Hockey Day in America: Observations from the Lone Star State

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Today is Hockey Day in America, an all-day celebration of the sport throughout the United States. NBC will air nine hours of live coverage across its networks; here at PHT, we’re taking a look at stories of hockey’s impact across the country.

As a transplant from the Northeast, I’ve spent 15 years in the Dallas area as a curious observer rather than a hardcore Stars fan.

I didn’t live or die with every win, loss and foot in the crease. Still, I remember many of the highlights (and low moments, like Ed Belfour leaving a hotel in handcuffs and a FUBU sweater).

Perhaps that distance provides a nuanced view of the team, which I’ll try to summarize in this post.

Early riches

It’s difficult for me to shake the parallels between the Colorado Avalanche and the Stars. Both teams moved from hockey hotbeds to somewhat unexpected locales — the Stars moved from Minnesota in 1993-94; the Avs moved from Quebec City in 1995-96 — and each city inherited huge names and experienced quick success.

And, to some extent, that probably made both markets look a little too strong right out of the gate. In a way, they’re both going through the awkward community-building and transitional stages* they initially leapfrogged because they had great teams without the wait.

But even armed with a strong team, the Stars front office still had to appeal to a “non-traditional” market. The Dallas Morning News’ Mike Heika was most impressed by a charity pick-up game that former coach Ken Hitchcock concocted:

“ … The Charity Challenge on Ice was eventually played at Reunion Arena to more than 10,000 fans with Daryl Reaugh acting as a coach on one bench dressed as Herb Brooks,” Heika wrote in an e-mail. “For a few years in Dallas, the coolest thing you could be was a Stars fan. Then, the team started losing and slipped into bankruptcy, and management decided there would be no promotion and no freebies. That resulted in several crowds under 8,000 people last season.

“Basically, the organization didn’t care about the fans, so the fans stopped caring about the organization. In November 2011, Tom Gaglardi bought the team, and put Lites back in charge, and they are trying to use the old model to fill the building again.

“We’ll see if there is another wild card like Hitchcock out there to push them over the top.”

(Reaugh as Brooks? Yeah, that’s pretty cool.)

Winning and Fun

Ultimately, as Heika notes, Dallas is “a winners town” so a playoff berth – and ideally, a deep run – is what will get people coming in higher numbers.

In the meantime, the Stars would be wise to follow other teams when it comes to marketing their team with humor. Personally, I’d love to see them employ the lighthearted approach of the Brett Hull “Ambassador of Fun” ads … even if that era isn’t really associated with on-ice success:

That being said, running family-friendly and dirt-cheap ticket promotions is important, too.

The Future

Overall, the Stars are a work in progress with a much-needed new owner. Forwards Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson (plus some solid young blueliners and a great-if-fragile goalie) represent the future while Jaromir Jagr and Brenden Morrow are a bridge to the past.

The franchise needs to keep building, but it’s uncertain if it will enjoy the amazing luck of its early golden era.

* – According to ESPN’s attendance numbers, the Stars went from being ranked 12th among NHL teams in attendance in 2007 to 28th last season.

Expansion Golden Knights are officially in first place (Update)

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Just like we all predicted in September, the Vegas Golden Knights are sitting in first place in the NHL.

The Golden Knights’ 5-1 win over the Carolina Hurricanes allowed them to collect their 65th and 66th points of the season, which moved them one point ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning for top spot in the league (both teams have played 46 games).

PHT’s Adam Gretz wrote a terrific piece about Golden Knights’ amazing first season to date.

It’s only fitting that Vegas got a good amount of production from some of their most pleasant surprises tonight. Jonathan Marchessault, Colin Miller and James Neal also found the back of the net.

As you’d expect, the Golden Knights’ Twitter account is having fun marking this occasion.

“Maybe a little unexpected, right?,” Marc-Andre Fleury said of his team’s success, per NHL.com. “It’s been a lot of fun. We started this team from scratch and chemistry was built very quick between us. Every night, all the guys bring their best effort. I’m proud of our team to be where we’re at right now.”

We’ve had over three months to come to grips with everything the Golden Knights have done, but it’s still amazing to see how some of the players on their roster have produced during Vegas’ inaugural season.

 

43 points in 43 games for Marchessault? 25 goals at the midway point of the season for William Karlsson? Nobody saw those things coming. What makes this even more impressive is that they’ve had to roll four goalies (Fleury, Oscar Dansk, Malcolm Subban and Maxime Lagace).

“Early on in the year, I think we surprised some teams. Now I think every team will get up to play us. It’s just something that will be another test for this group,” Miller told NHL.com.

Now the question is, how far can this pesky expansion team go?

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Struggling Lightning lose Ondrej Palat for indefinite period of time

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The Tampa Bay Lightning have been going through a difficult stretch lately and things got a lot more difficult on Sunday. The team announced that Ondrej Palat is out indefinitely after taking a spear from Wild defenseman Jared Spurgeon on Saturday night.

The Bolts, who are on an eight-game road trip, have confirmed that Palat will head back to Tampa on Monday for further testing. He’s accumulated eight goals and 30 points in 46 games this season.

Although the video isn’t the clearest, this is the play that led to the injury:

The injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, as the Lightning have been slumping badly of late. They’ve dropped three games in a row to Calgary, Vegas and Minnesota.

