2010 Stanley Cup Finals, Game 3: Blackhawks not worried about Wachovia atmosphere

Wachovia.jpgOne of the more interesting questions asked of the Blackhawks today
before tonight’s game concerned their preparation and readiness for the
raucous and sometimes violent Flyers crowd that will be out in full
force. It was a great question, and certainly topical considering the
game tonight is in Philadelphia, but one I just don’t think applies to
the Chicago Blackhawks.

Would it apply to the Dallas Stars or the Tampa Bay Lightning?
Certainly, but if there is one team in the NHL that should be prepared
for the noise that will be prevalent in tonight’s game it’s the Chicago
Blackhawks.

Forget the fact that until three years ago, United Center could have
been considered an abandoned building. Now that the Hawks are great
again — and the ownership is actually embracing it’s fans instead of
ignoring them — the Blackhawks have built one of the loudest and most
passionate fanbases in the NHL. One could argue that the Blackhawks fans
are on the exact same level as the crowds in Montreal, San Jose,
Washington and yes — Philadelphia.

Patrick Sharp, who has spent time here in Philadelphia, is looking
forward to seeing how the home crowd will act now that the Flyers are in
the Cup finals. He certainly agrees that the fans here in Philly are
more passionate than most.

“I’m not sure how they’re going to treat us,” said Sharp. “In the
Playoff atmosphere I know I was on the Flyers side before. It’s a great
atmosphere. Every building has great fans when the puck goes in the
net or something happens out on the ice. These Philly fans, they watch
every play. They can get on top of the opposing teams players as well.

“I think it’s going to be a fun atmosphere. We’re all looking
forward to it, and we want to play our best.”

One reason that the Hawks aren’t all that worried about the
atmosphere here, and they acted a bit nonchalant about the whole thing
honestly, is that the team has been so good on the road.

If the Blackhawks win tonight, they’ll break the NHL for consecutive
road wins in the playoffs. After losing on the road in Nashville in
round one, the Hawks have rattled off seven straight victories on the
road.

That includes five straight between Vancouver and San Jose, two of
the rowdiest crowds around. I’d say they know exactly what it takes to
not only win on the road but win in the most hostile environments in the
league. Perhaps that’s because they’re so used to the atmosphere at
home, but Jonathan Toews attributes their road success to how close the
team is on the road.

“When you’re on the road, you spend more time as a team. We’re
together. For us that’s where we want to be. That’s where we’re in our
comfort zone.”

There’s stories circulating as well that one reason for how close the
team is on the road are the nightly Super Mario Kart tournaments. While
I don’t know about the particular team-building methods that Mario Kart
possesses, there’s no doubt that this is a very close-knit team.
Patrick Sharp agrees.

“I think we get along so well off the ice as a team. We enjoy each
other’s company. We like being out on the road together. It’s nice to
have a road-winning streak, but it doesn’t mean much at end of the day.
We have to hopefully win two more on the road.”

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    The Buzzer: Canucks continue Red Wings’ slide

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    Player of the Night: Sven Baertschi

    Last season, Baertschi was a bright spot for a dismal Vancouver Canucks team, generating new career-highs in goals (18) and points (35) in 68 regular-season games.

    The 25-year-old carried over some of that momentum early on, generating three points in seven games, but they were all assists. Sunday marked his best moment of 2017-18, as Baertschi scored his first two goals of the campaign (giving him five points in eight contests).

    Bo Horvat is the honorable mention in the Canucks’ 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings, collecting his first two assists of the season. Jake Virtanen also found the net for his first goal of the season.

    (As an aside, Derek Dorsett somehow has five goals already in 2017-18. Dorsett’s career-high is 12 goals, but he’s already in range of tying his second-best mark of seven.)

    Highlight of the Night: Why not go with Baertschi’s two goals?

    Factoid of the Night: This marks the fourth straight loss for the Red Wings, dropping them to 4-4-1 after a promising 4-1-0 start. But the hits could keep coming.

    Beginning with Tuesday’s game against the Sabres in Buffalo, Detroit will play three straight road games and seven of their next eight away from home. The bright side is that they’ll enjoy a ton of contests at their expensive new pad starting in mid-November, but the next few weeks could really dim whatever optimism the Red Wings built up early on.

    (For pro-tanking Red Wings fans, this might not be such a bad thing.)

    Sunday’s lone score: Canucks 4, Red Wings 1

    Can Golden Knights keep winning as they keep losing goalies?

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    The Vegas Golden Knights confirmed today’s fearful report: Malcolm Subban is expected to miss about a month thanks to a lower-body injury suffered during another Golden Knights upset (3-2 in OT vs. the Blues) on Saturday night.

    It makes for a dizzying run of turnover in the Cinderella expansion team’s net; Calvin Pickard went to the Toronto Maple Leafs as the odd man out, Subban is headed to IR, and Marc-Andre Fleury is sidelined with another concussion.

