It is a truism in sports; football, and hockey most of all that defense wins championships. We’ve seen it year after year. This year it seems to be adding a wrinkle to itself. Powerplays are costing teams games. Not by failing to produce, but by favoring offense so heavily, they aren’t prepared to play responsibly.

The Dallas Stars in game two of their series with the Anaheim Ducks were down two to one in the third. They were on the powerplay. On the ice are Valeri Nichushkin, Sergei Gonchar, Colton Scevoir, Cody Eakin, and Trevor Daley. Gonchar at age 40 is not in any way the skater he was ten or fifteen years ago. Nichushkin is rookie who is not only in his first NHL season, but his first season playing hockey in North America. Facing them were Andrew Cogliano, Ryan Getzlaf, Cam Fowler, and Ben Lovejoy. Either Getzlaf or Fowler deserve watching, and if you fall asleep at the switch with both of them on the ice, you deserve what happens next. The Stars did.

The Pittsburgh Penguins had a lead last night, they went on a powerplay, and lost it. All the momentum they had, and it was notable, the disorder of the Blue Jackets was equally notable. But the Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, the same man who was in charge of a very mushy team USA roster not long ago, puts out a PP of Malkin, Crosby, Niskanen, Kunitz an Neal against a team that had nine short handed goals in the regular season. The most defensively capable of that group is probably the 34 year old Chris Kunitz. As you know, the BlueJackets scored, the Penguins did not and the scramble began. Momentum was reversed, an the game ended ugly for Penguins fans.

In the first game of their series, the Tampa Bay Lightning faced the Montreal Canadiens.  The Bolts are up 2-1 on home ice, a raucous crowd is making the building shake. P.K. Subban is in the box for slashing.  Onto the ice storm Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, they are joined by Ondrej Palat, Ryan Callahan and completing the unit is Valeri Filppula. We can argue about who the best defender in that group is, its probably Callahan, but it doesn’t matter. They got cute, and got beat by Brian Gionta setting up Lars Eller. To highlight how little offense the pair produced only seven more points than rookie Ondrej Palat, and neither actually surpassed Stamkos who was limited to 37 games and 40 points, while Gionta and Eller played 81 an 77 respectively. While the teams went back and forth scoring on a game that went to overtime, the Lightning never led again, and lost the game.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

 

Players:

  • that Joe Thornton would be in the top ten in the NHL in scoring when he last finished a season there in the 2009-10 season.
  • of the top five goal scores, Ovechkin, Steen, Perry, Kane and Kunitz, Ovechkin would have both overtime goals in the quintet.
  • the leagues three leaders in PIMS Derek Dorsett of the New York Rangers, Chris Neil of the Ottawa Senators, and Antoine Roussel would combine for more penalty minutes (275) than the New Jersey Devils (251) or San Jose Sharks (271) and each be playing 11:35 a night or more.
  • Brandon Dubinsky would be the only player over 20 points and 60 PIMS, and have a 56.1 FO%.
  • Mike Santorelli of the Vancouver Canucks and Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings would be tied for the NHL lead in overtime points.
  • last years Masterson Award winner Josh Harding would be dominating the league and have the best save percentage of any goalie with more than 1000 minutes on the season and be sitting pretty with a .938 sv% and a 16-5-3 record.
  • undrafted rookie goaltender Cam Talbot with ten games played would have a significantly better sv% (.934 vs .910) than teammate and the NHL’s highest paid netminder Henrik Lundqvist.

