The topic of the day, class, is which is more surprising: Sidney Crosby leading Alexander Ovechkin in goals or Ovechkin leading Crosby in assists?
(You there, in the back of the class. Stop smirking! If you are Ovie-ed out or can't abide another word about the erstwhile Sid the Kid -- gracious, he's 22 and totally legal, so banish that Kid stuff -- pack up your books and go home. They are the two most dynamic and significant players of the post-lockout generation. You couldn't ignore Jack and Arnie if you came to golf in the 1960s or Magic, Bird and MJ if you studied basketball in the 1980s. Same deal with these guys.)
Now, where were we? Yes, are you more stunned that a brilliant playmaker like Crosby has one more goal (37, albeit in eight more games) than Ovechkin or that he has seven fewer assists than Ovechkin's 41?
Let's start with Ovechkin's assists. In his first four seasons, he had 201 while scoring 219 goals. In only his rookie season did he record more goals (52) than assists (54). The knock on Ovechkin always has been his inability to maximize his teammates. The criticism has been valid, to a point, but the inference was way out of whack.
Ovechkin really never has been a selfish player; he delights in a goal, whether he or one of his teammates scores it. He just happens to have the Rocket Richard Trophy ability to create his own space and get off his shot. Strength, speed and imagination will do that for a fellow.
Ovechkin is using his teammates better this season, but the primary difference is that they have grown with him -- especially center Nicklas Backstrom. Backstrom still has yet to develop an NHL body, but he always has been able to hang on to the puck for an eternity. Now he finishes, too. His 23 goals represent a career high, and Washington has another 26 games to go. Given the absurd firepower on the Capitals and the maturation of players such as Brooks Laich, Ovechkin's assists were bound to grow. He figures to zoom past his career best of 54.
Crosby is now two goals from his previous best. He should crack 40 before the Olympic break and is on pace for 50-plus. This might come as a shock, but only if you spent last April, May and June mowing your lawn and missing the playoffs.
In an extraordinary display of will last spring, Crosby changed his game by turning himself into a scorer. If you laid his playoff goals end to end -- to borrow Dorothy Parker's gag about co-eds -- you wouldn't have all that far to go in terms of distance. Crosby played in the high-density areas, the dirty places where natural scorers do their business. He led the playoffs in goals, scoring 15 in 24 games even though Detroit coach Mike Babcock had the brilliant HenrikZetterberg mark him at every waking moment in the Cup final.
Given the makeup of his Penguins, Crosby is simply spreading putty over the one obvious crack. Like a guy who juggles knives, general manager Ray Shero has managed to avoid slicing open an artery while manipulating the salary cap, but the Penguins have been thin on scoring wingers, which has obliged Shero to tweak annually at the trade deadline. (Marian Hossa in 2008; Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz in 2009.) If his wingers aren't going to fill the net, Crosby just has to do it himself.
So to sum up: on balance we think Crosby's lead in goals over Ovechkin is more surprising than Ovechkin's advantage in assists, but does anything these guys do still have the power to shock us?
If you choose to look only on the face of it, then yes, the Canucks are two games into an NHL-record 14-game, almost 13,000-mile road trip that began in late January and will not conclude until some six weeks later, after the Olympics and Paralympics have vacated one of North America's great cities and GM Place is again called GM Place.
The last time a winter road trip seemed this daunting, Napoleon was trying to capture Moscow.
Anyway. before handing the Canucks the Marco Polo Award -- what, there is an award the NHL doesn't present? -- let's scratch a little deeper.
1. This really isn't one 14-game trip. This is an eight-game trip and a six-game trip bisected by the Olympics. After facing Minnesota on Valentine's Day, two days before the men's hockey tournament starts, the Canucks are not back on the road until March 2 against Columbus. Unless you count, say, Maui. The non-Olympians on the team can go back to Vancouver, as congested as it might be, or head elsewhere for some R-and-R for a week before resuming practice. They are not exactly nomads.
2. There are more than a few cupcakes on their supposedly grueling schedule. After opening in Toronto last Saturday -- Vancouver rallied to win after falling into an early 3-0 hole -- the Canucks had 47 shots but still managed to lose in Montreal on Tuesday. Of the remaining 12 games, only two -- Chicago and hard-to-trust Phoenix -- are against teams in the top four of their conferences. The most difficult segment is the only back-to-back -- Columbus and Detroit -- in early March. Said a Canucks official, "It's not the games (that present a problem) but the number of days between games."
3. Travel is not exactly by dog sled. Canucks assistant coach Ryan Walter was reminiscing about the old days of commercial travel for NHL teams. "Yes," he said, "and they'd always have us next to the smoking section." GM Mike Gillis takes swell care of his wards. They aren't staying at any bedouins-and-breakfasts, you know?
4. Canucks ownership is renting out the privately owned arena to VANOC for about $500,000 a day, which adds up to something in the neighborhood of $23 million for the Aquilini Investment Group. The corporate windfall should at least ease the players' minds.
If Phineas Fogg can span the globe in 80 days, the Canucks can meander through part of the NHL in little more than half that time. And unless our math is off, by the end of the season Vancouver will have played 41 road games -- just like 29 other teams.
Sergei Kostitsyn scored at 5:56 of the first period on Tuesday against Vancouver goalie Roberto Luongo, ending the Canadiens' drought of five-on-five goals at 2 hours 19 minutes 39 seconds. This is still a good 20 minutes short of Avatar's running time, but a dubious distinction nonetheless.
Montreal has slithered into seventh in the East's logjam of teams on the playoff cusp -- three spots, eight contenders -- because of quality goaltending and an efficient power play. Of course, counting on stellar performances from Jaroslav Halak and Carey Price in net and hoping your team can own the puck long enough to actually draw penalties is a slender reed to grasp, but that's what Montreal has to work with now that Mike Cammalleri, who had scored 22 of his 26 goals at even strength, is gone for six weeks with a knee injury.
So why are the Canadiens absolute wizards with a man-advantage (and four-on-four), but not when playing five-on-five? The easy answer is open ice. Lilliput's Team has some skill, but it simply isn't big or strong enough to be creative with the puck without having extra room on the ice. When the game is cruising along five on five, the rink seems a tad claustrophobic for Montreal.
You would think having won a Stanley Cup would look sweet on a coach's curriculum vitae, but Bob Hartley has not been overrun with offers. Hartley, who was behind the bench for Raymond Bourque's Cup in 2001 with Colorado, has been offered some jobs in Europe but is reluctant to go. "They fire coaches (on whims) over there," he says.
With the success of straight-from-the-AHL men such as Randy Carlyle in Anaheim, Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh and Cory Clouston in Ottawa, there is a new paradigm. Still, it seems strange that the 49-year-old Hartley, fired by Atlanta in October 2007, looks like yesterday's man. Unless former Tampa Bay GM Jay Feaster, his old compatriot in Colorado's system, gets to run another NHL team, Hartley might not have to worry about polishing his interview skills.