    The spotlight, then, turns to Oscar Dansk, the 23-year-old goalie who stopped 10 of 11 shots against St. Louis when Subban went down with that injury.

    Golden Knights GM George McPhee said the predictable, right things regarding Dansk and the situation:

    “Injuries provide opportunities for others and that is the situation we have here,” McPhee said. “Our top two goaltenders are currently sidelined so we will now give our AHL goalies the chance to play in their absence. We felt Oscar Dansk performed well in relief on Saturday in his NHL debut.”

    In a way, Dansk feels like a lower-level version of Subban. While Subban is/was a struggling former first-rounder, Dansk was the second-round version; the Columbus Blue Jackets made him the 31st pick of the 2012 NHL Draft.

    (Hey, the 31st pick is now a first-rounder thanks to the Golden Knights, so there’s that.)

    Dansk hasn’t been setting the hockey world on fire at other levels, but maybe that makes him an interesting fit for this weird situation, as the Golden Knights continue to defy odds and puck-gravity during a 6-1-0 start.

    What to expect

    While the Chicago Blackhawks boast the sort of firepower that could make for an unpleasant introduction for Dansk, at least the Golden Knights still have a few games remaining on their first-ever homestand:

    Tue, Oct 24 vs Chicago
    Fri, Oct 27 vs Colorado
    Mon, Oct 30 @ NY Islanders
    Tue, Oct 31 @ NY Rangers

    That back-to-back to end the month could be Halloween-scary, but at least Vegas has some time to prepare. The losses are likely to come starting on Oct. 30, as they face a six-game road trip and eight of nine games away from home. That’s challenging, no expansion disclaimers needed.

    How they’ve been playing

    Some wonder if the Golden Knights should loosen their defensive logjam by trading for a netminder.

    Rather than wading too deep into that discussion, this seems like a reasonable time to look at the Golden Knights seven games (and six wins) in.

    • One thing that stands out is Vegas’ penalty kill. They’ve been almost perfect if you exclude a rough showing in their overtime win against the Sabres (Buffalo went 3-for-5 in that game). Aside from that, they’ve only allowed one power-play goal. They’ve also only hit the penalty box three or four times most nights, with one night with just one trip and the five opportunities for the Sabres standing as the outliers.

    The Golden Knights should expect more struggles in both regards, at least at times, this season. Maybe this long run of home-ice advantage and their expansion status helped avoid most whistles? Perhaps Gerard Gallant has them playing extra-smart?

    • So far, the shot counts have been pretty reasonable in five of seven games. They’ve only been heavily outshot twice so far: their first game (46 shots on goal for Dallas, 30 for them) and this past one vs. the Blues (49 for St. Louis, 22 for Vegas). That’s surprisingly competent stuff.
    • With any team enjoying success, close games can be a red flag, especially if there are OT wins. Vegas has three wins in overtime and one other one-goal win. Their 3-1 win against Boston included an empty-netter.

    This isn’t to dismiss those wins, but sometimes close games are more like “coin flips,” and some of those will start going against the Golden Knights eventually.

    • The Golden Knights are a top-10 team in two luck-leaning categories: PDO and shooting percentage. That said, they’re not the top team in either spot, so it’s not outrageous to give them some credit.

    ***

    Through some intriguing combination of competence and beginner’s luck, the Golden Knights are off to a shockingly good start.

    It’s one thing to lose one goalie, but seeing both go down is brutal for any squad, let alone an expansion team. The Golden Knights have every excuse to start to fade, and were likely to see slippage even at full strength.

    Even so, credit this team for being far better than anyone expected, and this hungry bunch will at least be able to point to doubtful bits like these if they need some “us against the world” motivation.

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Appreciating Stamkos after he hit 600 points

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    The modern NHL is no stranger to star players missing extended stretches because of injuries, opening the door for “What if?” frustrations.

    As glorious as the last couple years have been for Sidney Crosby, the threat of another concussion looms like Michael Myers in the bushes. Connor McDavid lost half of his rookie season. Carey Price has already dealt with serious issues of his own.

    Still, you can forgive Steven Stamkos and Tampa Bay Lightning fans for being especially miffed over the years, as his issues have bordered on the freakish. Stamkos has dealt with blood clots, his most recent right knee injury that required surgery, and broke his tibia after taking this bad-luck spill in 2013:

    (Even about four years later, it’s still unsettling to watch Stamkos rapidly become aware of how bad his injury was.)

    Stamkos has missed playoff time and saw at least two seasons short-circuited by injuries, as he only played in 17 games in 2016-17 and 37 in 2013-14.

    Heading into this season, it was reasonable to try to limit expectations; most athletes struggle in the first year after significant surgeries. Maybe Stamkos will hit a wall at some point, but so far, he’s enjoyed the best start of his career, riding shotgun with budding superstar Nikita Kucherov.