Teams:

  • a month after losing Steven Stamkos to injury, the Tampa Bay Lightning would still be holding a top 3 spot in the Atlantic division.
  • on December 13th the spread betwen the 1st and 8th place teams in the east and west would be 10 in the west with 3 teams tied for 8, and 13 in the east.
  • to date, no team in the east would have scored 100 goals.
  • Of the teams in the bottom five (tie for 5th) last year in the NHL, only two would currently be in that place.
  • the Buffalo Sabres who are dead last in the NHL in points would have allowed just one more goal than the Chicago Blackhawks who have the most points in the league.
  • the Edmonton Oilers would be the only team to allow more than 4 shorthanded goals.
  • there would be no apparent pattern to the four teams yet to score a shorthanded goal as to date the Coyotes, Penguins, Panthers and Sabres would all be on the outside looking in.
  • four teams in the west would have scored 100 or more goals.
  • under offensive minded coach Alain Vigneault the New York Rangers would be producing over half a goal per game less than under the blueshirt’s previous bench boss in prior two seasons.

After years, and years of futility, questionable contracts, and slow incremental improvement, the Toronto Maple Leafs finally made the playoffs. Better still, they didn’t even back in on a last game overtime loss, they snagged the five spot in the conference, in regulation or overtime wins they were tied for second in the east.

Which makes the dismantling of the team even more baffling. They dumped Matt Frattin and Ben Scrivens and picked up Jonathan Bernier. They shipped out 3 picks for the Dave Bolland. Former New Jersey Devil David Clarkson was signed to a weighty deal. And most puzzling of all, Mikhail Grabovski was bought out. This is a guy who wanted to retire there, never took nights off, and was one of the better two way player in the NHL last season.

This year the team once know as the Toronto St Patrick’s, will open on the road against the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday October first, then head south to square off with the Philadelphia Flyers the next evening. A two set will open their season at home when they host the Ottawa Senators and Colorado Avalanche. Game five sees them back on the road against Seth Jones and the Nashville Predators.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 4

Best opponent: Montreal Canadiens

Weakest opponent: Colorado Avalanche

Home games: 2

Projected points: 4+

With all the changes on the roster, chemistry will take time. New lines are the order of the day, and new defensive pairings as well. Jonathan Bernier will have to learn the habits of all his defensemen, and they his. James Reimer will need to show he has bounced back completely from the late game collapse against the Boston Bruins. Whatever you may think of their talents, Nazim Kadri and Tyler Bozak are going to be known quantities as the likely centers of the first and second lines, that will make a difference in how teams play them. How will they adjust? Who will end up in Randy Carlyle’s dog house this year? The answers to those questions will tell us if the Toronto Maple Leafs have games after April 12th. The other weighty questions for the team are how well will Kessel and Phanuef play in their contract year? Phanuef is 28, he can reasonably expect to play at or near his current level at least five to seven more years. Will he play conservatively so as not to risk injury? Will Kessel play selfishly trying to inflate his goal total so he can sign a another long deal? For Phil Kessel if he stays healthy he could be contributing as much as much as Chris Kunitz or more in 8 years. If the team feels the can’t sign one or both players and trades them, how is that going to affect the dressing room?

The 2012-13 season had highs, lows and surprising blows. Sidney Crosby jumped out of the gate and pounced on the scoring lead. Then out of no where a puck breaks his jaw and puts him on the shelf. Elder statesmen Craig Adams and Chris Kunitz led the way appearing in all 48 games while Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Paul Martin and Kris Letang all missed extended stretches. When all was said and done, with their backup goaltender turning in better stats, the Penguins were the eastern conference champions when the final regular season game was played.

The playoffs saw the Penguins escape the New York Islanders in the first round, no thanks to Marc-Andre Fluery who allowed 17 goals in 5 games and turned in his second worst playoff performance. Thankfully, there was Tomas Vokoun. In eleven games, and making his first playoff appearance since his long ago days with the Nashville Predators, Vokoun won six games, carrying the team through the second round against a depleted Ottawa Senators squad and holding the fort in what would prove to be Daniel Alfredsson’s last game in a Senators jersey. Against the Boston Bruins, Vokoun was the most blameless of the teams top players as they were swept out.

