Word that Punxsutawney Phil and "other groundhogs competing for the title of grand prognosticator" came up with divergent predictions about the next six weeks' worth of weather were as whimsically absurd1 and mostly meaningless as a great deal of the chatter in and around the NHL lately. That's because the league has entered its own annual silly season of uncertainty and transition: the two months between the All-Star Break and the start of the Stanley Cup playoffs that feature the February 27 trade deadline, the down-the-stretch jockeying for postseason position, and the increased national TV coverage of it all.
While the league went on hiatus from regular play over most of the past week for the four-day fiesta that was All-Star Weekend (or, if you're Alex Ovechkin, the beach scene down in Miami), in the past few days everyone has re-emerged, blinking, back into the glare. And so this seems as good a time as any to look around and take stock of what's happened this season and what might be to come. (It's also a great time to check out the #punxsutawneyphilkessel Twitter hashtag, which has provided me with endless amusement. Sample: "His reluctance to come out of his hole for pre-draft interviews scared some teams away" and "Phil look at all these people--they're here to see you. That must feel great." Phil: "Yeah.")
Here are eight various things that I wrote in my preseason preview, which as you can imagine turned out to be about as randomly accurate as a celebrity groundhog's meteorological musings. And whether you've been tuned in since October or you're just now turning your attention over from football, these are some things you can (maybe!) expect to hear about over the next couple of months of the NHL season.
What I said then: "The Washington Capitals are all the rage: The Hockey News and ESPN The Magazine both see Ovi & Co winning it all, while the recently released Bodog over/unders gave Washington the highest number of projected points in the regular season."
How it looks now: Clearly this season hasn't gone at all the way pundits predicted. While the Caps got off to a dominant 7-0 start, the team now finds itself with a new head coach and a declawed and suspended Ovechkin,2 and they're a point out of playoff contention. Injuries have taken their toll — Mike Green has been sidelined for all but 10 games, and Nicklas Backstrom, perhaps the team's best player this season, has hit the ice for only five minutes total since suffering a concussion January 3 — and offseason acquisitions like goaltender Tomas Vokoun and defenseman Roman Hamrlik haven't had quite the expected contribution. The good news for the Capitals? They're only one point behind Florida for first place in the Southeast Division, a spot that carries an automatic top-three playoff seed. If the team's lucky, their season will pan out just like this Matt Hendricks goal from Tuesday night: a whiff, followed by a beautiful turnaround.
What I said then: "Teams most likely to fight for the Cup [out of the West]: San Jose Sharks, L.A. Kings."
How it looks now: The Western Conference's most promising teams at this point are either housed in the Central Division or named the Vancouver Canucks. But it will be interesting to see what San Jose and L.A. do as the trade deadline nears. Both franchises, on paper, have plenty of important ingredients, but they've struggled to find the right mix. San Jose, which currently leads the Pacific Division by two points over L.A., has been the more consistent of the teams. While a number of the Sharks' recent wins have come against unremarkable opponents, the team has endured a number of injuries to key players, notably Marty Havlat — who is due back in early March, making him a bit of an internal trade deadline acquisition, in a sense — and Ryane Clowe, who was the subject of questionable trade rumors several weeks ago that were dismissed by beat writer David Pollak as "bogus." (Clowe seems to me like precisely the sort of hard-nosed hockey player the Sharks would want to keep on their roster. Though, now that Joe Thornton has deemed Nyjer Morgan a B+ player, let the Plushie speculation begin!) As for the Kings, their severe lack of scoring has been cushioned by the play of goaltender Jonathan Quick, but they remain a team that could sure use an offensive boost3 — and, according to this recent Funny or Die video, a PR boost as well.
What I said then: "Crosby's absence is obviously huge, but so is Malkin's presence."
How it looks now: Same Sid, different day. Crosby's situation this season has been as alternately worrisome and captivating as his concussion-shortened 2010-11 season was. There were the highs of his hotly anticipated comeback, in which he scored a goal on his first shot and finished the game with four points, and the lows of his subsequent re-injury, which raised questions about whether he ought to be playing at all. And as has been the case since he was first concussed in January of 2011, everything concerning Crosby has been shrouded in secrecy and muddled by conflicting reports as to his status, temperament, and potential for recovery. (The latest strange chapter involves a previously undiagnosed neck injury, and even that news remains highly confusing.)4 Amid all this, though, the Penguins have held their own thanks to three constants: the scoring touch of James Neal, the strong play in net by Marc-Andre Fleury, and the all-around dominance of Evgeni Malkin, who leads the NHL with 59 points, is second with seven game-winning goals, has grown more comfortable with his role as a bona fide NHL superstar, and must be on anyone's Hart Trophy short list.
