Wild on fire, Bruins on the skids, more NHL notes
Some crunchy news 'n' notes for a long weekend:
• In the wake of Minnesota's 6–2 thumping of Calgary Thursday night, beat writer Mike Russo noted that the Wild have scored 64 goals over the past 20 games. That's not just a big number. It's more than any other team has potted over that span.
The timing isn't coincidental: 20 games marks the tenure of new coach John Torchetti, who replaced the defensively minded Mike Yeo back on Feb. 15.
Torchetti's system demands tempo and accountability on both sides of the puck, but it also allows his players more freedom to make something happen at even strength. The mentality is attack the opposing net, rather than simply defend their own at all costs. While it's not any easier on the players, it's more enjoyable to execute. And outside of Thomas Vanek, who's been a resident of Tochetti's doghouse as a result of unassertive play, it's made them more effective.
He's changed up the power play as well, giving defenders Jared Spurgeon and Matt Dumba the green light to rely on their mobility and be more aggressive with their positioning. That's led to more movement—which has made them tougher to defend against—and created more second-chance scoring opportunities. The results speak for themselves. The Wild counted three of their six goals against the Flames courtesy of the man advantage, giving them six power play tallies in their past five games.
That unit will be front and center in Colorado on Saturday afternoon (3 p.m. ET) as the Wild play what could be their biggest game of the season. Minnesota holds a three-point lead over the Avs in the race for the final wild-card berth in the West. A win in that one would push the bulge to five points and leave Colorado with just seven games to bridge the gap.
Which is why it could all come down to how Minnesota's power play matches up against Patrick Roy's penalty kill. Colorado's unit has consistently ranked among the best in the league, and is on fire lately, allowing just one goal over the past 27 chances, a span of seven games. If it can shut down the Wild when they have the extra man, the Avs could make things interesting.
• At least someone warned Julius Caesar about the Ides of March. The Bruins have been caught off guard two years in a row.
March 15 is threatening to become a dark day in the franchise's history. A year ago on that date, Boston dropped a 2–0 decision in Washington. That defeat snowballed into the six-game losing streak that ultimately cost the B's a playoff berth.
And what happened this year? They kicked off their annual California trip with a 3–2 loss in San Jose. That defeat has snowballed into a five-games-and-counting losing streak that's left them with a single-point cushion on Detroit for third-place in the Atlantic Division, and Philadelphia for the final wild-card spot. The Flyers have two games in hand on the Bruins. The Red Wings have one.
Is another collapse inevitable? Not quite, but it doesn't look good. The B's play their next four on the road, a trip that begins Saturday night in Toronto and moves on to New Jersey before a pair of gut-check contests in St. Louis and Chicago. They then finish the season at home, including a pivotal game against the Red Wings on April 7.
For that one to matter, though, they need to kickstart an offense that's produced just six goals over these past five games. They've had a couple tough breaks along the way, including having apparent goals called off against both the Rangers and the Panthers, but it comes down to the big guns going quiet. The team's top-four scorers—Patrice Bergeron, Loui Eriksson, Brad Marchand and David Krejci—have combined for one goal and three points during this slump and, outside of Bergeron, haven't seemed particularly dangerous. And the power play that once was the league's best? It's been shooting blanks for weeks and is on an 0-for-13 skid since the San Jose game.
And while other teams are tightening up defensively, the B's have put out the welcome mat in front of their net, coughing up 18 goals over those five games, with three-or-more allowed in four of five. Backliners Dennis Seidenberg and Torey Krug in particular have struggled. Seidenberg's lack of mobility and Krug's size and iffy positioning are allowing opponents to get the second and third whacks at the puck that aren't there when the Bruins are at their best.
“Everything around you seems to go against you, so it’s a matter of staying strong, of staying positive,” Bruins coach Claude Julien said after Thrusday's 4–1 loss to Florida. “It’s a matter of being determined to make your own breaks here and turn this around.
“So, you know, this is not time to hang our heads. It’s the time to show the character of our team as individuals and as a group.”
They'll get their chance to do that on Saturday against the Leafs—the team, coincidentally, that the B's knocked off to end their skid last year.
And next year? They might want to ask the schedule maker not to book them a date for March 15.
