Henrik Lundqvist

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Slashing crackdown, infusion of youth boost NHL scoring

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

The nets aren’t bigger, the goaltenders aren’t smaller and yet scoring is up significantly around the NHL.

Through the first two months of the season, goals are up more than 12 percent from the same time a year ago, including a whopping 14 percent increase on the power play and a 38 percent spike in short-handed goals.

”That’s what the league wanted,” San Jose Sharks defenseman Marc Edouard-Vlasic said. ”The league has done everything in their power to make there more goals out there, and that’s exactly what’s going on.”

The uptick can be credited to a concerted crackdown on slashing by issuing more penalties and a league-wide move toward younger and more skilled players. The current pace of 6.01 goals per game would be the highest since 2005-06, when a series of rule changes were put in to open up the game and get more scoring to attract new fans.

”Teams try to go for it more,” said New York Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, whose goals-against average is 2.66, nearly 13 percent higher than it was at this point a year ago. ”Most teams are trying to go for it, have this fast hockey, leave the zone quickly and it opens it up.”

Deputy NHL Commissioner Bill Daly said general managers are pleased with the current pace, which has lasted beyond the typical high-scoring October as defenses settle in for the season. Stricter enforcement of slashing was designed to reduce hand and wrist injuries, though it has had a positive effect on offense with defenders unable to whack at puck carriers’ sticks in an effort to stop them.

”I do think that has created certainly more room for our players to be offensive,” Daly said. ”I think over time, clearly since we increased the standard for hooking and holding and interference (in 2005-06), slashing has become a way to defend and an effective way to defend, and I think this year it’s a less effective way to defend.”

Players have noticed, even if some are frustrated at the varying degrees of what rises to the level of a slashing penalty. Every referee is watching closely.

”The last five years, you could do so much more with your stick and probably now lots of players are afraid to use their sticks,” Los Angeles Kings forward Jussi Jokinen said. ”I think everybody wants to see more goals, so scoring being up, I think it’s good.”

Everyone except maybe the goaltenders may think so, but it’s not like they’ve been terrible. Four goalies who have played at least 20 games have a save percentage of .930 or higher.

”The goaltenders, they haven’t been any better than they are right now and some of them are still getting lit up pretty good,” said Washington Capitals coach Barry Trotz, who has the league’s leading goal-scorer in Alex Ovechkin.

Certainly the emphasis on slashing has helped players such as Ovechkin, Calgary’s Johnny Gaudreau and New York Islanders star John Tavares, who can do wonders with even a few extra inches of space. Columbus Blue Jackets forward Josh Anderson, who scored 10 goals in his first 15 games, said slashing is on everyone’s mind and ”guys are not getting (their sticks) up into the hands as much as they used to.”

Slashing and otherwise, there have been 173 more power plays than last season and teams are converting on 19.7 percent of them. Almost half the league is at or above 20 percent. The massive increase in short-handed goals has a lot to do with aggressive penalty kills stocked with offensive-minded players more likely to score.

”That’s one more thing that the power play has to worry about,” Capitals winger T.J. Oshie said. ”Now they don’t just have to worry about scoring goals. They have to worry about their turnovers, what plays they make, how risky they want to get because there is that chance if it goes the other way and it’s a 2-on-1, it could end up in the back of your net.”

Los Angeles coach John Stevens said teams are in ”attack mode” all the time now, and Trotz estimates that he spends three-quarters of time trying to figure out how to score more.

But risk is also inherent in the NHL getting younger and featuring so many rookie scorers such as Arizona’s Clayton Keller, Chicago’s Alex DeBrincat and Vancouver’s Brock Boeser. The average age of an NHL player is 27 and Daly said the number has dropped over the past several years. He said more scoring is a byproduct as junior hockey and college programs get better at making players NHL-ready sooner.

Team composition has also changed. There are fewer journeyman faceoff specialists and grinders, and more players kept for speed and skill.

”Just the mold of all teams is kind of changing: They’re going for smaller, skilled guys rather than guys who are two-way forwards and stuff like that,” said Kings defenseman Drew Doughty, who is all of 27. ”These young kids have unbelievable skill, too. It’s kind of crazy how much skill. They have things they grew up getting taught how to do those things, which we didn’t have access to when we were kids.”

For all the offense so far, there are those who don’t expect it to keep happening. Goals were up through October last season and the NHL finished averaging 5.54 per game. DeBoer said teams often tighten their systems and structure after Christmas, making it more difficult to score.

