By Stu Hackel
Watching NHL action alongside the guys I skate with every Tuesday at the local Grille is almost as much fun as the skate itself. Last night, we took in the end of the Ducks-Caps game and couldn't figure out a few things:
First, what happened to Jonas Hiller? The normally stellar Ducks goalie was having an off-night, which is too bad when your team has built a 3-0 lead. Someone wondered aloud, "Maybe it's the mask. He's got that black mask with nothing on it, but he's wearing that white thing"
"What's he got on there?"
"Looks like hockey cards."
In any case, the mask's debut -- on national TV no less -- was hardly a glorious one, with its wearer surrendering softies like this to Joel Ward...
...a prelude to a few more shaky scores by the Caps. When the game got down to the end, Washington trailing by a goal in the final minute, the Caps went to six attackers, pulling Tomas Vokoun.
"Where's Ovechkin?" someone asked.
He was on the bench, where coach Bruce Boudreau left him while others tried to save the game for Washington. Ovie has five goals in 10 games this season, a pace to break 40, but he's just not playing with the same fire we once saw from him and it's disheartening from the guy who can be the most exciting player in the game. Pierre McGuire in the Versus studio pointed out how lazy Ovechkin had been on Teemu Selanne's second goal of the game (and isn't it great that Selanne continues to defy time?).
Ovie is supposed to be watching Cam Fowler on the point, but drifts aimlessly to his right giving Fowler all sorts of room to get the puck back and find Selanne on a perfect cross-ice pass. When the Caps had the puck, as Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy noticed, he was sometimes floating high in the defensive zone looking for a pass while the Ducks outmanned the Caps down low. Boudreau can't be pleased about that. And since he's no longer the kind, gentle Bruce of years past, his captain is going to feel some heat and have a seat. Ovie played less than 18 minutes last night. Last year, Ovechkin averaged over 21 minutes a game; this year, he's at 18:36. And in the big moment last night, Boudreau looked elsewhere. As Ovie told reporters on Wednesday (video), he wasn't very happy about it. (Corey Masisak has more on this at NHL.com).
With Ovie watching, his usual center Nik Backstrom tied the game when Hiller kicked out a huge rebound where only Backstrom stood (video). Then early in OT, with Ovie returning to his usual spot, he tipped a pass from the wall by Jeff Schultz that found Backstrom on the other side of the net. Backstrom beat Hiller for the game winner.
The guys at the Grille were all talking about Backstrom, but today, Ovie's getting lots of the attention. And it's probably not the kind of attention he likes.
Then it was time for highlights from other games. Down in Carolina, Jeff Skinner gets lots of attention for all the right reasons. He scored a pair last night that showed off his marvelous athleticism in the Hurricanes 4-2 win over the Lightning. First he somehow manages to keep the puck with three opposing players around him coming off the wall into the slot, then dodge them for a shot past Dwayne Roloson to give Carolina the lead.
Yep, that's hockey baby. Then later in the period, Skinner shows off his great hands and vision again, passing to Jussi Jokinen then finishing the return pass at the lip of the crease.
On the NHL Network, Kevin Weekes mentioned that some NHL personage compared Skinner's vision to Wayne Gretzky's. That's quite a compliment. Any comparison to Gretzky should give us pause. Greztky's genius was to anticipate where the puck was get there first, and finding the quiet spots in defensive coverage so he could do his magic. Skinner, by contrast, seems to relish playing in traffic and going to the net. But, jeez, comparisons aside, those are two great plays; Skinner didn't win the Calder Trophy last year by accident. He's fun to watch.
"Why isn't that interference?" one of the guys wondered. No one knew.
Well, someone knew. He just wasn't at the Grille with us. Former NHL ref Kerry Fraser, whose TSN blog always clarifies the way the game is officiaiated, explained today that when two players are racing for a puck and both intend a physical confrontation, the officials consider it a strength on strength battle and won't assess a penalty for body contact.
"On this play, Koivu had the lead lane in pursuit of a loose puck," Kerry writes. "Kronwall was close on his heels and actually initiated contact when he brought his stick down onto the shaft of Koivu's stick to control, contain and eliminate Koivu's ability to play the puck with his stick. At this point we have a legal battle as both players are now engaged through physical contact.
"If Kronwall continued his back pressure pursuit odds are he would attempt to muscle or even body check Koivu to the boards to contain or even eliminate him. The battle stage was set but what Kronwall wasn't counting on is that Koivu would throw on the binders, lurch backwards and initiate contact of his own. There was no elbow, no hit to the head but a back shoulder check designed to create space or eliminate a willing combatant. Since Kronwall had initiated pursuit and contact with his stick the engagement was completed when Koivu beat him to the punch with a strength maneuver that is presently deemed legal."
Thanks, Kerry. You are welcome to join us at the Grille any time.
But the most memorable play from last night was this goal by the Canuck Cody Hodgson who, before taking a pass from Maxim Lapierre, came gliding into the play late, not moving his legs for about 30 feet and looking for all the world like a metal table hockey player being pushed forward at the end of a rod.
Watching that one at the Grille made you think about what you were drinking.