Wednesday December 16th, 2015

The Blue Jackets were embarrassed on Tuesday night in Dallas, losing for the eighth time in their past nine games. Ryan Johansen, the team’s erstwhile No. 1 center, was benched for the entirety of the third period after turning in a disinterested performance through the 40 minutes. And after the loss, coach John Tortorella was locked out of the room so the team could hold a players-only meeting.

Sounds like things are unraveling again in Columbus. But that’s exactly the response the coach was looking for.

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“I didn’t think I’d be in [the locker room] as much as I am right now,” Tortorella said earlier on Tuesday of the time he spends working on changing the team’s culture. “So that’s what I’m trying to get to is, just calmly go about it, push the athletes as hard as they need to be pushed—but I also want to listen to them, too, as I’m getting to know them. And if they want me out of there, they need to take control of that room.”

Clearly, it’s not fun to be wearing Union Blue these days. And given the holes in the roster, and the limitations imposed by the salary cap, that’s probably not going to change any time soon. But that meeting looks like a sign that this team is ready to hold itself accountable. The next few games will be telling.

• Years from now, the torn core muscle suffered by Mike Smith might be viewed as the best thing that could have happened to the 2015-16 Arizona Coyotes.

Or at least, their Vincent Tremblay moment.

Name doesn’t ring a bell? You’re probably not alone. Tremblay was a struggling minor league netminder with the AHL’s Baltimore Skipjacks back in 1983-84 who earned an unexpected recall to the Pittsburgh Penguins. He stepped between the pipes for four games and allowed 24 goals ... a result which, despite their denials, was exactly what the Pens were looking for. The skid ensured that they’d finish last in the NHL, allowing them to take Mario Lemieux with the first pick in the 1984 draft. The rest is history.

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It’s no secret that the Coyotes have their sights set on the prize of the 2016 draft: forward Auston Matthews. There’s no player they’d love to have at the heart of their rebuild more than the Arizona native. Of course, a blatant tank job like the one the Pens pulled wouldn’t cut it these days, in large part because of the chancy uncertainties of the draft lottery.

And to be fair, the Coyotes look nothing like a team that is tanking. In fact, they’re in the thick of a playoff race for the first time in four years and, thanks to the instability of the Pacific Division, would likely remain in the hunt right down to the wire with Smith tending their net.

Young talent keeping Coyotes’ hopes alive

But with Smith out of the picture, they Yotes are in trouble. Not that he has been lights out this season, but a tandem of Anders Lindback and Louis Domingue isn’t good enough to keep them in the mix. Lindback has gone 4-5-1 with a .900 save percentage and 2.92 GAA in support of Smith. Domingue has played just seven NHL games, none of them this season.

GM Don Maloney needs to look for help. He owes that much to the players in the room and to the team’s ticket buyers.

That said, there aren’t many upgrades to be had on the market. Cam Ward’s not the answer. Neither is Jonathan Bernier (more on him in a moment). After surveying the landscape, Maloney might decide he has no real option but to stick with what he has.

Going with Lindback and Domingue for the duration could kill Arizona’s playoff hopes. But it might turn out to be the best thing for the franchise in the long term. And at least it’s an honest effort.

• It’s hard not to feel for Jonathan Bernier, whose winless slide continued on Tuesday night with a 5–4 OT loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. He’s now 0-8-2 this season and hasn’t recorded a regulation win in the NHL since March 3, nearly 10 months ago.

The 27-year-old was making his first start since returning from a conditioning stint with the AHL Marlies that saw him go 3-0-1 with a .948 save percentage and three consecutive shutouts. If hopes weren’t exactly high that he’d rediscovered his game with that success, there at least was reason to believe he’d worked past the confidence issues that have dogged him this season.

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Instead, he looked like the same fragile keeper, allowing five goals on just 27 shots, including one on only four in the first period. He wasn’t to blame for all of the red lights, but the inability to come up with the big stop, combined with his usual heart-clutching shakiness, wasn’t anywhere near good enough to get the Maple Leafs a win on a night when they scored four times.

That game was a chance for Bernier to turn the momentum his way. It didn’t work out. It won’t be the last time he suits up for the Leafs, but it’s hard to imagine coach Mike Babcock turning to him any time soon knowing that Bernier has allowed at least four goals in five of his past six starts. 

• It’s no surprise that Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau is excelling in three-on-three overtime. His game, based on speed and creativity, is tailor-made for the wide-open spaces created by the new format.

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Still, it’s impressive to see how quickly he’s established himself as the league’s most dangerous OT weapon. His assist on Kris Russell’s game winner in Tuesday’s 2–1 win over Nashville was his seventh OT point of the season. That ties the mark set by Markus Naslund in 2003-04 and later equaled by Joe Thornton in 2005-06.

And to think, it took Gaudreau all of 30 games to hit the mark. The NHL’s record keepers might want to use pencil for his points the rest of the way.

The numbers game

• Shayne Gotisbehere of the Flyers has now scored three overtime goals in his first 17 NHL games, the fastest pace in league history. Ryan Malone, who held the old mark, needed 64 games to reach three extra session tallies. He is also one of only three rookies to pot a trio in one season. The others: Sidney Crosby of the Penguins (2005-06) and Andrew Cogliano of the Oilers (2007-08).

• The Flames lead the NHL with an 8-1 record in OT. Johnny Gaudreau has contributed to seven of their eight such game-winning goals.

• Colorado netminder Semyon Varlamov, who blanked the Blackhawks on Tuesday night, now has a career mark of 11-3-0 vs. Chicago.

Hot links

• There were signs heralding that Steven Stamkos was at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto last night. Only they weren’t allowed to brought into the building.

• The great Gary “Boom Boom“ Santaniello profiles former Tampa Bay assistant George Gwozdecky as he gets a fresh start as a coach with a struggling Colorado high school program.

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• Reinforcements could be on the way for the struggling New York Rangers.

• Wait a minute ... Jaromir Jagr and Patrik Elias don’t really get along? That’s like hearing that Starsky and Hutch were only buddies when the cameras were rolling.

• A menorah made of ice? A parable about resilience? Must be Jewish Heritage Night at the Islanders game.

• It was a year ago today that the Panthers and Capitals battled it out in the longest shootout in NHL history. Relive it all here.

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