”I think it’s still early to say,” Blackhawks winger Richard Panik said. ”The game is going to get tighter. It always does before playoffs.”

Rangers end Penguins winning streak in 4-3 win

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The Pittsburgh Penguins threw everything and then some at the New York Rangers in the dying moments of the third period.

But their efforts, valiant as they were for a Penguins team trying their darndest to push their winning streak to five games, came and went in vain in a 4-3 defeat on Wednesday night.

The Rangers simply stuck around in the game and pounced on their opportunities presented to them.

Pittsburgh appeared to get a favorable break on the night after it was announced Henrik Lundqvist would miss the game because of the flu. That left the Rangers to send out Ondrej Pavelec, the owner of just a single win this season and a save percentage well below .900.

But Pavelec stopped 41-of 43 en route to his second win of the season.

It appeared to be going well early for Pittsburgh, who took a 1-0 lead past not too long after the midway point in the first period, with Conor Sheary ending an eight-game goal-less run with his ninth of the season.

Rangers rookie forward Boo Nieves (one of the best nicknames in the league) scored his first NHL goal to tie the game 1-1.

Phil Kessel would restore the advantage for the Penguins in the second frame, scoring his fifth goal in his past six games to make it 2-1.

The Rangers would lead before the second period ended. Jesper Fast and Mats Zuccarello scored just under five minutes apart to take a 3-2 advantage into the final period.

The Pens tied it up 3-3 through Patric Hornqvist, who wired a wrist shot on a breakaway past Pavelec.

But Pavel Buchnevich would seal it for the Rangers just after the midway point of the period.

Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry lost his first start since taking over for Matt Murray, who suffered a lower-body injury last week.

Jarry had strung together two solid outings, allowing just one goal over both contests prior to Tuesday.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

The Buzzer: Shootouts, apologies and Rangers rolling at MSG

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Players of the Night:

Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: Lundqvist stopped 29 of the Vancouver Canucks’ 32 shots to win his fifth-straight game and 12th of the season. He’s tied for fourth in wins and has won 11 of his past 14 starts.

Jimmy Vesey, New York Rangers: Vesey scored the tying goal in the third period and then scored in the seventh round of the shootout to help give the Rangers a 4-3 win against the Canucks.

Victor Rask, Carolina Hurricanes: Rask ended an eight-game point-less drought with a goal and an assist in a 4-3 shootout win against the Nashville Predators. The Hurricanes snapped the Predators four-game winning streak and are 6-3-1 in their past 10 games.

Highlight of the Night: Hurricanes forward Teuvo Teravainen took the puck to his backhand and popped it up and over a sprawling Juuse Saros for the shootout winner.

MISC:

On this day in 1917, the National Hockey League was founded in Montreal.

• The Anaheim Ducks apologized on Sunday after they posted an “insensitive” video on their Twitter featuring a naked Ryan Kesler.

Justin Williams did his best to keep his praise of Joakim Nordstrom’s blocked shots in overtime G-rated after Sunday’s game. Nordstrom block two bombs off the stick of P.K. Subban seven seconds apart with under 90 seconds remaining

• The Rangers matched the Vegas Golden Knights for the longest home-winning streak this season at eight games.

Ryan Strome scored for the first time in five games to snap the Boston Bruins four-game winning streak in a 4-2 win for the Edmonton Oilers.

David Pastrnak scored his 12th goal of the season for the Bruins, moving him into a tie for sixth in NHL goal-scoring.

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:

Rangers 4, Canucks 3 (SO)
Hurricanes 4, Predators 3 (SO)
Oilers 4, Bruins 2

Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

What fantasy hockey players should be grateful for

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Ah, Thanksgiving. A time when families come together to overeat, try to ignore the more problematic elements of the holiday’s roots, watch lopsided football games, and get into arguments.

Not great, honestly, but kudos to my family specifically for at least adding pierogies to the mix.

With the American version of the holiday upon us (it’s in October in Canada … weird!), it seems wise to share gratitude for the players who are powering our fantasy hockey teams to greatness, or at least to help us avoid total mockery at the water cooler.*

Going for seconds, thirds

So far, 2017-18 has been The Year of The Top Lines. It can be seen mostly blatantly in noting that Steven Stamkos and Nikita Kucherov are battling for the top scoring spot in the NHL, while Brayden Schenn, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Jaden Schwartz are also in the top 10.

Much like the satisfaction of eating homemade sides instead of canned vegetables, the real winners have been the less-obvious members of lines who have been incredible values, and some of whom might deliver for a full season.

