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Changing face (and pace) of NHL underdogs

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Sports fans love underdogs, yet for far too long in the NHL, defying the odds meant slowing hockey down to an agonizingly boring level.

As surreal as it was to see the 2010 Canadiens shock the Capitals and Penguins thanks to an out-of-body experience by Jaroslav Halak, you wonder if upsets like those sent the wrong message: just turtle and hope your goalie can save the day. Such tactics made fans of the sport as a whole shudder back to the Devils trapping the Red Wings into oblivion during the 1995 Stanley Cup Final, and probably long before that. Maybe a team could steal wins with such tactics, but viewers became the biggest losers.

We’re still very much in the “don’t get fooled by early results” portion of the 2018-19 season, yet I can’t help but wonder: are NHL underdogs becoming … fun?

Pushing the pace instead of lagging behind

Amusingly enough, the current rendition of the Montreal Canadiens could be the latest example of a team realizing that they’re not particularly imposing on paper, shrugging their shoulders, and throwing caution to the wind.

The Habs are off to a 3-1-1 start, and while gravity will almost certainly pull them down a bit, they haven’t been riding good luck alone.

So far, they’re firing a hail of pucks on opponents, averaging 36 shots on goal per contest while giving up just 26.6 against. Even the NHL’s elite teams don’t tend to generate such a massive differential of scoring chances over the long haul of an 82-game season, but the point is clear: through five games, this Canadiens team has been relentless.

[How the Habs could exceed expectations this season]

That stretch included an overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, plus two impressive wins against the Penguins. In the past – and in past editions of the Habs – they probably would’ve merely tried to slow down those seemingly mighty teams.

Dice up the numbers in any variety of ways (high-danger chances, shots, scoring chances), and it’s clear that the Canadiens have been very aggressive to begin the season. It makes earlier comments from Claude Julien seem like more than just boilerplate material about playing with more speed.

“We’re trying not to get painted on the wall and stopped,” Julien said in late September, via Sportsnet’s Eric Engels. “I think we’re in movement a lot more this year and our transition game is better because of that. We talked about our speed and we just want to use our speed more. When you have to stop and take off again, it takes away from that speed. So it’s not about going in circles; it’s about making sure that you’re in movement all the time so that when you do get the puck you’ve already got some of that speed.”

Julien added that “with good transition and quick play you’re able to catch teams off balance,” and in all honesty, the Canadiens caught me off balance, too. It’s fascinating to see this Montreal squad shake off an ugly season and summer to just play, and this could be the latest example of what we should all hope is a larger trend of teams pushing the pace even during perceived rebuilds.

Young legs

Now, again, we aren’t even in November. The Canadiens are certain to cool off, with the main question being how much they slow down.

Early on, they’ve been embracing a youth movement. One thing that sticks out is how their defense is playing a more modern style.

While Shea Weber continues his murky knee injury rehab, slow-footed, expensive defenseman Karl Alzner hasn’t managed to suit up for Montreal yet this season. Instead, the defensive minutes are going to Mike Reilly, Jeff Petry (as usual), and Noah Juulsen. While Petry is 30, Reilly is 25 and Juulsen is 21.

There will be growing pains with such an alignment, and the Canadiens probably can’t manufacture too many wins with Antti Niemi in net instead of Carey Price. There’s also the very real threat of slipping into old, slow, habits once older, slower players return to the mix.

Still, it means a lot that this team is at least bringing energy and enthusiasm to the rink. Other fledgling teams should take note: let your young players play, and let them make mistakes. More often than not, the pros outweigh the cons when you allow skilled athletes to take chances. Really, wouldn’t it be better to lose and be entertaining than to lose and put your fans into a sad slumber?

Excusing mistakes and growing pains hasn’t always been Julien’s calling card, but by going younger on defense and embracing fresh faces like rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi, this Canadiens team has been far more exciting than expected.

“I just never knew where I stood; it was one mistake, you’re coming out of the game,” Reilly said, via The Athletic’s Arpon Basu (sub required). “That’s kind of the way it was, it was one mistake and no trust. So it feels good that you can kind of come in here – obviously you’re going to be held accountable – but if you make one little mistake you’ve got to move on. That’s what I like about this.”

[More on the burst Montreal receives from Kotkaniemi]

To some extent, the Ottawa Senators have also been more refreshing than expected, with Chris Tierney, Brady Tkachuk, and Thomas Chabot powering a respectable start. Their numbers indicate that there’s been more smoke and mirrors involved than with Montreal (again, the Habs have been dictating play).

The point that hopefully gets across to NHL teams – particularly coaches and GMs – is that you don’t need to bog down the game to try to save face, even if your team enters a season looking weak on paper.

Embracing the reality of a faster NHL

Refreshingly, there are examples with larger sample sizes.

