Follow sports closely enough and it's only a matter of time until the absurdities of your own interests are cast into relief by the very people you're so interested in. The sliced-and-diced statistics you carry around in your mental quiver; the historical precedents upon which you assign superstition or meaning (or both); the amateur pseudo psychology you use to project motivations onto hulking, blank 220-pound canvases — these things have a tendency to wither in the presence of a real, live athlete.
Last season the New Jersey Devils trailed three games to none in the Stanley Cup final, then managed to win the next two. Instantly the consensus narrative pivoted on its heel away from "get out the brooms" and toward, well, several handfuls of reporters crowding around Adam Henrique and quizzing him on NHL history. It was actually a little bit sad. There we were, like the kid in Jerry Maguire, asking specific questions to which only we knew the answers. Did Henrique know that only three teams had come back from being down three-love in the playoffs? He didn't, he said. When did he first learn of that important fact, we pressed? Right now, he said, with a smile.
He's far from the first one to look almost apologetic in the face of such an inquiry. When the Minnesota women's hockey team set a new NCAA win record this fall, a few players confessed that they hadn't known about their streak until they read about it on Twitter. I've begun questions with what seem like obvious statements — "You've scored the last four times you've played the Rangers" — and gotten a chuckle and a "Huh, I didn't know that" in response. We roll our eyes when athletes say that they just need to go out there and play their game, or that they need to take their games one at a time, but either cliché is usually a more accurate description of what's going on than the idea that a team might play noticeably harder just to achieve, to use one example, the most consecutive games with at least one point to begin a season.
Enter the Chicago Blackhawks. It's not that the team hasn't dropped a game — they've skated off the ice as big ol' losers three times — it's that they haven't done so in regulation yet this year. Their 13-0-3 record is the best such streak since the Anaheim Ducks failed to outright lose any of their first 16 games in 2006-07 — one of those arbitrary fun facts that takes on greater oomph because the Ducks went on to win the Stanley Cup that season. And while just about every preview of the Blackhawks-Canucks game focused on Chicago's quest to tie Anaheim's mark, the guy who ended up actually doing so was barely aware of the manufactured significance.
According to Chicago Tribune columnist David Haugh, the Blackhawks' Andrew Shaw, a grinder who scored a saucy little shootout goal to give Chicago the win over hated rival Vancouver, hadn't exactly been tracking his team's streak.
Just 24 hours earlier, when Patrick Kane was marveling at how cool it felt for the Blackhawks to start the year on such a historic streak, Shaw arched his eyebrows in bemusement.
"Streak? What streak?" he asked.
The kid was serious. Shaw knew how many stitches he received after his first NHL fight but couldn't tell you how many straight games the Hawks had earned a point. A happy scrapper, Shaw goes through hockey season with his head down and fists clenched.
"I really don't know,'' Shaw said sheepishly.
It's telling that it was far off his radar, that he and his team have been playing so well for reasons other than that. (Kane, with far more day-to-day media contact, has probably been hearing about it for the past week.) When things click for the Blackhawks, as they did on this power play, they seem commanding, confident, and completely in sync.
It's always the stone-faced, childlike emperor Jonathan Toews and the puckish cad Patrick Kane who command the attention, the headlines, the marketing, the yin-and-yang-themed Etsy creations that exist in my fever dreams. (Seriously, you could do, like, a letterpress print, or a necklace.) But when things are going well for the Blackhawks, you start to remember that they've also got Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa, who is capable of doing things like this:
But this is a Blackhawks team that has not been without its struggles — injuries, scoring droughts, and the like. Hossa scored those two goals and then got taken out with a high forearm from the Canucks' Jannik Hansen; as he lay on the ice, Chicago fans had unwelcome flashbacks to last year's playoffs, when he was concussed by Raffi Torres. But just as other teammates have stepped up when needed — like Johnny Oduya saving a goal against the L.A. Kings — Shaw took Hossa's place in the shootout and netted the winner.