Of the core components to start last season, all are returning. None of the playoff reinforcements remain, and a mistake that was made in years past was corrected, Rob Scuderi is back in Pittsburgh. The opening five games of the season represent a chance to jump out on top of their division against not very stiff competition. Not one of their first five games is against a team that made the playoffs last year. The only set of back to backs is the last pair of games against the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. All five of their opening games are also in the eastern time zone.

Number of days 1-5: 9

Number of cities: 3

Best opponent: Carolina Hurricanes or New Jersey Devils

Weakest opponent: Florida Panthers

Home games: 3

Projected points: 7+

There are several big questions looming over the team despite their undeniable collective talent. Will the Sochi Olympics cost the team any players lost to injury or fatigue? How much of a distraction will head coach Dan Bylsma’s Olympic coaching duties distract from his job as behind the bench in Pittsburgh? Will the teams official player leaders develop their leadership to a point where Ray Shero won’t feel the urge to bring in two other teams captains to help right the ship for the playoffs? And of course, when the playoffs start, will the team remember how to play in both ends of the ice? Getting to the playoffs is almost a given, even with two more playoff quality teams in the East is almost a given, but recent playoff failures raise the question of their exact nature of their mental fortitude.

For the Penguins:

1: Compusure, composure, composure. If they can’t stay focused on their system of hockey they may as well forfiet. Trying to be more physical than the Bruins or get into their heads just isn’t in the Pittsburgh Penguins DNA.

2: Play together. The Penguins have looked confused and disoriented for both games. Their normal flow of passing, and quick transition has been nonexistant. There is some amazing talent on the team, but no one or two of them are going to beat a playoff tested team that returned 18 of the players who won the Cup two years ago by themselves.

3: Don’t turn over the puck. When you’re playing any team this is important, when your goaltender is not playing well and the other team is firing on all cylnders, its is absolutely crucial.

For the Bruins

1: Don’t take stupid penalties. The Penguins powerplay will not continue to look like the Rangers powerplay, don’t give it any practice.

2:  Press the pace early. With two bad games in the bag the Penguins can not afford to get down early, and keeping them hemmed up in their defensive zone will be the best way of keeping Iginla, Neal, Kunitz and company off the score sheet.

3: Don’t stop pushing. If the Bruins are down 3-2 or up 5-0, they can not afford to allow the Penguins even a sliver of hope, there are a fistful of guys who can singlehandedly win games and for whom a four point night isn’t all that special.

For the Officials:

1: If it isn’t life or career threatening, or a required automatical call, forget the whistles. Both teams have shown a willingness to play physical, and go at it. Let them.

1.5: Call the dives. Please call the dives or the game and the series will get out of hand.

Welcome to the Second Season, unlike most years, the second season for the best teams will run nearly half the length of the regular season.

#1 vs. #8

The Pittsburgh Penguins marched determinedly through the regular season, attempting to keep pace with the western powers. Malkin, Crosby, Letang and other key players all missed games due to injury. Crosby is out least for game one, and Jarome Iginla will be playing in the post season for the first time in almost half a decade.

The Islanders haven’t seen the post season in so long you have to wonder how many members of the staff at Nassau had vaction plans this week and next. Sixteen players will be making their playoff debut, including nearly all of their key forwards, and several of their battered blueliners. From the blueline, only three gentlemen appeared in all 48 games this season; Mark Streit age 35, Andrew MacDonald, and 22 year old Travis Hamonic who’s in his third season for the Islanders.

Players to watch:

With Crosby out, the cameras may actually grace other Penguins, Neal is a human highlight reel, Brandon Sutter is finally making himself comfortable in the NHL, and Chris Kunitz quietly led the team in goals in the regular season.

For the Islanders if you aren’t already a member of the United Temple of Taveres; get familiar. The 2009 #1 overall has outpaced his class across the board, he’s got 20 more goals than the second place goal scorer from his class, and almost three times as many as 4th place. On the backend Vishnovsky and Streit are more than capable of being momemtum changers in any zone.

