Roberto Luongo

Much like Tim Thomas before him, Roberto Luongo will stay the course despite defeat

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If there’s one trend I’ve noticed when people critique athletes, it’s that writers, fans and “experts” often seem to think that players can drastically change their styles at the professional level.

Sometimes it’s true that players can make small changes that yield significant results, but these are usually incremental improvements. Vancouver Canucks forward Ryan Kesler and goalie Roberto Luongo are solid examples of players who successfully tweaked their games a bit to improve their value in the NHL.

That being said, it’s tough to ask a player who ascended to the professional level that he’s been doing it all wrong. After all, whatever he does helped him to get this far, so you almost run into a “square peg in round hole” situation.

After allowing a regrettable Game 2 overtime goal in part because of his trademark aggressiveness, many people wanted Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas to change his ways. This sort of armchair criticism ignores the fact that more than nine times out of 10, Thomas makes the save. He doesn’t do that because of inherent size (he’s listed at 5-foot-10) or the soundest goaltending style. What makes Thomas so great is the interpretative dancing style of netminding that combines his flailing limbs, outstanding sense of anticipation and – yes – aggressiveness to form a sum that’s greater than his parts.

Luongo plays a very different (and up to Game 3, more efficient) style than Thomas, but they’re both right in ignoring knee-jerk reactions from game to game. Luongo already adjusted his technique by playing deeper in his goalie crease than he had in previous seasons, but that’s likely an alteration made in part because of suggestions from a goalie coach. This just in: most media members and fans would not fit the bill as goalie coaches.

“I’ve been playing well all year. I think it’s worked out pretty well for me,” Luongo said Tuesday, the day after the 8-1 loss. “I made some adjustments before the year started, so I’m not going to readjust again.”

The Bruins lost the first two games 1-0 and 3-2, although Thomas played well. But when Alex Burrows charged ahead in Game 2, Thomas went out to cut down the angle. Burrows skated around him and continued behind the net, then tucked the puck in the far side 11 seconds into overtime.

“I have a pretty good idea of how to play goalie,” Thomas said with a smile after the loss. “I’m not going to be taking suggestions or advice at this time. I’m just going to keep playing the way I have.”

Unwavering confidence – and a lack of “conscience” about goals allowed – is part of what got both goalies here. Sometimes that could backfire a bit, like some might describe Luongo’s insistence on remaining in net for all of Boston’s 8-1 blowout in Game 3. After going behind 5-1, Canucks head coach Alain Vigneault asked Luongo if he wanted to spend the rest of the game on the bench. It probably shouldn’t be that surprising that he said “No.”

“Alain asked me when there was about eight minutes left. I said I wanted to stay in,” Luongo said Tuesday. “If I would have known they would have scored three more times, I might have thought about it.”

The eight-goal barrage on 30 shots increased Luongo’s postseason goals-against average from 2.16 to 2.44 and reduced his save percentage from .928 to .919.

“Even though we were losing, 5-1, it was a pretty intense game and I still wanted to be in there,” he said. “They kept putting the pressure on. We started maybe taking our attention away from our game plan, started worrying about physical aspects of the game, which we shouldn’t be doing at this point.”

Again, this is a match between two elite (and super-confident) goalies. It’s likely that their teams’ performances will make an impact on their own play, but to many, it comes down to Luongo vs. Thomas. Neither party looks to wilt under that spotlight and each will win or lose by the methods that got them here in the first place.

Brian Elliott’s been steady for up-and-down Blues

St. Louis Blues goalie Brian Elliott (1) lunges to make a save against the Nashville Predators during the first period Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Sanford Myers)
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ST. LOUIS (AP) Brian Elliott is on a roll. Too bad the St. Louis Blues have little to show for it.

During a prolonged scoring slump, the veteran goalie’s play has bordered on spectacular. He has seized the opportunity since Jake Allen was sidelined by a knee injury in early January.

The 30-year-old Elliott has allowed one or fewer goals in regulation and overtime in five of his last seven starts, a run that has put him among the NHL’s best with a 2.07 goals-against average and .932 save percentage on the season.

“Fantastic,” captain David Backes said after Elliott’s latest standout effort in a 2-1 shootout loss to Winnipeg on Tuesday. “You can’t complain about our goaltending, that’s for dang sure.”

“Our goalie was our best player again. Played great,” coach Ken Hitchcock said.

The rest of the team is in the doldrums, and the bottom line is the Blues have lost four of six. The Blues have scored no more than one goal in five of their last six.

Hitchcock said the offense didn’t work nearly hard enough to sustain chances against the Jets, then put his players through a rigorous workout the next day to drive home the point. The defense is adjusting to expanded roles without Alex Pietrangelo, who is among the league leaders in minutes played but will be sidelined at least three weeks with a right knee injury.

Elliott describes Pietrangelo as the type of player who “stick handles in a phone booth” to get the puck out of the zone.

“Umm, we have some work to do,” Hitchcock said. “It’s pretty obvious.”