When the Hawks play the Sharks on Friday, it will be for sole ownership of the best start record. But despite what they say, you get the sense that no one (except us) will be spending too much time thinking about that.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week's Sickest Snipes
I like how this Pavel Datsyuk goal casually escalates before your eyes. He's like a mother trying to get some help from her kids and everyone kind of ignores her until she finally slams the door and explodes that she'll just feed the damn dog herself! Even Ken Daniels sounds kinda bored at first, then a little intrigued, then all of a sudden we're getting his trademark "A DATSYUKIAN DEKE OF ALL TIME!" (Datsyuk had a nearly identical play early in the first period, but Pekka Rinne made the save.)
It was Datsyuk's fifth straight game with a goal, and he's recorded eight points in that stretch. But he hasn't created them all out of scratch the way he did Tuesday night: Witness this perfect (dare I say Datsyukian?) saucer setup from Henrik Zetterberg in the Red Wings' Sunday game against Minnesota. Of course, the Red Wings haven't fared quite as well as Datsyuk's fantasy lines over the last week: They've lost twice in overtime and twice in regulation.
When the Edmonton Oilers' Ales Hemsky — one of the franchise's few bright lights during some dark recent seasons — signed a two-year bridge deal worth $10 million with the team last February, it was an easy target for ridicule. Observers ranging from TSN's James Duthie to Hall of Famer Mike Modano to whoever's behind the Calgary Flames' Twitter account mocked the terms of the contract: Based on his meager stats at that point last season, the joke went, the Oilers would basically be paying the impending free agent a million bucks per goal.
But it's increasingly looking like the timing of last year's agreement was a "buy low" situation: As Jonathan Willis points out, Hemsky's numbers at that point were markedly below his career averages, and "the Oilers needed to decide whether or not Hemsky's rough 2011-12 represented the new normal for him, or if it was a temporary lull." They chose to kick the can down the road, really, agreeing to a relatively robust cap hit — that $5 million per year — but not committing to much in terms of contract length. Check back this time next season: Barring a trade, it'll be déjà vu! (Except this time the Oilers will have the added challenges of a lower cap and the expiring entry-level contracts of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Justin Schultz, just for starters.)
Anyway, you know that contrived $1 million–per–goal figure that everyone laughed at? It might actually undervalue stuff like this.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week's Worst Performers
Every year Beloit College in Wisconsin unveils its "Mindset List," a tool originally conceived to help its professors understand and contextualize the lives and experiences of their baffling students. The most recent list, for example, prepares everyone for this year's crop of freshmen, who will graduate in 2016. "Bill Clinton is a senior statesman of whose presidency they have little knowledge," it patiently explains. "Outdated icons with images of floppy discs for 'save,' a telephone for 'phone,' and a snail mail envelope for 'mail' have oddly decorated their tablets and smart phone screens … Point-and-shoot cameras are soooooo last millennium."
In the wake of the news on Wednesday that the Buffalo Sabres fired Lindy Ruff, the longest-tenured coach in the league,1 the hockey world turned into a bit of a Mindset List of its own, trying to remember just what the world might have been like back when the Sabres announced, on July 21, 1997, that he had been hired. Gianni Versace had just been shot to death. The closest thing the year had to a viral sensation was the Hale-Bopp Comet. Steve Jobs would soon return to Apple. Rebecca Black was a newborn, and the Beloit College Class of 2016 and their dearth of Bill Clinton memories were just 3. Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, and Martin Brodeur were all in the league. Titanic came out. A goofy suburban tween was tooling around on the early Internet. The first Harry Potter was published. You know, things like that.
Given the news about Ruff, even the smash hit of that year took on greater significance. :'(
Ruff, along with GM Darcy Regier, has long been an untouchable; even when the Sabres were purchased by ambitious new owner Terry Pegula, they remained. But fresh off one of the league's more disappointing seasons in 2011-12, the team has failed this year to rebound in any meaningful way. Sure, with this condensed schedule they're technically only four points out of the playoffs, but they're also struggling through a 3-7-0 record in their last 10 games despite having a top goalie and the NHL's leading scorer in Thomas Vanek. Plenty of the fault lies with Regier, who remains with the team; he's the one on the hook, after all, for the massive contracts doled out to players like Ville Leino, Tyler Myers, and Christian Ehrhoff. (The three of them are earning a combined $26 million in cash dollars this season.) But while Sabres ownership clearly wasn't ready to burn down the whole house, they wanted to do something to spark a fire. The question is whether this will be kindling enough.