The Colorado Avalanche essentially paralleled the Senators and Habs expectations entering 2017-18, only to make the playoffs and occasionally give the Predators fits with their speed and aggressiveness. The New Jersey Devils also carried low expectations into last season. Instead of, well, playing like most people expect the Devils to play, they went for a run-and-gun style that fit their roster and camouflaged a shaky defense. Both experiments were brilliant successes, and each team is off to promising starts in 2018-19.

Amusingly, this emphasis on skill and speed – or even “outscoring your problems” – could possibly be traced back to the repeat champion Penguins, who haven’t ranked as underdogs in ages.

The Penguins and other teams are forging a more lightning-fast NHL, so other teams must decide if they want to adapt or be left behind. Underdogs like the Canadiens aren’t likely to keep pace over the marathon of an 82-game season, but it’s more fun (and probably more effective) to see them race along rather than making like the tortoises of old.

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.

Sabres storm back to extend Penguins’ early season misery

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PITTSBURGH — These aren’t the Buffalo Sabres you have come to know over the past seven years.

These also are not the Pittsburgh Penguins you have come to know, either.

The two teams continued on their early season paths — which are going in completely opposite directions — on Monday night as the Sabres stormed back and erased a three-goal second period deficit to pick up a 5-4 overtime win on a Jack Eichel goal, leaving the Penguins stunned and still searching for answers.

For the Sabres, it continues what has been the team’s best start in close to a decade, extending their current winning streak to six games and giving them a 10-2-2 record in their past 14 games. Everything is clicking for them right now, from new acquisitions like Jeff Skinner stepping in and making a massive impact on the top line, to new starting goalie Carter Hutton giving the team capable goaltending every night.

[Related: The Sabres are good]

Hutton did not have a spectacular game on Monday overall, but he still made some huge saves early in the game to keep his team in it. He also played a huge factor on the penalty kill to help kill off a two-man advantage in the second period when the team was already trailing by three goals.

Once they killed off that penalty, Zach Bogosian scored to cut the deficit in half.

From that point on the Sabres completely took over the game and absolutely manhandled the Penguins in their own zone for the final 25 minutes.

“I think obviously there is that desperation in our game there in the third,” said Eichel. “We’ve been in that spot before. We’ve been a resilient bunch. There is that belief in the room every time we go out there we can make a push and find a way to get a point or two. We definitely want to work on our starts, but it’s great to see the way the team sticks together. It’s a credit to all the guys in the room to stick with it even when things don’t go our way.”

“There is a bit of confidence now because we’ve done it a few times,” Eichel continued. “I think it’s a trust and a belief in each other that the next guy is going to get the job done and set you up for your next shift. We’re a pretty tight bunch for how many new guys have come into this team and we’re doing it for each other. Everyone goes out there and doesn’t want to let the guy next to you down.”

While things are going wonderfully for the Sabres right now things for the Penguins are … well …  bad.

How bad? Look at it this way: They are left trying to find silver linings after their past two games. Those games — a 6-4 loss in Ottawa where they mounted a late — and ultimately futile — third period rally, and an overtime loss to Buffalo on home ice in which they had a 4-1 lead (while getting a 29-second two-man advantage) with 15 minutes to play in the second period.

For a team that was winning Stanley Cups just a couple of years ago and entered the season with a roster it thought was capable of winning another one, that is an astonishing and sudden slide.

Coach Mike Sullivan is trying to remain positive.

“On a couple of the goals they score, we make a couple of mistakes and they end up in the back of our net,” said Sullivan.  “Just seems like the way it is going right now. There was a lot to like about our game and our effort. We certainly have to clean up some areas defensively but there was certainly a lot to like in this game as well.

There definitely was a lot to like about the first 25 minutes, especially when it came to the team finding some even-strength scoring from players they need to get it from.

Derick Brassard, who has battled injuries and inconsistent play since arriving before last season’s trade deadline, opened the scoring with a much-needed goal, while recent acquisition Tanner Pearson scored a goal and recorded an assist. Those two points exceeded his total for the season between the Kings and Penguins entering the game.

From there, everything went south.

Defensive breakdowns, an inability to smoothly and efficiently exit the zone, no sustained offensive zone pressure, and more sub-par goaltending (this time from Casey DeSmith) turned what looked to be a much-needed win into yet another loss.

That is now nine losses in their past 10 games as the Penguins are tied with the New Jersey Devils for the lowest point total in the Eastern Conference.

Sullivan was asked if it is too early for things to be getting “desperate.”

[Related: NHL’s most impactful offseason additions]

“I don’t think it’s ever too early,”said Sullivan. “Every game is important, every point is important, and we’re scratching and clawing through it anyway we can. We are well aware of the position we are in. None of us are happy about it. We have a proud group. I do think we are getting better in a lot of areas. We’re not getting the results. We very well could have in a number of games, tonight being one of them. We have to clean up some areas I know we are capable of being better, we have to make sure we do not get down ourselves, and we keep the right attitude and the right energy around the rink so we can pull together.”

How they are able to start getting the results and how they can pull it together still seems like a mystery, but they better start figuring it out.