Schenn is an obvious example, with his 30 points in 22 games (not to mention 20 PIM and +19 rating) making him a blistering steal. His Yahoo pre-season ranking was 85th, and he likely went lower depending upon your given draft.

Sean Couturier might be the most delirious example so far, though. His yahoo ranking was 262, yet he’s ranked 18th by the same standards, as it’s clear that he’s taken the bull by the horns when it comes to getting an increased offensive role with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek on his wings. Vladislav Namestnikov has been glorious, and it sure seems likely that’ll he remain with Stamkos and Kucherov as long as he’s healthy.

Micheal Ferland might spell his name in a funny way, but you’ll make fun of him less often if he’s on your team and manages to stay with Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan over the long haul.

On that note, there are still some things to sort out. Will Kyle Connor be the guy that gets to play with Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele more often than not? Can the Stars get a consistent third player (aside: we need a third [blank] to go with “second banana”) to dunk in opportunities from Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin, at least with Alex Radulov seemingly not being the right fit?

[Rotoworld: Breaking down the first quarter]

Really, the questions about duos makes you appreciate stable trios that much more, especially if you have one or both of them on your teams. You don’t see reasonable answers to the glorious combo of the Dany Heatley – Jason Spezza – Daniel Alfredsson very often in the salary cap era, after all.

Hopefully most of those top lines can at least maintain some of this ridiculous energy, as the dog days of the season will probably cause at least some regression. Sorry, didn’t mean to ruin the holiday spirit.

Trading goods

I can’t really go too long without thanking GM David Poile and others for spicing up the season with some trades. Don’t scoff at this being mentioned in fantasy, as trades can make the process more exciting *and* create new gems.

[The Rotoworld Hockey Podcast]

In six games with the Nashville Predators, Kyle Turris has five points, but I’m most thankful – and intrigued – to see gains from Kevin Fiala (six points in his past five games) and Craig Smith (six in his past six). Fiala and Smith will probably be more worthy of adds in deeper leagues, but it’s a situation to watch, preferably with popcorn.

Turris could also boost guys like P.K. Subban and Roman Josi in a delightful domino effect, so again, a nod of gratitude to Poile.

Big saves

Quite a few goalies are saving their teams’ bacon (or honey-baked ham, to fit the theme?), with Corey Crawford, John Gibson, and Mike Smith coming to mind, in particular. Imagine where the Anaheim Ducks would be without Gibson?

Also: thanks to Braden Holtby, who’s navigating the Capitals’ struggles to remain the new Henrik Lundqvist as far as reliable fantasy hockey star goalies go.

Avoiding turkeys

Finally, all but one owner in each league can be happy to avoid Brent Burns, an awesome, caveman-looking scoring sensation who’s been on a puzzling scoring slump. Sometimes you have to be lucky to be good, even beyond getting a piece of those red-hot lines.

(And hey, maybe you’ll be thankful when you trade for Burns at a discount rate, only to see him bounce back?)

* – For those who grumble about this being a lame gimmick for a fantasy hockey column, allow me to respond with this hex: I hope your Crazy Uncle shares extra ridiculous, patently offensive theories this time around.

And, if *you* are in the crazy uncle role, I hope that a know-it-all nephew totally schools you, to the point that even like-minded family members are giggling at your stammering responses.

Yeah, that’s right. I went there. Maybe all the gravy is making me edgy.

Enjoy the holiday, hockey fans.

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.

The Buzzer: Bob blanks Rangers; Sabres drop fourth straight

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Player of the Night: Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus Blue Jackets

Bob made 36 saves and recorded his 21st career shutout in helping the Blue Jackets to a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers. The win was the Blue Jackets’ third in a row while New York was blanked for the first time this season.

Highlight of the Night: Bob was on his game:

MISC:

• Despite the loss, Henrik Lundqvist was outstanding for the Rangers in stopping 40 shots.

Artemi Panarin’s power play goal in the third period put the game out of reach:

• New York has dropped two in a row since their six-game winning streak.

Tomas Tatar snapped a 1-1 tie midway through the third period and Dylan Larkin added the insurance tally as the Detroit Red Wings beat the Buffalo Sabres 3-1.

• The Sabres, who have now lost four straight, had their chances, but Jimmy Howard stopped 19 of 20 shots and was thankful for one of his posts:

Factoid of the Night:

Scores:
Columbus 2, New York Rangers 0
Detroit 3, Buffalo 1

————

Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.