PS: You know things have gotten bad when your team starts attracting lowlifes like Charlie Sheen as fans. Sheen, who costars in FX's Anger Management with Ryan Miller's wife, Noureen DeWulf, was watching Sunday's loss to the Penguins. He tweeted:
— Charlie Sheen (@charliesheen) February 17, 2013
Imagine, if you will, how the course of modern history might have been changed had a different son of Martin been Gordon Bombay. Anyway, he was right, of course: Miller was playing outstandingly. Witness this save on goal-scorer extraordinaire James Neal:
He also had a point about the teammate being in the way. (It was Ehrhoff in this case.)2 Paul Martin's screened goal with 2:04 to play in the game proved to be the 4-3 winner for the Penguins, robbing the Sabres of what could have at least been a point for a tie. Later, Miller vented in the locker room about his frustrations surrounding "just fuckin' losing again." I'd say that pretty much #sux.
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
• Misery loves company: The San Jose Sharks finally began to climb out of their slump, though they needed the help of the evil travel industry to do so. After seven consecutive losses followed seven straight wins, the Sharks got back on the right side of the ledger Tuesday with a 2-1 win over St. Louis. While it was a home game for the Blues, they were weary travelers through and through: They got stuck in Vancouver for over 14 hours thanks to a faulty plane part, and instead of arriving home on the Monday afternoon before a Tuesday-night game they got in at 6:30 that morning. Perhaps this will be the jump-start the Sharks need: Sometimes there's no better cure for what ails you than a healthy dose of schadenfreude. (Either that or a rainout.)
• When Earth was struck last week by the largest meteor since 1908, it wasn't CNN or Reuters or even TMZ that became the source for sound-barrier-breaking news, it was Washington Capitals hockey blog Russian Machine Never Breaks. The proprietors of the blog combined information from a contributor in Moscow with their own knowledge of Cyrillic to assemble what would become an invaluable dossier of information on the celestial happenings. (Aided, of course, by Russia's trusty dashboard cams!) For their efforts, the RMNB crew got some highbrow love from The Atlantic and NPR — meaning there's a 100 percent chance that at some political fund-raiser this weekend a high-powered D.C. operative uttered a 2006 Alexander Ovechkin quote for the ultimate in one-upmanship.
• Smashville 24/7's Ryan Porth, inspired by a New York Times article that gave Nashville the title of "America's 'It' city," wrote a nice two-part piece that traces the rise of the Predators within Nashville's athletic (and, to some extent, cultural and political) scene. It includes Terry Crisp talking about "babies with the little earmuffs and jerseys." How can you not want to read that?
• Troubling news out of Raleigh yesterday: The Carolina Hurricanes' Jeff Skinner is out indefinitely with a concussion. The 20-year-old Skinner earned the Calder Trophy two years ago as the league's top rookie, but last season missed 16 games with similar injuries. He appeared to get knocked around quite a bit during the Canes' game against Toronto last Thursday, and hasn't appeared in a game since. At around the same time the news was announced, the St. Louis Blues' young star Vladimir Tarasenko was blindsided by Colorado's Mark Olver — it wasn't an intentionally bad hit, but it was the kind that left Tarasenko bleeding and googly-eyed on the ice. (He was taken to a hospital but later rejoined his team to return to St. Louis.) As for the Avalanche, they, too, have had a young player sidelined by a hit to the head: 20-year-old captain Gabriel Landeskog had appeared in only four games this season before San Jose's Brad Stuart took him out; he is finally skating again and said to be getting closer to a return to the ice.
• "Hubie-doobie-deau!" "How do you do the things you do, Hubie-doobie-deau?" I'm embarrassed for everyone involved here.
• As someone who once absolutely adored a young New York Rangers prospect from the Guelph Storm in the late '90s named Manny Malhotra, I was really bummed out to hear that the Vancouver Canucks have decided to put him on long-term injured reserve, effectively shutting down his season (and, potentially, his career). In March 2011, Malhotra, whose role on the Canucks has long captured the attention of hockey's more statistically inclined tacticians, sustained a major eye injury that necessitated surgery after he was struck by a puck; he made an inspiring return two months later during the Stanley Cup finals and appeared in 78 games last season and nine this year. But the Canucks have reportedly been concerned about whether his safety on the ice is in jeopardy, and after reviewing game video they made the decision to shut him down. Things appear to be slightly uncomfortable for the time being, notes Harrison Mooney, as Malhotra himself has yet to address the situation (though he's continuing to skate with teammates). While it's nice to know that Malhotra has a clear post-player career ahead of him — the Canucks seem to want to groom him to be a coach — it's sad to see that he's getting a head start.