Captain Sidney Crosby is getting closer to a return, but there is only so much he can do. He also does not fix the issues on the blue line, in the goal crease, or in the bottom-six (though his return does push Brassard back down to the third-line role he was acquired to play in).

With Monday’s loss they now find themselves five points behind the Washington Capitals for the third playoff spot in the Metropolitan Division and seven points behind the second wild card team in the Eastern Conference. That is not an insignificant gap, even if it is still November. No team five or more points out of a playoff spot in 2017-18 on Nov. 20 (which is where the Penguins will sit on Tuesday) managed to make the playoffs.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Even Ovechkin was raving about Price in Capitals-Habs thriller

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Goalies don’t often receive big ovations heading into overtime after allowing four goals, but Monday’s Capitals – Canadiens gaming wasn’t your typical contest.

That exciting 5-4 overtime win for Washington had a little bit of everything, really.

  • Former Canadiens forward Lars Eller received boos when he touched the puck in OT, yet the two-way center got the last laugh by scoring the game-winner.
  • Max Domi and the Canadiens looked very much up to speed with the defending champions. Montreal ended up firing 44 shots on goal. Pheonix Copley was chased after allowing four goals on 22 shots, giving way to Braden Holtby, who stopped all 22 he saw. (So this game had Holtby swoop in to save the day.)

Domi also roughed up Dmitry Orlov in this quick fight:

Early on in the game, Ovechkin had the advantage. Ovechkin’s first goal came even-strength, as he connected thanks to a great Tom Wilson pass. After that, Ovechkin generated the 236th power-play goal of his career, tying him with Mario Lemieux for seventh all-time while leaving him just one behind Brendan Shanahan.

It sure looked like Ovechkin would collect his 22nd career hat trick, but Carey Price said no … multiple times.

Ovechkin came quite close coming from the opposite circle of his typical “office,” with the other distinction being that it wasn’t a power-play chance:

Impressive stuff, yet that wasn’t the save that drew rave reviews from basically everyone involved.

As you can see from the video above this post’s headline, Price found a way to get a piece of Ovechkin’s bread-and-butter shot, sprawling out for a spectacular save. In fact, it was so spectacular that Ovechkin himself a) clapped for Price and then b) patted him on the chest.

Ovechkin – Price wasn’t the only entertaining element of Washington’s 5-4 OT win against Montreal. There were a ton of scoring chances, close calls, and some physicality.

That said, that duel between star sniper and big-name goalie made for quite the marquee main event.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Stars lose Ben Bishop to injury

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Monday is looking like an all-around tough night for the Dallas Stars.

Heading into the third period tied 1-1 with the New York Rangers, the Stars had to replace starter Ben Bishop with Anton Khudobin. Bishop’s night was over thanks to a lower-body injury.

Khudobin only allowed one goal against the Rangers, yet Filip Chytil‘s tally ended up being the game-winner as New York prevailed 2-1. So, the Stars lost the game and their starting goalie in this one, and the hope is that Bishop doesn’t miss much more time from there.

The bad news is that the Stars are missing a goalie who’s quietly been quite effective so far in 2018-19. Bishop came into this contest with a strong .923 save percentage. It’s also no secret that Bishop has been hounded by injuries during his career, including during his days with Dallas.

(After the game, the Stars labeled Bishop day-to-day.)

On the bright side, Anton Khudobin’s been strong so far, too. His save percentage was .926 before this contest, so perhaps the experienced backup can hold down the fort even if Bishop is on the shelf for a while?

Either way, the Stars could stand to give their goalies more run support. Dallas only managed 17 shots on goal against Henrik Lundqvist on Monday, only managing a power-play goal by Tyler Seguin.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.

Panthers’ Trocheck stretchered off after suffering leg injury

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Florida Panthers forward Vincent Trocheck was stretchered off the ice during Monday’s game against the Senators in Ottawa.

Trocheck, 25, suffered the injury after taking an awkward and scary-looking fall into the endboards while battling for a puck with Ryan Dzingel late in the first period. The remainder of that period was delayed until after the first intermission, as there reportedly were no other paramedics in the building as a fan needed treatment earlier in the game.

Video of the injury is above the headline, but be warned; it’s pretty nasty. After Florida’s 7-5 win against Ottawa, Panthers head coach Bob Boughner provided a vague update.

“We don’t know the extent of the injury. We know it’s not going to be a short-term thing,” Boughner said. “He’s going to be reassessed, but he’s coming back with us to Tampa Bay and then home to South Florida.”

(It seems like Trocheck going back with the team is a fairly positive sign, though.)

Many compared Trocheck’s injury to the devastating one NFL QB Alex Smith suffered on Sunday.

Like Smith, Trocheck’s loss would hurt his team badly, although most are focused on the talented forward’s well-being considering how ghastly that looked.

Trocheck collected an assist in his abbreviated appearance on Monday, giving him 14 points in 18 games so far this season.

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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.