• Even before Team USA was knocked out of gold-medal contention at the 2016 World Juniors, there were questions about the decision to leave Kyle Connor off the roster. The University of Michigan freshman was viewed as a lock to make the club, especially after he led the nation in goals (seven) and points (13) in December, but USA Hockey went in a different direction.
The snub clearly stung the Winnipeg Jets first rounder (17th, 2015).
“Any time you’re passed over for a team, yeah, it hurts," he said. "I think I could have helped them, but you never know. It’s OK.”
It motivated him as well. Connor delivered an epic second half of the season, reeling off a 24-game scoring streak and leading the nation in goals (34) and points (65). He scored four times in his postseason debut, guiding Michigan to a 7–2 rout of Penn State while cementing his standing as the favorite to claim the Hobey Baker Award.
And now, three months after being told he wasn't good enough to play with the American JVs, he's likely to get an invite to join Auston Matthews on the men's squad for the 2016 World Championship.
Although the roster won't be announced for several more weeks, it's expected that USA Hockey will round out the NHL-based squad with several collegians. And Connor again seems like a lock.
"He's the first guy I'd take," an NHL scout told SI.com. "They'll want to see how he does the rest of the way ... but he has that knack for raising his game. He's an outstanding skater so he'll thrive on the big ice. He's proved that he's more than just a playmaker this year. He's willing to shoot the puck. They can use that kind of high-end skill."
With the World Cup coming up later this summer, there are concerns that there will be pushback from NHL vets looking to preserve what little downtime they have. That could lead to several roster spots opening up for collegians. Yale goaltender Alex Lyon, who was unused as the third goalie on last year's bronze medal-winning squad, should be in the mix. Nashville prospect Jimmy Vesey, who on Friday earned his second consecutive Walter Brown Award as the top American-born college player in New England is a shoo-in if he's not tied up with the Predators in the playoffs. Connor's U of M linemate J.T. Compher (Sabres) will get a look, as will North Dakota winger Brock Boeser (Canucks and Boston University defenseman Matt Grzelcyk (Bruins).
• This week's reminder that most of us are living in 2016: The Hurricanes on Friday joined several corporate voices in the state of North Carolina expressing opposition to anti-LGBT legislation that was signed into law by governor Pat McCrory.
“The Carolina Hurricanes and PNC Arena are devoted to providing a welcoming and respectful environment for all fans," the team's statement read. "We stand against all forms of discrimination.”
The Canes aren't due to host any major events any time soon, but this is the sort of policy that could cost them in the future. The NBA, which issued a similar statement, is set to host its All-Star Game in Raleigh in 2017. No word yet on whether this law will lead it to move the contest but that option seems to be in play.
Nothing yet from the NHL, which is surprising considering how actively the league has worked to support LGBT rights.
The numbers game
• The Flyers' win on Thursday night was their first in Colorado since Dec. 27, 2002, ending a seven-game skid (0-4-3) at the Pepsi Center.
• Florida picked up its first win in Boston since Dec. 8, 2011, snapping a nine-game skid (0-8-1) in Beantown.
• Wild forward ZachParise, who leads the NHL with three hat tricks is now the second player in franchise history to pot three in one season. The other: Marian Gaborik in 2002-03. Parise is also the first to score three goals in one period, in the process breaking the team mark for fastest hattie (11:02) that was set by Gaborik in 12:05 on Dec. 20, 2007 vs. the Rangers.
• A new study suggests French-Canadian referees have exhibited bias in making penalty calls against English-Canadian players. Probably bitter about the cultural appropriation of poutine.
• We know he hasn't had much practice at it, but Claude Giroux needs to get better at celebrating.
• Bill Belichick, David Ortiz and a who's-who of hockey legends videotaped tributes to Boston coach Claude Julien in recognition of his Bruins franchise-record 388th career win.
• Former NHL star Darius Kasparaitis hopes other players will learn from the mistakes he made with the money earned in his early contracts.
• Get to know Dale Tallon, the most interesting GM in the NHL. Hey, Dos Equis is looking for a new spokesman, right?
• Watch the reaction of former Canadiens/Red Wings star Andre Pronovost as his grandson, Anthony Mantha, scores his first NHL goal. Then put down the computer and go call your grandparents.
• There's a newcomer on this list of the top-three teams found on player no-trade lists. Maybe not that surprising, considering the issues that have surrounded this club this season.