Edge:

The Penguins should win this series. But that depends on Marc Andre Fleury turning in a useful playoff performence. In the last three years his sv% has been awful, despite reasonable regular season numbers, .834, .899, .891 are useful but only for making sure your team gets plenty of sun. The Islanders have a chance if Nabokov can out duel The Flower.

#2 vs. #7

The Montreal Canadiens had a wretched season last year, and reaped the draft rewards, American rookie Alex Galchenyuk made an instant impact, Vancouver Giants alumni Brendan Gallagher did as well. They’ve had a small downturn since Alexi Emelin injured himself, but they still held on to win the last Northeast division title.

The Ottawa Senators are probably glad they don’t have to make room on the plane for medical records. Overcoming injuries have defined this team this season. Jason Spezza is still out, Erik Karlsson is just back, and the list of who didn’t play all or most games is much longer than the list of those who did.

Players to watch:

P.K. Subban is the most electrifying player in this series, and possibly on all of the Canadian teams, Lars Eller has shown a willingness to get his nose dirty, and Michael Ryder still has one of the fastest releases in the NHL.

For the Senators, Alfredsson isn’t a player you should ever take your eyes off of, Kyle Turris led the team in goals and points, and Gonchar is still a consistent threat.

Edge:

Offensively the difference between these teams is night and day, the Canadiens had the fifth best offense in the regular season, and the Senators the fourth worst. On the other hand the Senators finished second in goals against, while the Canadiens were a pedestrian 14th. Craig Anderson has better post season numbers, and should be able to snatch a game or two, but the Habs should win it.

#3 vs. #6

When it comes to winning the Southeast Division, the Washington Capitals have had that locked down for most of its existance, it seems only fitting they should finish its last season on top. Unfortunately, that’s all they seem to be able to win. Maybe this year with a rejuvinated Ovechkin, a mature Carlson and Alzner, and most miraculously a healthy Green they can turn in a good performence.

Last year the New York Rangers went to the Eastern Conference finals, and but for the skill of Adam Henrique, might have gone further. Some might consider it a problem when their 12th best paid forward leads the team in scoring, especially when that player makes roughly 10% of their highest paid forward, for the Rangers, that’s just the way things are.

Players to watch:

The Caps bost a potent offense, and a bit more grit than they are given credit for, Troy Brouwer was second in goals this season, Chimera had a big season last year, and Backstrom has finally started to round back into All Star form.

While Stepan led the Rangers in scoring, Richards, Nash and Callahan have got to be due for an offensive explosion at some point, right?

#4 vs. #5

The Boston Bruins had a heap of distractions towards the end of the season with bombings, blizzards and forever long pregame ceremonies, which might excuse their poor play if it hadn’t been a season long occurance. The positives for the Bruins are that they are pretty healthy physically. The negative is that no one knows where their collective head is.

The Maple Leafs are making their return to the playoffs. Lots of this team hasn’t played in the playoffs at all, and some who have aren’t all that good in the second season. Lupul and Van Riemsdyk have the most playoff experience, Kessel is a point per game player in the playoffs, but he’ll have to get over his ineffectiveness against Chara and Boston in a hurry to keep that going.

Players to watch:

For the Bruins, everyone is waiting on Soderberg to make his impact felt, but he may well sit, watch Bergeron per usual, and see if Ference and Lucic can keep up their snarl.

The Maple Leafs have woefully underused Grabovski this season, and he might just be the key to winning this series, Kadri and Gunnarsson should also be in your crosshairs.

Edge:

The Bruins played poorly down the stretch, but the Leafs are new as a team to the playoffs, and have a bug in their heads about the Bruins. Expect a lot of physical play and for the team that wants it more to win.

This is a feature that will run about every two weeks with improbable stats and situations in the National Hockey League.

