Islanders MVPs, Maple Leafs follies, Kings shooting blanks, more
The week's most notable positives and negatives from around the NHL:
• Yes, the Islanders have gotten stellar goaltending this season from Jaroslav Halak, who is finally getting his due as a frontline netminder. Granted, the play of forwards Ryan Strome, Josh Bailey and Brock Nelson has been better than anyone expected. And, sure, having a healthy John Tavares in their lineup for a full season has made the Islanders better than last year’s team. But really the two defenseman who GM Garth Snow picked up just before the start of the regular season are the biggest reason why this club has gone from a playoff outsider to a conference leader in only a year. Boychuk and Leddy are +16 and +14 respectively, good for first and third on the team. Both backliners come from teams with winning traditions. Since this group of Islanders has no firsthand experience with long playoff runs, the lessons Leddy learned with the Blackhawks and Boychuk learned with the Bruins are being imparted every day to a team that is learning how to challenge the league leaders.
• Ducks forward Jakob Silfverberg is now the top player in the NHL in shootout conversions, with seven goals in 11 tries. Kyle Okposo of the Islanders, and Nathan MacKinnon and Matt Duchene of the Avalanche trail him with five such goals apiece. Oddly, Silfverberg has yet to break through as a goal scorer during actual games. He has just six in 49 contests for Anaheim this season, and 26 in 149 games for his career with the Ducks and Senators. He didn’t score his first goal this season until his 17th game. Only once during his junior and pro career in his native Sweden did he exceed the 20-goal plateau, though the seasons in Europe are shorter. And a review of Silfverberg’s shootout attempts shows that he rarely dekes. He relies on patience, a touch of lateral movement, and a quick release once he spots an opening. The first shootout victim of his career, by the way, was none other than Martin Brodeur.
• On Jan. 20 we saw Kris Letang, the Penguins’ star defenseman, gingerly making his way off the ice after having his head cranked into the boards by Flyers goon Zac Rinaldo. Letang then missed his team’s game against Chicago the next night. But on Tuesday, with both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup because of injuries, Letang picked up the slack by registering five assists in 23 minutes of ice time in Pittsburgh’s 5-3 victory over the hot Jets. It was the second time that Letang has put up more than two points in a game this season. The other was against the Sabres, which should only count for half.
• Many pro leagues have some sort of day-before session that it established to turn its All-Star Game into a two-day affair. It means more sales at the gate and more airtime, which ultimately means more revenue, and that is pretty much the only reason why we have three-point shooting contests and home run derbies. The NHL’s series of skills contests is pretty much what that kind of day should be: a chance for the players and fans to have fun. NHLers can show off their talents and creativity, with few prohibitions or inhibitions to limit them. If Alex Ovechkin wants to put on a cowboy hat or take baseball swings, well then good for him and for the people who are watching. And of course we know that the Flames' diminutive rookie Johnny Gaudreau is really 12-years old, as we suspected all along. The fastest skater and hardest shot contests highlight the speed and power of the game that people love. So as much as skills competitions can be a bust, the fact that the players are into it makes it as good as it can be.
• This isn’t meant to be a pick-on-the-Maple-Leafs blog, but when your recent record is 3-15-1, including an eight-game losing skid, and you're 10 points out of a playoff spot, you’re going to be called on the carpet. On Thursday night, Toronto gifted an opponent that won for the first time in its last eight games. Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier stopped 42 of the 45 shots he faced against the Coyotes, a respectable effort, but his gaffes were real blooper-reel fodder. With Toronto leading 1-0 to start the third period, Arizona defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson lofted a shot from downtown Mississauga just after the face-off to start the period. The softie went past Bernier five seconds after the draw making it the fastest shorthanded goal from the start of a period in NHL history. The Coyotes then went up, 2-1, less than four minutes later when Martin Hanzel beat Bernier from behind the goal line near the left corner, somewhere by the concession stands. “Both goals I think were bad goals,” Leafs coach Peter Horacek groaned after the game. “You’ve got to say that is his job, and he’s got to have that.” Indeed.
• Okay, so you’re a team that often sleepwalks through the regular season and then emerges from hibernation in time to make a deep playoff run with your superior coaching, defense, goaltending, timely scoring and whatever else you do better than other, more talented teams in the spring. But you still have to get to the playoffs before you can unleash your magic. With that in mind, shootouts are important. Ask last season's Devils about it. They went 0-13 in them and fell short of a playoff berth by five points.
Now the Kings are the new Devils. The defending Stanley Cup champs are shooting blanks when they need to find their shots. With a 1-7 mark in games that go to the firing range this season, L.A. has the worst such record in the NHL. As of this writing, the Kings have now whiffed, fired into the ocean or been stoned on 22 straight tries and are a miserable 2-for-28 on the season. Marian Gaborik has one goal in four tries and Jeff Carter is one for seven. Nine different Kings have tried and failed in shootouts this season, including Anze Kopitar, who has nothing to show for his seven attempts. The Kings made a deadline deal last year to acquire Gaborik and help them during the playoffs. They may need to pick up a Silfverberg-type this spring just to help them get there.
• Typos are killers. With one letter, a chief can become a thief, a fiend a friend, and a grand slam a grand scam. So imagine the mea culpas when the Penguins put out a game program that was printed before their tilt against the Winnipeg Jets on Tuesday. It was bad enough that Sidney Crosby was injured and unable to play on the night when his face appeared on the cover and bobbleheads of him were being handedout to the fans, but the team had to scrap the program before game time when someone discovered that the caption in block letters on the front cover read "Sindey Crosby." Oops.
• The NHL All-Star Game has lost its meaning for several reasons. First, thanks to the Olympics and the league's outdoor games, it is no longer the NHL’s regular season showcase event before the playoffs. Players look forward to representing their countries and playing before 50,000 fans much more than they care to play in an All-Star Game. And just watch the speed and intensity at which the game is played these days. For a contest that has so much speed available, the All-Star contest appears to be in slow motion. Players don’t check, play defense or block shots. They are so scared of getting injured or causing injury that they actually hold off on slap shots unless the puck has a clear path to the goalie.
Consider the scores through the years. During the first ten (1947-56) after it became an annual event, only once did a team score more than four goals. In the six games since the 2004-05 lockout, the losing teams—yes, the losing teams—have averaged 10 goals per game. Um, 17 to 12 this year? Is that a Patriots’ score? The NHL has very little that it can do at this point to give the game some meaning. If there is one bullet left in the gun, it could be a version of what baseball does with its game—giving home field advantage in the World Series to the team from the league that wins. The NHL could return to an East-West format and give home ice in the Cup finals to the winner. Or it could just hold a longer skills competition and call it a day.