Elliott has thrived with a heavy work load and is set to make his 13th consecutive start on Friday at Florida. Last year, Elliott was an All-Star.

“It’s fun, it’s awesome,” Elliott said. “It’s why you play, to play the game and not to watch.”

Before relieving Allen on Jan. 8 in the second period at Anaheim, Elliott had played just three games in the previous 14. There was no question who was No. 1.

Whenever Allen returns, it’s liable to be more of a job share.

“You try not to think about the past and the future, you just focus on the present,” Elliott said. “I don’t really look at the stats, I just keep trying to be the rock back there for the guys.”

The last week or so, the 25-year-old Allen has been jumping into the latter stages of practices. Hitchcock said there’ll be something to talk about when he’s a full participant.

The team is hoping injecting Jaden Schwartz will help revive the offense. The speedy forward was third on the team with 63 points last season but has played just seven games this season and is coming off a 49-game layoff from a broken left ankle heading into Friday’s game.

“It doesn’t matter how many goals we score, you want to keep as many as you can out of your own net,” Allen said. “Obviously, we haven’t had a good amount of goals the last few games but we’re still coming out with some points.”

Despite the scoring drought, the Blues have kept themselves in the vanguard, picking up at least a point in 12 of the last 15 games. Nine of them have been decided by a single goal.

“Good teams get through tough situations,” Elliott said. “When things start clicking we’re going to be a dangerous team.”

Jackets sign d-man Murray to two-year, $5.65 million extension

Ryan Murray
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Columbus has agreed to terms with young blueliner Ryan Murray on a two-year, $5.65 million extension, the club announced on Thursday.

“Ryan Murray is a talented, smart player who has been a very steady performer on our blue line and we are extremely happy to have this deal completed,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said in a statement. “Ryan has earned more ice time, showed steady improvement and contributed in all situations for us throughout the season.

“We look forward to his continued growth and development with our club.”

Murray, 22, was the second overall pick at the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, taken one spot behind Nail Yakupov. While the first few years of his career were a disappointment — Murray missed a boatload of time to various injuries — his ’15-16 campaign has been a step in the right direction.

Murray has four goals and and 17 points in 55 games this season, sitting third on the team in TOI per game (22:27).

Of those numbers, the 55 games played is perhaps the most important, as it makes Murray one of three Blue Jackets – Boone Jenner and Gregory Campbell are the others – to have played in every game this season.

Considering Murray’s previous career-high for games played in a season is 66, he’s well on his way to breaking that mark.

Originally slated to become a restricted free agent on July 1, Murray is now locked in with Columbus (at $2.825M annually) through 2018. Of all the club’s blueliners, only he, Fedor Tyutin and Jack Johnson are signed for that long.

NHL confirms ’17 Draft for Chicago, an ‘ideal setting’

CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 18:  Owner and Chairman Rocky Wirtz of the Chicago Blackhawks prepares to speak to the crowd during the Chicago Blackhawks Stanley Cup Championship Rally at Soldier Field on June 18, 2015 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Well, it’s official — the NHL Entry Draft is coming to the Windy City for the first time.

On Thursday, the league announced that Chicago and the United Center would play hosts to the 2017 NHL Entry Draft, marking the first time in league history the ‘Hawks organization has hosted the event.

“The energy and passion Chicago has for the Blackhawks makes United Center the ideal setting for the 2017 NHL Draft,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement. “The Draft will be one of the central moments of our Centennial, and the NHL family is looking forward to bringing this signature event to Chicago for the first time.”

Though it’s still far off — heck, the 2016 draft, which will be held in Buffalo this June, hasn’t even happened yet — the ’17 draft already has a few key names attached to it.

Chief among them is WHL Brandon forward Nolan Patrick, the son of ex-NHLer Steve Patrick.

Nolan, 17, scored 56 points in 55 games for the Wheat Kings in his first full campaign, capturing the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy as the WHL’s rookie of the year.

He’s expected to be one of the top players selected in ’17, as is Timothy Liljegren, a defenseman currently plying his trade with Rogle in the Swedish Hockey League.

Leafs and Coyotes headline Craig Button’s list of top NHL-affiliated prospects

TORONTO, ON - JANUARY 2:  William Nylander #21 of Team Sweden is stopped by Ville Husso #30 of Team Finland during a quarter-final game in the 2015 IIHF World Junior Hockey Championship at the Air Canada Centre on January 2, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)
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Maple Leafs and Coyotes featured prominently on Craig Button’s list of the top 50 NHL-affiliated prospects.

Button, the former Calgary GM whose current title is TSN’s Director of Scouting, has two Leafs forwards — William Nylander (1st) and Mitch Marner (6th) — and two Coyotes forwards — Dylan Strome (2nd) and Christian Dvorak (3rd) — in his top six.

Flyers defensive prospect Ivan Provorov is fourth, with Jets forward Kyle Connor fifth.

Click here to read the other 44 youngsters that made the cut.

One of them is Jimmy Vesey (8th), the Harvard scoring sensation the Predators need to sign by August, otherwise he can become a free agent.