Blue Jackets rise, Martin Brodeur's struggles among NHL's plus/minus for the week of Dec. 15-19.
The week's most notable positives and negatives from around the NHL"
• Give the Blue Jackets some credit. This has been a season of hope and despair. Coming off a playoff appearance and a competitive series against the Penguins, Columbus seemed prepped for a season of bigger things. Then came the injuries and the financial woes of Jack Johnson and suddenly the tattered Jackets were near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. Since joining the league in 2000, Columbus has reached the postseason only twice and has never won a series, so it seemed as if the optimism of early October had left the building. Then the Jackets went on a tear, winning seven straight games. In an overtime loss to Washington on Thursday night, Nick Foligno scored a pair of goals, including the 100th of his career. The Jackets have now picked up 15 of a possible 16 points in the standings during the month of December. They are still two games under .500, but they are no longer under water.
• The Canadiens honored their former captain Saku Koivu in a moving ceremony on Thursday night, and it was a good time to look back on just what the 40-year-old Finn accomplished. He has four Olympic medals (a silver and three bronze), and he was the first European captain in club history and he achieved the franchise’s second-longest tenure with the C (nine seasons; behind only the great Jean Béliveau's 10). He did all this despite a courageous battle against cancer, a diagnosis he received in September 2001. He made it back for the end of that season, helping Montreal gain a playoff berth and upon his return that April he received one of the longest standing ovations you will ever see. Koivu won both the Masterton Trophy and King Clancy Award for his fight against the disease and his community work to raise money for research and prevention. He also sustained a severe eye injury in 2006 when Carolina’s Justin Williams accidentally caught him with a stick while trying to take the puck away from him. Koivu’s vision is still affected by that injury. He finally retired this summer after 1,124 games and remains a beacon of class.
• Michael Hutchinson had played in only three NHL games before this season, but the Jets’ goalie has made the most of his 11 appearances so far, posting a 6-2-0 mark with an outstanding .937 save percentage and 1.81 goals-against average on a mediocre team. Hutchinson’s rise to the NHL has been a testament to perseverance. During the past eight years, he has played for teams in Markham, Orangeville, Barrie, London, Providence, Reading, St. John’s and most recently with the Ontario Reign. That’s eight teams in five leagues (GTHL, OPJHL, OHL, AHL, ECHL). He gave up three goals in both his first game of the season at Los Angeles on Oct. 12 and his most recent outing, at home against Anaheim on Dec. 13. In between Hutchinson, 24, has appeared in net nine times, including seven starts, surrendering no more than two goals in any one contest.
• Here are three tips of the hat to Tampa Bay forwards Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat. Yes, the Lightning is getting good production up front from someone who isn’t named Stamkos. The sometimes overlooked trio is also among the league leaders in plus-minus. Johnson is +19 with 33 points. (Just what is it with 5’-8” and 5’-9” forwards in Tampa Bay?) Kucherov, a No. 58 pick in the 2011 draft, is +18 and Palat, the No. 208 pick in that same draft, is +15. These are not names that roll off the tongue. Yet the American, Russian and Czech forwards have combined to give Tampa Bay a surprising boost from players who aren’t getting nearly enough credit on one of the league’s best teams.
• It really is a privilege to watch future Hall-of Famer Martin Brodeur suit up again and play some more games in goal after most people figured he was done for good. His return is like getting a bonus check of overtime hockey after a great 60 minutes. But not all comebacks are successful. And even though Brodeur may yet reach 700 regular season wins—he is 10 shy of that mark as of this writing—he has had a few stumbles. None was more striking than the one on Thursday night when the Blues jumped on the defending-champions Kings and grabbed a 3-0 lead in the first period only to watch Brodeur give it back by allowing six goals on 37 shots. What’s more, he contributed two glorious candidates for year-end blooper reels. He allowed a two-hopper from center ice by Dwight King to bounce over his shoulder and into the net, and he made a save that got stuck in his jersey and forced officials to delay the game and send Brodeur to the bench so they could find the puck.
• Since beating the Avalanche, 4-3, in overtime on Dec. 4, the Flames have started to fall back to where most people expected them to end up after the season started: fighting to stay on the edge of a playoff berth. Calgary has dropped six straight contests since positioning itself as the surprise team of the Western Conference and, perhaps along with the Islanders, the entire league. In those defeats, Calgary has been outscored by 21-10. In their most recent loss, 5-2 to the Rangers on home ice on Tuesday, the Flames fell behind 4-0 before getting on the board late in the second period. Their slump came at a time that should be a period of celebration for the franchise. Not only was the club putting itself in a position to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2009, it inked coach Bob Hartley to a contract extension this week.
• What are the Hurricanes thinking? Their season is shot and their path is clear. Get one of those top-two draft choices, either Connor McDavid or Jack Eichel, and start rebuilding around a cornerstone guy. So channel your inner Oilers, ye 'Canes. First you lose six straight games, scoring exactly one goal in each of those losses and putting yourselves in a good position to compete for one of those coveted draft spots and then you show up on Thursday night and play one of your best games of the season, crushing the revitalized Maple Leafs, 4-1. Justin Faulk had a goal and an assist, Cam Ward stopped 25 shots and the Canes outshot Toronto, 37-26 while scoring four different types of goals: power play, even strength, shorthanded and empty net. This reminds people of the game on Nov. 28 when Carolina snapped a three-game losing streaking by actually winning in Pittsburgh. This is just unacceptable!
• Every team must battle through injuries. They just have too hope that there are sufficient replacements available to step in and plug the holes when those players go down and that one position isn’t taking too much of the bruise and illness burden all at once. The Bruins, for example, did a respectable job at overcoming a shortage of capable defensemen earlier this season. But even they were the picture of health compared to the hobbled defense corps in Winnipeg. On Thursday, the Jets announced that Mark Stuart will be out until February with a lower-body injury after a fight with Buffalo’s Nicolas Deslauriers a day earlier. That adds to a misery list that includes Toby Enstrom, Jacob Trouba and Zach Bogosian. Enstrom has been out since Nov. 23 with a lower-body injury and could be back by the end of next month. Trouba has an undisclosed pre-existing condition and isn’t expected back until February. Bogosian is still weeks away from skating after taking a shot off his left foot on Dec. 3. “You can get into runs where you’ve got one or two of your top four out for two or three games,” Jets coach Paul Maurice told reporters this week, “but this is quite a bit more significant.” The Jets picked up defenseman Jay Harrison yesterday in a deal with Carolina to help fill part of the void.