Patrick Kane stays focused, the Los Angeles Kings have yet to hit bottom, more NHL notes from Opening Night.
Knee-jerk reactions after home teams went 0-4 on the opening night of the 2015-16 season:
• As flat as the Blackhawks were on Wednesday night, they saw at least two things they had to be happy with: a focused and effective Patrick Kane and a promising debut from rookie Artemi Panarin.
The argument can (and repeatedly has) been made that Kane shouldn’t be part of this team while he’s facing allegations of sexual assault. The organization however chose to stand behind and treat him as a member in good standing until the league or the legal system demands otherwise. Whether you agree or disagree with the team's position, Kane is in the lineup and is being counted on as a major contributor to Chicago’s title defense. He lived up to that obligation in Chicago’s 3–2 loss to the Rangers, delivering a midseason caliber performance with new linemates Panarin and Artem Anisimov.
Kane zipped a perfect saucer pass from the side wall to Panarin, who converted for his first NHL goal in the opening period, and then nearly tied the game himself late in the third when he jammed what appeared to be a loose puck under Henrik Lundqvist. After an inconclusive video review, the call on the ice—the whistle blew before the puck crossed the line-—was allowed to stand and the goal wasn’t counted.
While he couldn’t provide the equalizer, Kane proved he could still perform despite the lingering possibility of criminal charges.
“Whether it’s hockey or different things, we’ve done a good job of kind of quieting that outside noise and focusing on what we have to,” Kane said after the game.
As inelegant as that comment was, he was right. The Hawks are giving him a chance to play through that “outside noise” and, surrounded by a thousands of supporters at the United Center, he delivered.
So did Panarin, who looked very dangerous in his NHL debut. “He was fun to watch tonight,” coach Joel Quenneville said in his postgame press conference. “We call him the Bread Man. Looked like he had the puck all night. ... It was a good start for him.”
Panarin’s a long way from replacing the two-way excellence of Patrick Sharp, but he flashed the tools to be an effective top-six forward. With his speed and creativity, he’ll be fun to watch all season.
• Despite dropping a 3–1 decision to the Canadiens, the Maple Leafs didn’t look all that bad, did they? There’s no masking the talent gap between the two sides, especially between the pipes, but there was a pace and structure to Toronto’s game (for most of the night, anyway) that was several steps above what they delivered last season.
“I thought we did lots of good things structurally,” coach Mike Babcock said after his debut. “I thought we won a lot of battles. In saying all that, I’d like us to score better. And I thought we could have been tighter at times in our own zone and through the neutral zone.”
Actually, the Leafs were fairly solid in their own zone, led by a standout performance from defenseman Morgan Rielly who made a number of excellent reads and almost bailed out Jonathan Bernier on Montreal’s opening goal with his hustle.
As a group, their positioning faltered in the third, but that’s to be expected of a work-in-progress. That might not be enough to keep Babcock happy but then he’s being paid to set higher standards. Viewed as a whole, the game demonstrated his immediate impact on this group. The Leafs may not win a lot of games this season, but after this one it looks like they’re moving in the right direction.
• Remember when the Kings stumbled through their title defense last season and ended up missing the playoffs? Judging by last night’s effort, they’ve yet to hit rock bottom. They were brutal in their 5–1 opening night loss to the Sharks, two steps too slow and too easily distracted to keep up with their rivals from San Jose.
Their lack of discipline was appalling. Captain Dustin Brown could face a suspension after appearing to lead with his head in a mid-ice hit on Logan Couture in the first period, and newcomer Milan Lucic was suspended pending review by the league after receiving a match penalty for running Couture late in the game.
More troubling, though, was the sluggishness of L.A.’s top line and the ineffective play of its revamped defense corps. Lucic, Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik showed little jump as they spent most of the night chasing the puck. They were an exercise in failed chemistry, rarely appearing in sync as they tried to create offense in transition. The unit deserves time to find that spark, but already Lucic and his lack of foot speed have to be a concern.
And the blueline really struggled to handle the speed of the Sharks, particularly Jake Muzzin who played the part of revolving door too often. They were soft in front of Jonathan Quick as well, allowing the Sharks to obscure his sight lines and swat away at second and third chances. L.A.’s defense never recovered from the absence of Slava Voynov last season. Now that they know he’s not coming back, the Kings have to prove they can succeed without him. Unless support players like Muzzin step it up, that won’t be easy.
The Numbers Game
• Last season, road teams won three of the four games contested on opening night (including victories by the Canadiens, Canucks and Sharks). Overall, they posted a combined 564-505-161 record (.524 points percentage) during the regular season.
• Montreal’s Max Pacioretty, who scored the NHL’s first goal of the season, was also the first player to tally on Opening night last year.
• The Sharks, who won their sixth straight opening game, now own the NHL's longest active such streak. They’re 8-1-1 in their past 10 opening nights.
• John Hynes talks excitement, expectations and surprises as he gets set to make his debut as coach of the New Jersey Devils.
• After being passed over by 25 teams at the draft, including five times by the Bruins alone, 2015 second rounder Daniel Sprong of the Penguins is set to prove them all wrong. The Dutch-born sniper will make his NHL debut tonight against Dallas.
• Man, what is it with hockey players working at donut stores? On a totally unrelated note, I could really go for a donut right about now.
• Scott Stevens looks back to a special night in Detroit and the game that changed his life.
• NHL official Jay Sharrers is still special, but he’s no longer one of a kind.
• Southern California’s fans are being treated to an endless buffet of hockey thanks to the arrival of the AHL in the Golden State.