheck’s dive after taking a tap in the rump from Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik. Not only did the Florida forward drop as if he’d been shot, but he also limped back into the play after “miraculously” regaining his footing.
The league is hoping that publicly shaming players as cheats will deter future offenses, but so far the results haven’t been promising. In the cases of both Nyquist and Trocheck, their disregard for the integrity of the game earned a power play for their teams—Trocheck earned the Panthers a five-on-three advantage. That’s on the on-ice officials. Until they routinely and competently call embellishment penalties individually, rather than as coincidentals to another offense, this silliness will continue to damage the game.
• Just a quick thought on the NHL All-Star Game jerseys that leaked out today: These might be the worst fashion choices since Pat Benatar threw her outfit through a woodchipper and then stapled it back together for big dance-off at the end of her “Love Is A Battlefield” video. Neon green is great for divers, parachutists and ironic 1980s revivalists. Hockey players, though? Uh-uh.