Their once giant lead atop the Atlantic Division has dwindled to three points over the Boston Bruins, who have a game in hand.

“We’re just out of synch, it’s unreal,” head coach Jon Cooper said, per The Tampa Times. “The guys didn’t forget how to play hockey in the last week and a half. We’re just out of synch. One guy zigs, the other guy zags. It’s crazy that in the last week and a half, we kind of lost our swag.”

The Bolts will continue their road trip in Chicago, Nashville and Philadelphia before the All-Star break. On top of their difficult schedule, they’ll also be without number one defenseman Victor Hedman for the next few weeks.

Their spot in the playoffs isn’t in any danger, but the number one seed in the league (Vegas is coming in a hurry) and top spot in the division is in doubt.

Joey Alfieri is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @joeyalfieri.

Konecny’s OT goal lifts Flyers to another win, puts them back in playoff spot

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The Philadelphia Flyers are on some kind of a roll, and now they are back in a playoff position.

They were 2-1 winners in Washington on Sunday afternoon thanks to an overtime goal from Travis Konecny, giving the Flyers their seventh win in their past eight games.

Sunday’s win helped the Flyers jump over the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers for a wild card spot in the Eastern Conference, while also bringing them to within a single point of the Columbus Blue Jackets for third place in the Metropolitan Division and just two points of the New Jersey Devils for second place.

Considering that this is a team that lost 10 games in a row between Nov. 11 and Dec. 2 it is a pretty remarkable turnaround.

Since that losing streak came to an end the Flyers are 15-5-1.

The driving force behind the turnaround has been the trio of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and Sean Couturier. Those three were relatively quiet from an offensive perspective on Sunday (Couturier did get an assist on Konecny’s winner) but the Flyers were still able to come away with the win.

The big difference maker on Sunday was goaltender Brian Elliott thanks to his 27 stops. He was at his best in the first period when he made a handful of stellar stops on Alex Ovechkin, including this point-blank stop when the game was still scoreless.

Elliott was in need of a game like this because he had not played well over the past few weeks, giving up at least three goals in each of his past seven appearances. Only once during that stretch did he record a save percentage higher than .900 in a single game, and even that game was only .903.

Ovechkin did end up scoring his league-leading 29th goal in the second period, scoring on a power the play, but it was the only shot the Capitals would get behind Elliott.

Michael Raffl also scored for the Flyers in the win.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

The Golden Knights keep getting better, more powerful

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Here is a sentence that would have been laughable to even suggest back in October: If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Carolina Hurricanes on Sunday night they will move into sole possession for first place in the entire NHL.

At this point the Golden Knights, the NHL’s latest expansion team, are no longer just a fun story: They are a contender, a legitimate one, and they only keep getting stronger as the season progresses. There is a pretty convincing argument to be made that they actually are the best team in hockey at the moment.

Entering play on Sunday Vegas is on a 15-3-3 run since Dec. 1.

What is even more impressive than the record itself is the way they are starting to dominate games.

When Vegas found its initial success it was easy to kind of downplay it as a team that was simply riding a wave of hot goaltending that would, inevitably, regress. Whenever that regression happened the expectation was that they would start to play like a regular expansion team and start losing.

For a while, there was a lot of evidence to suggest that was going to be the case.

In that first month Vegas was losing the shot bottle, it was losing the possession battle, and with Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined it was relying on a patchwork group of goaltenders to somehow steal games.

But take a look at what has happened in each month since looking at their Corsi percentage (shot attempts at even-strength) and PDO (even-strength shooting percentage plus even-strength save percentage).

The slow start is understandable. It was a new team with what was thought to be an undermanned roster that had never played together.  Since then they have steadily gone from being one of the worst possession teams in the league in the first month that got by on what was mostly percentage driven good fortune, to a team that has been, at least in January, the absolute best possession team in the league.

If you look at December and January together (the aforementioned 15-3-3 stretch) the Golden Knights are the the seventh-best possession team. They have only been outshot five times in those 21 games, and only three of those teams outshot them by more than five.

[Related: Revisiting the trades that built one of the NHL’s best lines in Vegas]

By comparison, Vegas has outshot nine teams by at least five, including seven by at least 10 shots during that same stretch.

There is still an element of some percentage driven luck here, especially when it comes to the goaltending. Fleury is not going to maintain a .945 save percentage for the rest of the season, and William Karlsson still can not miss when the puck is on his stick. He may have deserved more of a look in his previous stops in Anaheim and Columbus, but he is also not a 26 percent shooter every season.

But the fact the Golden Knights are starting to drive possession and control the overwhelming majority of the shot attempts is not only incredibly impressive, it is extremely encouraging for their outlook for the remainder of the season.

They are not just getting the results at the moment, the process driving the results is sound as well.

From the very beginning absolutely everything has clicked for them. The goaltending has been sensational, their top line of Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson, and Reilly Smith has found immediate chemistry, and they are playing a fast, aggressive style of hockey that is starting to overwhelm teams.

Even if Vegas played the remainder of the season at the level of a normal expansion team (let’s say a .400 points percentage) they would still finish with 94 points on the season. There is nothing to suggest they will play at that level. Instead, if they keep playing the way they have been for the better part of the past two months they are going to be giving Tampa Bay, Boston, and Nashville a run for the Presidents’ Trophy. In their very first season.

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz