ANAHEIM, CA - OCTOBER 28:  Sergei Bobrovsky #72 of the Columbus Blue Jackets in goal during the third period of a 4-0 win over the Anaheim Ducks at Honda Center on October 28, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Getty

Why the Blue Jackets are the NHL’s biggest surprise

9 Comments

Coming off of a season where they finished with the fourth-worst record in the league, expectations were remarkably low for the Columbus Blue Jackets entering this season. Being on the outside of the playoff picture for the third year in a row seemed like a given. Being one of the worst teams in the league again, if not the worst team, seemed like a real possibility.

But entering play on Saturday they have been, by far, the NHL’s biggest surprise with a 13-5-4 record through their first 22 games, putting them in third place in the Metropolitan Division just one point behind the Pittsburgh Penguins, and only three points behind the New York Rangers with multiple games in hand on both teams. It is still the best start in the history of the franchise.

Let’s take a look at what is behind their newfound success.

Sergei Bobrovsky is back

One of the biggest factors in Columbus’ miserable start a year ago was the struggles of starting goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky. A former Vezina Trophy winner, the 2015-16 season was by far Bobrovsky’s worst campaign since arriving in Columbus. So far this season, he is back on track and once again playing like one of the top goalies in the league.

In 20 starts this season he owns a .929 save percentage and has already recorded three shutouts.

At this point last season he was carrying around a .905 save percentage and talking about how he had little confidence in his game.

How much of a difference is that swing in his performance making? A massive one. He has faced an almost identical number of shots through his first 20 starts (562 in 2015-16, 566 this year), but the difference in his performance has shaved 13 goals off of the Blue Jackets’ goals against total. Add 13 goals to that total right now and they go from second in the NHL, all the way down to 15th. That alone has to be worth a couple of wins.

Goaltending is the great equalizer in hockey, and if you have a good one, or one that is simply on an incredible hot streak, it is going to mask a lot of flaws. Likewise, a goaltender that is struggling can make an otherwise good team think it has a lot of problems.

Some young talent is making a big impact

One of the biggest concerns with the construction of the Blue Jackets’ roster entering the season was the amount of money they had tied up in veteran players that were starting to get into their late 20s or early 30s and how little some of them had produced a year ago. Nick Foligno. Scott Hartnell. Brandon Dubinsky. Jack Johnson. Long-term some of those contracts are still a concern (though, Foligno is having a nice bounce back season with 20 points in 22 games), but what is really helping Columbus this season is the number of young players that have stepped into the lineup and are making huge contributions.

Six of the team’s top-10 scorers, including three of the top-five, are age 24 or younger.

Among that group is 19-year-old Zach Werenski who has been a huge addition to the team’s blue line. With 16 points he is the leading scorer in the NHL among rookie defensemen and is one of the best possession drivers on the team.

Up front, Alexander Wennberg, the team’s first-round pick in 2013 (No. 14 overall) is taking a huge step in his development and has seen his production skyrocket across the board while playing alongside Brandon Saad and Foligno.

Even though his minutes have been limited and coach John Tortorella still wants to see more consistency out of him, 22-year-old Josh Anderson already has seven goals on the year.

There is probably a little bit of luck on their side

When trying to figure out if a team is for real or not there are a couple of underlying signs you need to look for.

For example: A team that is getting badly outshot and is winning because of a sky high shooting percentage or save percentage (or both) is probably a team that is getting a lot of good luck and is setting itself up for a big collapse in the future (take, for example, the 2013 Toronto Maple Leafs. Or the 2014 Colorado Avalanche. Or the  2015 Calgary Flames).

And while that is not entirely the case with the Blue Jackets right now, they have been a little on the lucky side so far.

Their shot on goal and shot attempts numbers are decent and have them around the middle of the pack in the league, but there is still probably a regression coming in the future when it comes to their offense which is currently tied for sixth in the league in goals scored.

At the moment they are scoring on nearly 11 percent of their shots, while five individual players are carrying shooting percentages higher than 15 percent. Those are all numbers that are likely to drop as the season goes on. It’s just too hard, both for teams and individuals, to maintain that type of shooting success over the course of an 82 game season. Over the past five years only 11 teams (total) have finished an 82-game season with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent, and none have been over 11. In 2015-16 only 32 individual players (minimum 100 shots) finished the season with a shooting percentage higher than 15 percent. Again, the Blue Jackets right now have five of them. Some of that is going to regress a bit.

But again, they also aren’t the 2013 Maple Leafs or the 2014 Avalanche here when it comes to luck. They are keeping teams to less than 30 shots on goal per game, and while their possession numbers are not great, they are not exactly overly concerning, either. They are probably not playing that far over their heads at the moment.

As long as Bobrovsky stays healthy and keeps playing like the goalie he’s been for most of the past five years (the 2015-16 season excluded) they are going to have a shot to hang around in this thing.

Flames’ Bennett, Tkachuk accused of slew-footing in loss to Leafs

Leave a comment

The Calgary Flames dropped an ugly 4-0 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday, not exactly rebounding from an embarrassing 7-3 defeat at the hands of the Edmonton Oilers.

Things were ugly in a different way toward the end, especially if you ask Maple Leafs fans, as Sam Bennett and Matthew Tkachuk may or may not be guilty of “slew-footing” late in the contest. In each case, they were whistled for roughing.

