Jason Brough

AP

Gretzky credits more athletic goalies for making it so darn hard to score

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LOS ANGELES — In 1981-82, when Wayne Gretzky scored an NHL-record 92 goals, the Vezina Trophy went to Islanders legend Billy Smith.

Smith, a fiery competitor who Gretzky knew all too well, was listed at 5-foot-10, and that was about average height for a goalie in those days. A few, like Mike Liut, were tallish. But many others, like 5-foot-7 Richard Brodeur, whom a teammate once described as “this fat little guy,” were downright short.

In today’s NHL, 5-foot-10 is about the bare minimum for a goalie. Any shorter and he’d better be some sort of spectacular to even get a chance to play in the league.

And today’s goalies, according to Gretzky, are the biggest reason it’s so hard to score now. Most of them are over six feet, and many, like Ben Bishop and Devan Dubnyk, are well over six feet.

“It used to be, and I say this in a nice way, the chubby guy was the goaltender because he couldn’t skate,” said Gretzky, “and now the goalies are the best athletes on each team. It’s harder to score. It’s really difficult. That’s the way it is right now.”

Indeed, it’s not just the height of modern-day goalies. It also that they’re more athletic than ever, and their techniques have evolved to the point that many of the goals Gretzky used to score would be routine stops.

The nets, meanwhile, are the same size today as they were when The Great One was piling up scoring records and his Oilers were averaging over five goals per game.

And there’s shot-blocking today. Lots of shot-blocking.

And everyone back-checks.

“The game has changed. Obviously it’s more defensive now,” said Gretzky, who spoke to reporters alongside Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr ahead of tonight’s NHL100 event at Microsoft Theater.

But for the record, Gretzky wouldn’t concede that everything was easier for scorers back in his day.

“They get more power plays now,” he said with a smile. “We used to get one five-on-three every 10 weeks, now we get three a game. That’s pretty nice. And three-on-three in overtime, I like that, too. The three of us would have been pretty good in three-on-three.”

Comparing the eras

1981-82: Billy Smith won the Vezina with a save percentage of .906
2015-16: Braden Holtby won the Vezina with a save percentage of .922

1981-82: 10 players scored 50 or more goals, led by Gretzky’s 92
2015-16: One player scored 50 goals, Alex Ovechkin

Coyotes head into All-Star break on three-game win streak

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Their chances of making the playoffs are basically nil, but the Arizona Coyotes are feeling a lot better about themselves after going into the All-Star break on a three-game win streak.

The Coyotes put together a defensive masterpiece Thursday in a 3-0 win over Vancouver. Forget about surrendering a goal, the Canucks didn’t even get their first shot until the ninth minute of the second period.

“You look at our young players, and they’re starting to play like good NHL players,” head coach Dave Tippett told the Arizona Republic. “When you get that, your team looks like a better team.”

It wasn’t that long ago that veteran neminder Mike Smith tore into the Coyotes after a lackluster loss in Edmonton.

And now?

“We definitely have played better as of late and it’s definitely calmed the workload down for me significantly,” Smith told reporters Thursday. “That just shows the good things we’ve done in front of me and the work we’ve put in to get better.”

Lawson Crouse, 19, got the winner against the Canucks. He’s racked up seven shots in the last three games.

Alexander Burmistrov, 25, tallied the insurance marker. He now has six points (1G, 5A) in six games since being claimed off waivers from the Winnipeg Jets.

Tobias Rieder, 25, and Christian Fischier, 19, have also been finding the back of the net.

 

It’s a good thing the youngsters are starting to find their way, because the Coyotes could soon be unloading some veterans. Shane Doan, Martin Hanzal, and Radim Vrbata are all pending unrestricted free agents who could be sold as rentals before March 1.

 

Pre-game reading: Remembering Rick Rypien on #BellLetsTalk day

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— Up top, actor Jon Hamm will host the NHL100 Friday in Los Angeles, part of the All-Star Game festivities. Hamm is from St. Louis and is a long-suffering fan of the Blues, a franchise that’s come “tantalizingly close” a few times but has yet to win a Stanley Cup.