What I said then: "Once again the New York Rangers threw money at the biggest-ticket free agent out there, but they swear it will all work out different this time."
How it looks now: For the most part, it has, although not quite in the manner that many envisioned. The Rangers, with the help of one of the world's best goaltenders in Henrik Lundqvist, sit atop the NHL at the moment with 69 points (Detroit has 69 also, but the Red Wings have played two more games), but preseason visions of Brad Richards acting as setup man for Marian Gaborik were quickly revealed to be more like hallucinations. ("It was ugly right from the get-go," said head coach John Tortorella on the short-lived pairing.) Still, Gaborik has rebounded nicely from last season's subpar play, and while Richards has gone cold lately, with just a goal and an assist over his last 10 games, he's nevertheless a veteran presence in one of the league's younger locker rooms. The biggest lingering question for Richards and the rest of this Rangers team is whether they can jump-start their dismal power play, which has converted on just 13.7 percent of its opportunities this season.
What I said then: "Still, the Canucks play in one of the NHL's weakest divisions, and they have a roster to drool for."
How it looks now: Yep, pretty much. After a sluggish start to the season, Vancouver has settled nicely into being the team that was one win away from a Stanley Cup last season, and continues to pad its now 11-point lead for the top spot in the Northwestern Division. But part of the team's deep roster is in net, which means that for however long Vancouver employs both Roberto Luongo and Cory Schneider, the team is going to be constantly subject to the Great Goalie Question. When Schneider was tapped for the start when the Canucks traveled to their neo-nemesis, Boston, earlier in January,5 and again coming out of the All-Star Break on Tuesday when they hosted Chicago, the usual chatter picked up again: Who is, will, and should be the team's no. 1 goalie? Should Vancouver be auctioning off the talented Schneider to the highest bidder, as Mark Spector suggested? True, the Canucks nearly won the Cup last year, but can they make a run again this year with largely the same lineup, or do they need to pick up a big, tough forward to help them compete with the Detroits or the Bostons of the league?
What I said then: "The poor Ottawa Senators. That's all you need to know."
How it looks now: This poor prediction. That's all YOU need to know. (Though if you do wish to know more, I recommend NHL.com's Dave Lozo's take on all the things that have clicked for Ottawa this season.) The league's real chumps have been the Columbus Blue Jackets. If Murphy's Law could sponsor a team, Columbus would be the one: Their splashy summer personnel moves to bring in forward Jeff Carter and defenseman James Wisniewski have gone almost comically wrong.6 On Wednesday night the Blue Jackets lost a game in Los Angeles that perfectly encapsulated their woes: The Kings scored the game-winning goal with about half a second remaining in regulation, but it was determined too late that a shady discrepancy in the official game clock ought to have sent the game into overtime. "It is an amazing coincidence that with the Kings on a power play at STAPLES Center and with a mad scramble around our net in the dying seconds of the third period of a 2-2 hockey game that the clock stopped for at least one full second," wrote GM Scott Howson on his blog. (Howson later took down the post.) Even the news that the town will be pity-hosting next season's All-Star Game backfired: Disgruntled fans who picketed outside Nationwide Arena7 this past Saturday just used it as fodder for signs reading "All-Star City, Bush-League Management." (You've got to kind of love Gary Bettman's droll response to the protests: "It's clearly a demonstration of passion by fans," he said. "You don't do this unless you're passionate about hockey, about the team and about the city." That man is never off-message.)
What I said then: "Realignment isn't the only thing looming on the horizon: The NHL's collective bargaining agreement, which the league forfeited the entire 2004 season to negotiate, expires after this season."
How it looks now: Realignment came, and realignment went, but whether you believe it was a poorly thought-through solution that the league was secretly happy to put back on the shelf or a show of force by the Donald Fehr-led NHL Player's Association, it will be one of many issues up for debate when the two sides begin the arduous process of putting together a new CBA. (For an in-depth look of what else will be on the table, I refer you to David Shoalts' summary in the Globe and Mail.)
What I said then: "While Corey Perry will be hard-pressed to match his totals from last season — he had never scored more than 32 goals before then — the Bobby Ryan-Perry-Ryan Getzlaf line still ought to again be one of the league's most lethal."
How it looks now: If you take lethal to mean that the once-mighty Ducks are now dead, then that assessment was tooootally on! Of the teams who have been outright disappointments this season — the Buffalo Sabres and Tampa Bay Lightning are two other notable examples — the Ducks' plummet has been particularly painful to see. While Anaheim was never a team that boasted remarkable depth, its top line ought to have been more than capable of producing enough to keep them from dwelling in the NHL's basement. (It's not a good sign when your team's leading scorer is 41 years old, although in fairness, Teemu Selanne, like the Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom, doesn't age in North American years.) The Ducks, motivated by GM Bob Murray's pronouncement just after New Year's that only Selanne and Saku Koivu were "untouchables," and everyone else could potentially be shopped, went on a 9-2-1 January tear. But in their last three games they've lost twice to Dallas, a team they'll have to leapfrog if they want to have any chance whatsoever of pulling off a movie montage-style run to the playoffs. "I thought we played 12 really good games in a row," Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau said following Wednesday night's 6-2 clunker against the Stars. "Tonight, we didn't. We stunk."8
A few other preseason postmortems:
Things I wrote of which I am ashamed: that the New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets were most likely to surprise on the upside & that the Avalanche would be the worst team in the West (although, on many nights, they do seem to be trying) & that the Chicago Blackhawks' then-18-year-old Brandon Saad was worth devoting a paragraph to & that Nino Niederreiter was a Calder frontrunner (hey, that's the Islander's fault) ... that Ilya Bryzgalov would "address the Flyers' perennial weakness in net."
Things I wrote of which I am proud: that the Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames were most likely to disappoint & that the Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues would be pretty good but the Toronto Maple Leafs would be kinda "eh" & that there was, sarcastically speaking, "no way this can end badly" for the Buffalo Sabres & that Steven Stamkos could repeat last year's big offensive season & that Ilya Bryzgalov had the best hockey Twitter account. (Twitter account, TV stardom, close enough.)
One of the more fun parts of All-Star Weekend was the Skills Competition, with the Breakaway Challenge event in particular veering evermore toward the NBA Slam Dunk contest with respect to its crowd-pleasing theatrics. You've no doubt by now seen the use of props by Patrick Kane, who donned a Superman cape and Clark Kent glasses (I guess we caught him mid-phone booth?) and pulled off a "flying" variation of the Forsberg move, winning the fan vote for best performance.
Then there was Corey Perry, who memorably busted a mini-stick out of his pants. (For a moment, as Perry began shedding his gloves and reaching into his drawers, it appeared that his move was actually going to be as profane as that sounds.) But while that stunt was one of the best and most inventive of the day, I actually found his twirling lacrosse-style cradling of the puck a round or two earlier to be just as fun.
As for the All-Star Game itself, well, in a 12-9 contest you're bound to get a few beauties; you can see Puck Daddy's top five here. (I would have included the game MVP Marian Gaborik's score on Henrik Lundqvist in that list, if only for his subsequent Anisimovian celebration, but I'm also biased.)
The Minnesota Wild got off to one of the NHL's most unexpected starts, occupying first place in the league a couple of weeks into December, the furthest into the season, wrote Scott Burnside at the time, that the franchise had ever maintained the top spot. First-year head coach Mike Yeo was being praised as an early favorite for the league's Jack Adams Trophy for his work behind the bench of what was predicted by many in the preseason to be a middling franchise, nothing more.
There were warning signs, though, that the team's top-notch perch might not be sustainable: that it was the result of the out-of-their-minds-and-their-depth play of goalies Josh Harding and Niklas Backstrom; that some of the team's underlying numbers, like shot differential, were harbingers of doom; that those "meh" preseason predictions may yet come to bear. (The team was compared more than once to Tim Tebow.) As Burnside himself pointed out in that December 14 piece, the Wild were 11-2-3 in one-goal games at that point and had a 9-5-0 record when trailing after the first period. "Only four teams since the lockout have posted a winning record when trailing after the first," Burnside wrote.
Indeed, after rattling off seven straight wins through December 10 for a 20-7-3 record, Minnesota dropped eight straight, three of them in the shootouts that the Wild had been winning for much of the season. In the month of January, as injuries to key players piled up, the team continued to fall back to earth — or to "regress to the mean," as many skeptics predicted they might — going 3-6-1 and allowing three or more goals in eight of those 10 games. At 24-19-7, the team now finds itself precariously perched in the eighth and last playoff spot in the West by only a point.
Ominously, the team has begun to display some unrest. Tuesday night was the third straight healthy scratch for offensively minded defenseman Marek Zidlicky, who would have faced his former team in the Nashville Predators if he had been in the lineup. "I can't be quiet," he told the StarTribune's Michael Russo in a candid and frustrated rant about his role in Yeo's system. "He said everything I do with the puck and without the puck, it's wrong. ... [The system] wasn't me. It wasn't my style. I tried to explain it to him [a] couple times, but he wants something different. I don't think I can change something when you are like 34 years old." Russo wrote that following his interview with Zidlicky, the player sat down for "a long meeting" with GM Chuck Fletcher, and it seems almost a given at this point that the team will be looking to move him before the trade deadline.