Bennett was guilty of the first incident on Connor Carrick:

Meanwhile, around the time of the final whistle, Tkachuk’s “roughing” of Martin Marincin drew quite a bit of ire. You can see for yourself in the video above the post’s headline.

More than a few people believe that Tkachuk will be on the Department of Player Safety’s radar thanks to this moment.

There’s no doubt that he’s been making waves as a pest – really, from his first game in the NHL – but some believe he went over the line this time. He’s second in the NHL with 92 penalty minutes, by the way.

Patrick Marleau’s magical third period secures Sharks win vs. Avalanche

Leave a comment

At 37 years old and nearing 500 career goals, there aren’t a ton of things Patrick Marleau has failed to accomplish.* Still, he did something he’s never done – and few players have managed to do – in the San Jose Sharks’ 5-2 win against the Colorado Avalanche on Monday night.

The amusing thing is that it was a mundane night for Marleau and the Sharks heading into the third period.

They carried a 2-1 lead against the Avs before Marleau’s magical period really kicked into gear. In less than eight minutes of game time, Marleau managed an out-of-left-field natural hat trick:

He didn’t stop there, either, as he also hit the four-goal mark for the first time in his career … and again, it was in the same period.

That’s his first four-goal game (and period, naturally). It’s been a long, long time since someone enjoyed a period like Marleau did:

Speaking of history, this massive night indeed places Marleau close to another impressive feat. He’s now at 497 career goals, three away from the elusive 500 mark.

To underscore how unexpected this outburst was, consider this: Marleau generated zero goals and one assist in his previous seven games.

As the Sharks enjoy an era fueled by the ascent of Brent Burns and the passing of the torch from the likes of Marleau and Joe Thornton to a group including Logan Couture and Martin Jones, it seems fitting that Marleau – a player receding from the team’s spotlight – totally stole the spotlight on Monday.

The Sharks probably won’t complain, either. He helped them seal their fifth consecutive win, putting San Jose in a strong position to regain the lead in the Pacific Division.

Pretty good stuff from a guy who rapidly faded from relevance after being stripped of the Sharks captaincy.

* – How dare you make Stanley Cup jokes on a happy occasion for Sharks fans?

Capitals assert their dominance once again, this time clobbering Hurricanes

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 03: Dmitry Orlov #9 of the Washington Capitals celebrates with teammates after assisting Justin Williams #14 on a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period at Verizon Center on January 3, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Getty
4 Comments

The Washington Capitals lead the league in standings points … and maybe in swagger. At least, it feels that way lately.

Monday presented their latest display of power as the Carolina Hurricanes had no answer for the Capitals machine. Washington clobbered Carolina by a score of 6-1, but at least the Hurricanes can take comfort in joining a rather large group of teams who’ve been humbled by Braden Holtby & Co.

This makes the Capitals 11-0-1 during a dominant run; they’ve scored at least a point in all but one game since Dec. 21.

Honestly, you can dice up their hot streak in a variety of ways, as Washington’s been outstanding since at least early December. Margin of victory might be the most jaw-dropping way to illustrate Washington’s dominant run:

Yep, that’s something else.

Dmitry Orlov was one of the standouts of this latest win, scoring two goals. His strong night and flashes of brilliance prompted Alex Ovechkin to … maybe go a little over the top.

Hey, when you’re on fire like the Capitals have been lately, it’s probably tough to make some pretty bold comparisons.

Things might be turning around for Lundqvist (not so much for the Kings)

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 13:  Marian Gaborik #12 of the Los Angeles Kings shakes hands with Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers after the Kings 3-2 double-overtime victory during Game Five of the 2014 Stanley Cup Final at Staples Center on June 13, 2014 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Getty
3 Comments

As you likely know, the 2017 NHL All-Star Game is coming to Los Angeles this weekend. If the Kings don’t get it together, that might be the biggest hockey event for some time, as they’re currently on the outside looking in at the playoffs.

Monday presented what felt like a story of one cold streak continuing to fade away while the other only seems to get icier.

The positive side: Henrik Lundqvist might just be working through that slump.

The New York Rangers beat the Los Angeles Kings 3-2 on Monday, and it wasn’t a walk in the park for Lundqvist. He made 36 out of 38 stops, giving him a personal three-game winning streak in which he’s allowed just four total goals.

Some of those stops were pretty impressive, too:

(He also shut down a Jeff Carter breakaway, which is obviously no easy task.)

While Lundqvist is getting it together, the Kings might just be a little worried after dropping their fourth straight loss.

They’re at 48 points in 47 games, leaving them three points behind the West’s two wild card teams and two behind the Canucks.

The Kings have experience fighting through challenges like these, but they’ve also fallen short of getting into the West’s top eight, and their schedule is awfully road-heavy:

Tuesday: at Devils
Thursday: at Hurricanes
Tuesday, Jan. 31: at Coyotes
Wednesday, Feb. 1: vs. Avalanche
Saturday, Feb. 4: at Flyers
Sunday, Feb. 5: at Capitals
Tuesday, Feb. 7: at Lightning
Thursday, Feb. 9: at Panthers

Some of those opponents are struggling and the All-Star break might allow for a breather, but that could still be a problematic stretch, especially if the Kings are in a fragile state.

Then again, if they look at Lundqvist’s upward trend, they can note that fortunes can change pretty quickly in 2016-17.