• Have you ever seen when rival ant colonies fight on the sidewalk? That's what the Penguins and Flyers looked like on Philadelphia's first goal last night. (It also makes for a great Harlem Shake video.)
• In addition to Friday's Chicago–San Jose tilt, a few games to keep an eye on over the next few days: The Tampa Bay Lightning — battling with Carolina, whom they play Saturday for the Southeast Division lead — seek their third straight win as they take on Boston on Thursday night. The Los Angeles Kings look to continue their climb up the Western Conference standings (which has been showing up in the PDO tea leaves for some time now) with a Saturday game against Colorado. Washington and New Jersey play twice in three days, which is always a recipe for a few simmering hostilities; and speaking of which, Minnesota plays Edmonton in the late game tonight.
And a Beauty: The Week's Nicest in Net
After last season, it would have made sense that the role of third goaltender on the St. Louis Blues would be a little bit like Ol' Lonely the Maytag Repairman. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott earned last season's William Jennings Trophy for allowing the fewest goals in the NHL, but 2013 hasn't been nearly as charmed for the duo: Halak has battled injury and Elliott has yet to return to his 2011-12 form.
All of this led to the unexpected emergence this past week of 22-year-old Jake Allen, who made his first NHL start in a 4-3 overtime win against Detroit on the road and followed it up two days later with this save in a 5-2 victory over Calgary. On Sunday, Allen stopped the Canucks' Alexandre Burrows on an overtime breakaway, then went on to stop both Vancouver attempts in the shootout.
Speaking of league debuts: If you felt a disturbance in the force Wednesday morning, rest assured that it wasn't another meteorite-driven sonic boom. It was just the collective weight of the hockey Twittersphere rushing to be first to drolly remark "Welp, that was Fasth" at the news that the Anaheim Ducks signed goaltender Viktor Fasth to a two-year, $5.8 million contract after just his ninth NHL game.
At age 30, Fasth is not your usual newcomer: He's four years older than the cutoff to be considered a Calder-eligible rookie. But he's still playing in his first NHL season after leaving his native Sweden last spring to sign as a free agent with the Ducks. And his 8-0-0 start is already up there in terms of the best NHL entrances: Only Ray Emery and Bob Froese won their first eight career decisions, while Patrick Lalime's opening record of 14-0-2 remains the top mark for any first-time goaltender.
On a conference call after the deal was announced, Fasth — who earned top goaltender honors in the Swedish Elite League in the past two seasons — remarked that up until three years ago he was still supplementing hockey with a job as a high school teacher to make ends meet. Now he's got random YouTubers mashing up his Swedish and NHL highlights to Eminem songs. Dare to dream, people.
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
You have to wonder just how loud the Montreal Canadiens would have laughed if they'd been present for some of the New York Rangers' postgame comments Tuesday night. "It's a game of patience when you play a team like this," said Henrik Lundqvist. "They play extremely boring, but they're a smart team and they didn't give up much." Head coach John Tortorella was even less charitable. "I thought it was probably one of the worst hockey games I've been involved in," he said. "Both teams. It was two bad teams playing, and we were worse than they were."
Lundqvist was trying to be descriptive, not provocative, and on Tuesday night specifically Tortorella wasn't wrong. (In a brutal first period, the two teams combined for only eight shots.) Still, the Canadiens have quietly gained the lead of not only the Northeast Division, but the entire Eastern Conference. They've won five straight games and seven of their last 10, and they've done so with balanced scoring — Brendan Gallagher one night, David Desharnais the next, Tomas Plekanec more often than not. And goaltender Carey Price has been in career form, aided by the return of Andrei Markov from injury and P.K. Subban from contract negotiations. Meanwhile, the Rangers have spent the season shuffling lines, shrouding injuries, and bouncing around on the playoff-position bubble. Two bad teams playing? the Canadiens must think. Parle pour toi!