    It almost seems fitting, then, that Stamkos scored his 600th regular-season point during the Lightning’s 7-1 beatdown of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Even so, it’s resounding that – with all Stamkos has been through – he’s at that level at 27, and he’s done so in 595 games.

    Impressive. With this incredible head start of 18 points in nine games, a healthy Stamkos might match or exceed the work he did during his best days earlier in his career. Note how dominant he was from his second through fourth seasons (while Stamkos managed 29 goals and 57 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season, his fifth):

    2009-10: 51 goals, 95 points

    2010-11: 45 goals, 91 points

    2011-12: 60 goals, 97 points

    The other eye-popping stat from that run: he played in all 82 regular-season games in each of those three campaigns.

    For some perspective, during the stretch of 2009-10 to 2011-12, Stamkos’ 283 points ranked second in the NHL, with only Henrik Sedins’ 287 ranking higher. His 156 goals easily led all players for that three-year stretch.

    If that’s not enough to make you wonder where a healthy Stamkos might rank among the NHL’s upper echelon, consider this: from his sophomore 2009-10 season through today, he’s third in points-per-game among players who’ve played in at least 200, slightly edging Patrick Kane (1.06):

    1. Sidney Crosby (1.28)
    2. Evgeni Malkin (1.14)
    3. Stamkos (1.07)
    4. Kane (1.06)
    5. Alex Ovechkin (1.03)
    6. Nicklas Backstrom/retired Martin St. Louis (1.01)

    As you can see, Stamkos ranks among six active players who’ve averaged at least one point-per-game since 2009-10.

    Chances are, Stamkos will cool off mainly because, as great as Kucherov is, he’ll settle down a bit too. The Russian winger currently boasts a 29.4 shooting percentage, nearly doubling his already-impressive career average of 15.1 percent.

    Still, it’s plausible that Stamkos could enjoy one of the best seasons of his career, and the interesting wrinkle might be that this stupendous sniper may serve as something of a facilitator (he currently has three goals versus 15 assists).

    Now, don’t forget that Kucherov has been the catalyst for this burst, even if Stamkos makes this one of the NHL’s most scintillating symbiotic relationships. Hitting the 600-point milestone is merely a friendly reminder that Stamkos shouldn’t get lost in the elite conversation, and that hockey fans should be very, very happy to have him around.

    Just stay a while this time, Stamkos. We like seeing you.

    (Many stats via the wonderful resource that is Hockey Reference.)

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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    Throwing Babcock a bone? Leafs bring back Roman Polak

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    Sometimes you need to zoom out from a shaky move and appreciate the bigger picture.

    Mike Babcock nailed it when he described the Toronto Maple Leafs, at least at times, as dumb and fun. The Leafs currently lead the NHL with 37 goals, one more than the red-hot Tampa Bay Lightning, despite Toronto playing one fewer game. Still, these young Buds also must raise Babcock’s blood pressure at times with their double-edged sword style.

    Credit Babcock, then, with mostly embracing what makes this team tick. More rigid coaches would strain against such designs, almost certainly lowering the Maple Leafs’ ceiling in the process.

    The Maple Leafs raised some eyebrows on Sunday by handing slow-footed, limited veteran defenseman Roman Polak a one-year, $1.1 million contract. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that the Maple Leafs slumped some shoulders.

    None of these Twitter reactions are really off-base, honestly.

    Polak, 31, simply isn’t an ideal fit for the modern NHL, and the Maple Leafs are very much embracing the fast, attacking style that’s (delightfully) coming in vogue.

    Here’s a working theory, though: even the best coaches (at least right now) have “their guys.”

    “Their guys” are often well-traveled, gritty types. Some only help teams in minimal ways while taking spots from prospects who might eventually be able to make bigger impacts. Others are even worse: actively hurting their teams whenever they get on the ice while taking spots. New York Rangers fans are currently having Tanner Glass flashbacks.

    Every GM in the NHL should limit the number of “guys” available to a coach. Otherwise, they’re echoing “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” by holding an intervention at a bar.

    (By this analogy, Nazem Kadri is definitely wine in a can.)

    Allow a hypothesis: with some injuries surfacing and the Maple Leafs generally playing well, and roaming free, signing Polak stands as something of a reward for Babcock’s patience.

    It’s not great, and here’s hoping that Polak doesn’t take meaningful ice time away from better defensemen. There are some discouraging worst-case scenarios where Polak is used as a shutdown guy who really only shuts down the Leafs’ ability to counterpunch.

    Ideally, Polak is used in a limited role and Toronto remains one of the most dazzling, heart-stopping, and successful teams in the NHL. That would make everyone happy (except the Maple Leafs’ opponents).

    James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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