Players:

  • … Chris Stewart, Brad Marchand and Jiri Tlusty would be in the top 21 goal scorers in the NHL and Ryan Getzlaf, Rick Nash, and Phil Kessel would not.
  • … Luke Schenn would be second among Flyers defensemen in +/- and one of just three players with a positive +/- to play more than 20 games
  • … in the same number of games, John Tavares would have more more points (31) than Jonathan Toews (29).
  • … Thomas Hickey would play more minutes and shifts through two thirds of the season than Lubomir Vishnovsky.
  • … Artem Anisimov’s 80% shootout success rate would lead the league.
  • … Ben Bishop would be 3-0 in shootouts and Robin Lehner would be 0-3, both for the Senators.
  • … the active leader in game winning goals, Jaromir Jagr would have just one through 27 games played.
  • … Ilya Kovalchuk would have four short handed goals, four game winning goals, and just ten total.
  • … in just 19 games played the leagues penalty minutes leader would be Mike Brown
  • … the top five shooting percentage leaders in the NHL would be 1: Patrik Berglund  29.2% 14 goals 2: Mike Ribeiro 27.8% 10 goals 3: Chris Kunitz 26.9% 18 goals 4: Alex Tanguay 26.5% 9 goals 5: Brad Marchand 26% 13 goals

Teams:

  • … having fired their general manager at the start of the season and made no significant trades, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be tied for sixth place with more ROW than any team below them and even or less games played than any team within five points.
  • … that in less games, the New York Islanders would have scored more goals than the Philadelphia Flyers.
  • … the Tampa Bay Lightning who are second in goal per game would have only one player with more than ten goals.
  • … half of the top ten powerplays in the NHL would belong to teams currently out of playoff position; Capitals, Islanders, Oilers, Flyers, and Flames.
  • … with at least 27 games played, the Canucks, Flames, Lightning, Canadiens, Penguins, and Wild would all have failed to score a 4 on 5 goal.
  • … each having played 28 games only the Oilers and Ducks would not have a 4 on 4 goal.
  • … the Northwest division would be separated by the least points with just ten between the division leading Minnesota Wild and the fifth place Colorado Avalanche.
  • … six of the top ten shot blocking teams would be out of the playoffs: Colorado, Buffalo, Philadelphia, Edmonton, Nashville, and Phoenix.
  • … the only two teams without a regulation loss in their last ten games would be the Columbus Blue Jackets (7-0-3) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (10-0-0)
  • … eleven teams would have a double digit negative goal differential while just eight have positive double digit differentials.

How much of this would you have believed in if I told you in September?

There are possibly more than those on this list. Any players who miss the list; Work Harder. Anyone who’s on the list; don’t you dare prove me wrong.

Left wing is probably the shallowest position in the entire NHL. The Stanley Cup winning LA Kings didn’t have a career left winger anyone would tab as a “big game player” at any point last season. Some teams succeed without them, but here’s some of the better names people don’t talk about enough.

  • Curtis Glencross: Solid mid twenties goal guy on reasonable minutes on a team that has Iginla, Bouwmeester and the Ice Girls as top shelf talent. With a good team he’s going to be in the hunt for 30 goals on a regular basis. He’s got respectable size, a small salary, and is willing to hit.
  • Ryan Malone: More than willing physical player. solid points contributor, has played for both the Penguins and his current team the Lightning.
  • Brad Marchand: Speed, skill, will and a able to play smart and aggressive in big games.
  • Chris Kunitz: 18 powerplay points on a Crosby-less, and occasionally Malkin and Letang deprived Penguins team last year. 20+ goals is automatic.
  • Matt Moulson: Should be a superstar by now, I mean he has played every game of the last three seasons, and has put up 97 goals in that time. Maybe someone would notice if he weren’t playing on Long Island.
  • Jason Chimera: What a story last season. The man was finally given solid, and regular minutes and he tosses twenty goals in like he’s done it every year of his career. Great work ethic he might just be the hardest working forward the Capitals have.
  • Ryan Clowe: Heart of a lion. Two years ago in the playoffs he had a shoulder so bad he couldn’t put his jersey on himself; he still put up 15 points in 17 games.