Tarasenko's streak; sad Jackets among week's plusses, minuses
The week's most notable positives and negatives from around the NHL:
• After a non-descript start to the season—one goal and four assists in his first seven games—Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues has been on a jaw-dropping tear. The 22-year-old Russian forward is a big reason why St. Louis has gone on a seven-game winning streak. He's produced eight goals in his last six games and is definitely fulfilling the promise that Blues management saw when it drafted him in the first round in 2010. His spectacular goal against the Rangers on Nov. 3 would have been the early-season leader for goal-of-the-year, except that the one he scored on Thursday against New Jersey may just have topped it.
• Red Wings center Pavel Datsyuk may be the most entertaining player in the league, so his being healthy is good not just for the Red Wings, but for the whole NHL. After battling injuries during the last couple of seasons, the 36-year old made his season debut on Oct. 21 and quickly produced 10 points in his first six games. Against the defending champion Kings on Halloween, Datsyuk scored twice, added an assist and registered seven shots. He has since gone scoreless in his last two contests, but his refined two-way play makes the game that much more fun to watch.
• With injuries to goalies Frederik Anderson and John Gibson, 34-year-old journeyman Jason LaBarbera was pressed into duty twice this week and performed well both times, giving the Ducks three points in two games. On Nov. 1,& LaBarbera was headed to a Halloween party with his minor-league teammates in Norfolk. Then the Ducks called and told him he’d have to take two flights to get to Denver in time for a game the next day, when he would probably sit. But he learned when he got to the rink that he’d be starting his first NHL game since last December. LaBarbera stopped 16 of 18 shots as the Ducks beat the Avalanche, 3-2, in Colorado and three days later, he stopped 33 of 36 shots as Anaheim, playing without the flu-stricken Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, dropped a 3-2 decision to the Islanders in overtime on home ice. LaBarbera’s long road as a back-up has been unspectacular. Only once has he shared the No. 1 spot during his career, playing 45 games for the Kings in 2007-08 and posting a 17-23-2 mark. Consider the number of games he has played in each season since for the Kings, Coyotes and Oilers—28, 17, 17, 19, 15—and you see a guy who has logged a lot of minutes on the end of the bench. During his first four NHL seasons in the Rangers organization, LaBarbera was called up each year, appearing in a grand total of five games.
• The hockey world breathed a sigh of relief this week, when Gordie Howe’s family released a statement saying that Mr. Hockey’s condition had improved. The 86-year old suffered a stroke on Oct. 26 while visiting his daughter in Texas. Initial reports sounded dire for Howe, who then began to rebound. This week he was “recovering at a remarkable rate” according to the family’s statement, released through the Red Wings. The statement added that Howe’s speech had improved and that he was able to use a walker on his own. His son Mark, who joined his dad in the Hockey Hall of Fame, said that Gordie was walking roughly 50 feet. No surprise. That's the Howe who had been told he might have to retire after suffering a fractured skull during a playoff game in 1950. He did eventually hang up his skates ... 30 years later.
• There was a quiet start to the season on the discipline front and then it was as if discretion went on the disabled list. During the past week, the NHL’s Department of Player Safety has meted out a roster of suspensions: Blue Jackets defenseman Jack Johnson was handed a three-game ban for an illegal hit to the head of Carolina forward Jiri Tlusty; Oilers defenseman Andrew Ference received three games for his illegal check to the head of Canucks forward Zach Kassian; Rangers forward John Moore was awarded five games for hitting Minnesota forward Erik Haula in the head; Vancouver forward Alex Burrows, who knocked the noggin of Montreal backliner Alexei Emelin, got three gamees; Kings forward Jordan Nolan was docked two games for boarding Detroit forward Darren Helm; and Predators backliner Anton Volchenkov was given four games for living up to his team’s nickname when he hit Calgary winger Michael Ferland in the head. The onus is on the players here, but calls for longer suspensions to get their attention and discipline them could increase if the wave of bad hits doesn't subside.
• This was going to be a good season for the Blue Jackets, perhaps another step on their road to becoming one of the league’s elite teams. Then things started breaking bad, culminating in what is now a six-game losing streak. Star forward Ryan Johansen missed training camp in what became a publicly acrimonious contract dispute. He has played fairly well, leading the team with 14 points so far, but defenseman Jack Johnson has a -11 rating and a recent suspension (see item above). The rest of the roster looks like a M.A.S.H. unit now. Ace forward Brandon Dubinsky hasn’t played this season because of abdominal surgery. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and defenseman James Wisniewski have missed time with broken fingers. The team placed forward Artem Anisimov on injured reserve after he suffered a concussion on Nov. 3, the same day the Jackets activated forward Boone Jenner, who missed the first month with a broken hand. It is almost a given that Nathan Horton, the forward Columbus signed to a $37.1 million contract, will miss the season because of a back ailment that may ultimately end his career.
• Hey, the New Jersey Devils are always good defensively, right? GM Lou Lamoriello demands it. The legendary duo of Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko wrote the book on patrolling the slot with brutal efficiency in front of their goalie, who was, after all, some guy named Brodeur who now has 688 wins to his name. To make matters worse for the opposition, forwards John Madden and Jay Pandolfo were two of the most dangerous penalty killers in the game, ready to spring up the ice in a spate of shorthanded counter-attacks. Even with all their turnover last season, when New Jersey failed to make the playoffs, the club still led the league with an 86.4 PK percentage. So what gives these days? The Devils are now dead last in the league in penalty killing at 66.7%, surrendering 18 goals while down a man. No other team has given up more than 13. On home ice, they're just 61%. New Jersey has lost a number of backliners who were good on the PK, including Peter Harrold, Mark Fayne and Anton Volchenkov, a superb shot blocker who is now one of the reasons why the Predators are keeping the puck out of their net so well this season. Players such as Damon Severson, Eric Gelinas and Jon Merrill are much more offensive minded, and as a result the Devils’ defensive game has been pretty offensive in the negative sense of the word.
• How can you be -9 only 14 games into the season when your team is tied for the league lead with 19 points? The Canadiens have two forwards who sport that unsightly rating. Rene Bourque’s game has gone downhill fast over the last few seasons since he posted consecutive 27-goal campaigns in 2009-10 and 2010-11. He had just nine goals in 63 games last season, but he has looked lost for much of this one and is now without a goal in 13 games. Eller is coming off a very strong playoff run (13 points, +6 in 17 games), but with three points this season, he hasn't kept up the pace. The Habs have many problems this season that belie their strong record. The performances of these two forwards so far are two of them.