Every Wednesday, a trio of SI.com staffers sits down for a discussion of the hockey world’s hot button issues. This week, Sam Page, Sarah Kwak and Allan Muir talk about the best performance of the soon to be concluded regular season, how to fix a lottery team, notable award snubs and troubling injury situations for playoff-bound teams.
• OK, let’s start off this session by asking you to rack your brains for the single greatest performance you saw this season.
SARAH KWAK: It’s easy to point to something like the four-goal games that Islanders winger Kyle Okposo had against Pittsburgh in January when he scored on three of his eight third-period shifts. But I’m going to go with Ottawa goalie Andrew Hammond against San Jose on March 23. So OK, it probably wasn’t his best game in net, but going into the match the 27-year-old had gone on a historic 13-0-1 run and everyone was watching to see if his magic would run out. The Senators, too, were knocking on the door for the eighth spot in the East, and I must imagine that the pressure on the rookie, who had less than 35 minutes of NHL experience before this season, was mounting with every hour. Against a Sharks team that was desperate to keep its season from busting, Hammond made the saves he needed to, including nine in the third period, which Ottawa had entered down by a goal. And the win pushed the Senators ahead of the Bruins—if just briefly.
AL MUIR: I’m right there with you when it comes to a bad memory, but even I couldn’t forget Troy Grosenick’s NHL debut for San Jose back in November. Usually a team tries to step it up in front of a kid but the Sharks basically chummed the water in this one, allowing the Hurricanes to rip 45 shots at the rookie. Grosenick responded with the game of his life, blanking the 'Canes and setting a modern record for the most saves in a shutout debut. It was a lightning in a bottle moment—he played just one more game and was back in the minors a few weeks later—but what a legacy he created for himself.
• Now that we pretty much know which teams are done for the season, give us one move you’d make—outside of awarding them Connor McDavid in the draft—to fix one of the playoff non-qualifiers.
KWAK: The Flyers need an upgrade at defense. This has been an issue all season, and yes, their cap situation is atrocious, but they need to figure out a way to shed some money and bring in better players. Can they engineer a nice trade? Possible, though I doubt that anybody will do them any favors by taking on dead weight. Defenseman Andrew MacDonald’s $5 million is an eyesore. So is Vincent Lecavalier’s $4.5 million. A buyout would be a drastic move, but that just may be the reality this team faces.
MUIR: You going for shock value there, Page? Nugent-Hopkins has 25 points in his past 24 games and really seems to have found his groove since Todd Nelson took over. Trading him now would be goofy.
As for me, I’d focus on the goaltending struggles in Dallas. Something’s wrong organizationally there. Look at Kari Lehtonen’s schizophrenic play. Look at the ineffective development of top prospect Jack Campbell in the minors. And then compare the technique and confidence level of Anders Lindback when he was with the Stars to what he’s doing now with the Sabres. He’s a different player in Buffalo. A much more effective one.
Bringing in another goalie to challenge or supplant Lehtonen makes sense, but it can’t be done in a vacuum. Seems to me a different voice in the ears of the Stars’ netminders might do this team a world of good.
• It’s almost time for the awards ballots to be handed out and there’s sure to be some surprising snubs. How about giving some love to a player who deserves an award (but won't get one).
KWAK: I know Page is going to go with Predators defenseman Roman Josi, so how about Max Pacioretty? With the season that goalie Carey Price has had, and the attention that defenseman P.K. Subban attracts, the Canadiens winger gets a little lost in the shuffle. But he’s been quietly having a spectacular season with a career-high 37 goals, including 10 game-winners. That’s second only to Alex Ovechkin, who has 15 more goals overall. But what’s impressed me most about MaxPac this season has been his commitment to both sides of the puck. He leads the NHL at +38, and he’s one of just seven Canadiens regulars with a positive on-ice Corsi. He’s logging way more time on the PK, which has helped raise his time on ice average by almost a minute, and he’s been physical, upping his hits total to 106 this season. He won’t win the Selke, but he should be acknowledged for the strides he’s made.
PAGE: I’m not going to pick Roman Josi! I actually think you like Josi more than I do, Kwak. I'm more of a Ryan Ellis guy.Editor's note: The Windsor Spitfires are Mr. Muir’s favorite junior team.
PAGE: Anyways, how about Jakub Voracek? He’s been forgotten in the Hart trophy discussion, and—barring a hat trick on the last day of the season—he won’t be winning the Art Ross. But it’s not his fault that he plays with one of the worst defense corps in hockey. In fact, that makes his point totals even more impressive. One of the few point-per-game players left in this era of absurd save percentages, Voracek may not be the best player in hockey, but he should at least be in the conversation.
MUIR: Now there's a solid call, Page. Since you took him, I’ll go with Mark Stone, a kid who seems destined to finish fourth behind Aaron Ekblad, Johnny Gaudreau and Filip Forsberg in the Calder balloting but deserves a better fate. Here’s a guy who was always great in juniors but he came into the league under the radar and has pretty much stayed there, until lately. Do you realize that since Jan. 1 he has 44 points? 44! Just four players—John Tavares (51), Alex Ovechkin (50), Jamie Benn (48) and Sidney Crosby (45)—have scored more in that time frame. That’s ridiculous. Honestly, as crucial as Hammond has been to Ottawa’s amazing run, Stone runs a close second. He’s been huge down the stretch with five goals in his past two games, including that OT winner Tuesday night against Pittsburgh. What a great year this kid is having.
• And finally, what’s the one injury situation that fans should keep an eye on as we head into the postseason?
KWAK: Tampa Bay’s blue line has taken a lot of lumps this season, and right now, four of its top six (Victor Hedman, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Sustr and Jason Garrison) are out with various injuries. Coach Jon Cooper is cautiously optimistic that he’ll get at least Hedman back before the postseason, but as for the rest of them, he’s hopeful they’ll be able to come in during the first round. It’s imperative for the Lightning to get these players back for any kind of playoff run. Playoff hockey is often (not always, but often) a grinding, defensive ordeal—particularly as each series plays on. Tampa Bay can score, for sure, but the Lightning will need to get out of their own end to do so.
MUIR: I think Yeo would have been roasted if he didn’t ride Dubnyk hard down the home stretch. Sure, there’s a risk in that workload, but the bigger risk was playing Darcy Kuemper, right? And those back-to-backs? In the second game of his past six, Dubnyk is 5-0-1 with a 1.14 GAA and .968 save percentage (that stat courtesy of Wild beat writer Mike Russo). Now that they’re in, he can take a couple days off and get rested for the postseason.
As for injuries I’m watching Justin Abdelkader. The Red Wings have scored only nine goals during their past five games, so you know they’re missing a guy who has 23 this season. And when he comes back—if the Wings survive the weekend—he’s going to have to play through the aftereffects of an injured hand. That won’t be easy.