— It’s “Bell Let’s Talk” day today, an effort to raise awareness about mental health. It’s a hard day in many ways, because we remember people like Rick Rypien, the former Vancouver Canuck who took his own life due to depression. The Winnipeg Free Press told Rypien’s story in 2011, shortly after his death, and it’s worth a read. (Winnipeg Free Press)

— Former NHL goalie Clint Malarchuk has been open about his battles with mental illness. He even released a book in 2014 called The Crazy Game: How I Survived in the Crease and Beyond. But as forthcoming as he is now, he still remembers when he used to keep everything to himself. “I’ve had so many former players reach out to me and say, ‘Clint, I had no idea. What could I have done?’ They felt terrible because I was their teammate and they weren’t there to help me, but they didn’t know. I hid it. I hid it from everybody. I lived in silence.” (Regina Leader-Post)

— The Boston Bruins have the highest score-adjusted Corsi in the NHL. Usually, that goes hand-in-hand with winning. So why don’t the Bruins have a great record? In large part, because of this: “The Bruins currently rank dead last in shooting percentage, scoring on an anemic 7.1 percent of the shots they take.” (FiveThirtyEight)

— Elliotte Friedman published his latest “30 Thoughts” yesterday, and it included this thought: “Calgary’s Brad Treliving is the only NHL GM without a contract into next season. He won’t discuss it, and neither will the organization. One exec (from elsewhere) noted that the Flames are comfortable with the way they approach this and don’t consider it to be “ominous.” I suspect it’s because they’ve decided to fire coaches and don’t want too many extra salaries on the books. That’s fine, but in the NHL world, it’s weird. Before the season, Columbus gave two-year extensions to its management team, not wanting them going into this season on the ends of their deals. In Vancouver, it’s led to constant job speculation with Willie Desjardins. In St. Louis, there’s some question how it’s affected the Blues’ struggles because players know Ken Hitchcock is to be replaced by Mike Yeo.” (Sportsnet)

— On Rangers rookie Pavel Buchnevich, who’s still learning the language after half a season in North America. Said teammate Jimmy Vesey: “He’s a funny kid, and his broken English makes him even funnier. But he’s done really well. I couldn’t imagine being in his position with not much English, and he’s settled in nice.” (New York Times)

Enjoy the games!

After big win, Weight calls Isles a ‘confident team that has something to prove’

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The New York Islanders, with a new coach, are suddenly back in the playoff race.

The Isles beat the Blue Jackets, 4-2, last night in Brooklyn. They’re now 3-0-1 under interim bench boss Doug Weight. And don’t forget, they won their last game with Jack Capuano in charge, a 4-0 victory in Boston on Jan. 16.

“We looked like a confident team that has something to prove and somewhere to go,” Weight said last night, per Newsday. “Top to bottom, one of our best efforts of the year.”

With their surge, the Isles (20-17-9) have moved to within four points of Toronto for the second wild-card spot in the East. That’s still a significant gap to close, but their chances of making the playoffs have risen to almost 30 percent, according to Sports Club Stats.

Less than two weeks ago, their chances were pegged at just 3 percent.

The biggest key has been goaltending. Thomas Greiss has a .960 save percentage in his last four starts, and Jean-Francois Berube won a game himself, stopping 34 of 36 shots in a 4-2 win over the Kings on Saturday.

But it’s not just one thing that’s made the difference. The Isles are also getting more goals from more forwards, and the defensemen are playing their part as well.

“Our D did a great job for us (against Columbus),” said forward Josh Bailey. “They were in and out of our zone quick.”

Looking ahead, the Isles play once more before the All-Star break: Thursday at home to Montreal.

Once the break is over, another good team pays a visit: the Washington Capitals on Jan. 31.

Looking even further ahead, the Isles have a very road-heavy schedule for the rest of the season. They only have 14 home games left, with 22 away. That includes a whopping nine-game stretch of road games from Feb. 21 to March 11.

So it’s going to be tough.

But we’ve seen a couple of teams make big second-half runs in the last few years. The Flyers did it in 2014, the Senators in 2015.

Now the Islanders will try to pull off a similar feat.

Canucks can move into playoff spot with win over lowly Avs

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The Vancouver Canucks have a prime opportunity to pick up four points and head into the All-Star break in a playoff spot.

Tonight, the Canucks are in Denver to take on the NHL’s worst team. Tomorrow, they’re in Glendale to play the NHL’s second-worst team.

Talk about an easy back-to-back, right?

Not so fast.

The Avalanche and Coyotes may see a prime opportunity themselves. Vancouver has just five wins away from home this season. In fact, the Canucks’ 5-14-3 road record is the worst in the league. Only a 17-6-3 mark at Rogers Arena has kept them in the race.

The last time the Canucks won a road game was Dec. 31 in Edmonton. Sunday in Chicago, they had a chance to at least get to overtime, but after battling back from a 2-0 deficit, a late letdown cost them and they fell, 4-2, in regulation.

“It’s really a kick in the teeth to come all the way back and lose on a fairly fluky kind of play,” goalie Ryan Miller told reporters. “We got ourselves back in the game in the second and I think we carried it into the third. Just really disappointed to not get a point at least out of here, especially with that effort.”

With a win tonight, the Canucks would leapfrog idle Los Angeles and Calgary into the second wild-card spot. All three teams play road games tomorrow before the break. The Kings are in Carolina, the Flames are in Ottawa, and, as mentioned, the Canucks are in Arizona.

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