The game turned out to be the Wild's worst loss of the season. Leading Nashville at home by a comfortable 4-1 margin nearly halfway into the third period,9 Minnesota collapsed, letting the Predators score four unanswered goals (including two that came just 21 seconds apart). "No way in 100 years should we have lost that game," said a shocked Harding. "If you've ever been punched in the stomach really hard, that's pretty much what this one felt like," Yeo said. Ouch.
It doesn't matter that the two teams are currently sitting well out of playoff contention: Games between Northeast Division rivals Buffalo and Montreal always seem to bring out Eastern Conference Finals levels of ginned-up controversy. Following a 3-1 loss to the Sabres Tuesday night in a game that Montreal had led 1-0 early, several Canadiens sounded off in the locker room about "classless"14 comments by Buffalo's Paul Gaustad, who asked the Canadiens' Max Pacioretty "Where's Chara?" late in the game.
This was not a friendly inquiry, needless to say, but rather a reference to last season's infamous hit on Pacioretty by the Bruins' Zdeno Chara that left the Canadiens forward with a fractured neck and led to the league-mandated renovation this offseason of the glass in most NHL rinks.15 "I don't think it's right to talk about an incident where a guy broke his neck," Montreal's Mathieu Darche said to reporters Tuesday night.
That may be, but there's two sides to every story. Gaustad explained that his question was intended to mirror some "Where's Lucic?" chirps directed at him that referred to the Bruins-Sabres game earlier this fall in which Milan Lucic was allowed to get off mostly scot-free after colliding with Buffalo goaltender Ryan Miller. (At the time, Gaustad admitted to being "embarrassed" that he and his teammates had failed to stand up for their goalie.) "They asked me where Lucic was and I asked them where they were with Chara, so it's the same thing," Gaustad explained Tuesday night.
Sabres head coach Lindy Ruff, who at this point I think leads the league in having to weigh in on his team's various flaps, found it distasteful that Montreal players would so outwardly clutch their pearls over the kind of on-the-ice trash talk that's routine in the league. "I could give you one situation every night and for them to go public I thought was ridiculous," Ruff said.
As usual, the winners in all of this were the Boston Bruins, as the Days of Y'Orr blog pointed out. "Amazing. All we need is Vancouver to jump in on the action and we can watch the world burn," wrote Justin Aucoin. "Gotta love it when two teams chirp about who got their asses kicked more by the Bruins."
For humblebrag of the month
Your move now, LeBrun!
The main Punxsutawney event takes place on a hill called "Gobbler's Knob" — can't you just imagine Pierre McGuire referencing some far-flung junior team called the Gobbler's Knob Groundhogs? I'm actually not entirely convinced that such a squad doesn't exist.
He returns Saturday night in Montreal, a small hockey backwater where I'm sure there will be no media attention surrounding him whatsoever.
That they got goals on Wednesday night from the dormant Dustin Penner and Drew Doughty, though, is a promising sign.
So many questions: What did the Penguins medical staff not know, and when did they not know it? Is and/or was his neck fractured, as was initially reported, or is it soft-tissue damage instead? Is Crosby fed up with the Penguins? Are his teammates fed up with Crosby? And who is the poor sap on staff tasked with managing the Kid's health care file, which must increasingly resemble a scattershot "Choose Your Own Adventure" book?
Head coach Alain Vigneault explained that he gave Schneider the start because the backup goalie hails from outside Boston.
The two players have suited up for just 30 and 29 games, respectively, and Carter's angst has grown so toxic that there's a strong chance he'll be offloaded somewhere, anywhere, for a proverbial bag of pucks. If Columbus tried to reverse the terms of the trade that yielded them Carter, I'm pretty sure the Flyers front office would chuckle and light a cigar.
The rink was built atop the grounds of the old Ohio Penitentiary, which explains a lot.
I enjoyed what Boudreau had to say about Dallas' Jamie Benn, who made a splash during All-Star Weekend in large part for his domination of the shooting accuracy skills competition: "I think he's one of the finest young players in the league that nobody knows about. If this kid was in Toronto, they'd be making statues of him."
Dany Heatley had two goals in the first, including this highlight reel play.
As things currently stand, only the division leader would make the playoffs out of the Southeast. With the loss, for example, the Capitals dropped from third place in the Eastern Conference to ninth.
As well as an amusing Twitter hashtag, #brooklynislanders.
I may now have to think of Willis as the Atul Gawande of hockey analysis.
Clearly this man speaks to me.
A hockey player called someone classless. Drink!
Controversially, Chara was not issued supplemental discipline by the league, who deemed it an honest hockey play. Montreal fans flooded police phone lines in the aftermath of the incident, but a subsequent criminal investigation was ultimately dropped this fall for lack of evidence.