Up the coast in San Jose, in a showdown for first place in the Pacific Division, it was more of the same, this time with Jonas Hiller in the featured role. The Anaheim Ducks were on a second-period power play when Hiller skated out to the right face-off circle to move the puck up to his defence. A routine play usually except this time, he turned it over to the Sharks' penalty killers, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, who played pitch and catch with each other before Marleau eventually deposited the puck in the empty net. The Ducks would tie the game in regulation to earn a point, but ultimately lost the game in a shootout.
According to Flames’ goaltender coach Clint Malarchuk, the evolving nature of the NHL game is the reason you’re seeing so many of puck-handling errors.
“Teams are so pressed and pressured for offence now that when the puck goes in deep, they want it turned around right away the other way,” said Malarchuk. “I know what we tell our goalies: ‘Play the puck. Play it and play it well.”
Easier said than done of course.
The goaltenders are now part of the breakout. Unlike defencemen, however, teams are asking their goalies to play the puck with a catching mitt gripping the lower part of a stick designed to block shots, not make passes.
The real mystery is why these misplays don’t occur more often. Presumably, if they did, teams might eventually start discouraging goaltenders “wandering” out of their creases, which is how it used to be described 30 years ago.
“It’s a game on ice,” said Scrivens. “Stuff happens. I was trying to get out there, play the puck and help the defencemen out. That was my plan and I had an unfortunate break catching an edge. Ninety per cent of the time that doesn’t really do anything, but this time it unfortunately might have cost us the game.”
“It's a problem as goalie if you make a mistake, there’s no one really behind you who can clear it up,” added Hiller.
Malarchuk noted that neither of the two Calgary goaltenders, Karri Ramo nor Reto Berra, is especially efficient at handling the puck, although both are improving as the season goes along. It will be interesting to see if the Flames give Ramo, the winner against the Kings, a chance to play some games consecutively now, after he turned in a strong outing.
The Flames have fallen to 30th overall defensively, behind even the Edmonton Oilers. Berra had been coach Bob Hartley’s goalie of choice for much of November, and while at times he made some exceptional saves, his style is a throwback to a different era – aggressive to the point where he is frequently caught out of position.
There is an acrobatic side to Berra’s game that is vaguely reminiscent of the early Dominik Hasek, but where Hasek played really deep in the net, and frequently had his shoulders hunched up under the crossbar, Berra is altogether too scrambly in the goal crease and frequently finds himself out of position and unable to stop second shots.
With all hands on deck, Calgary is an average defensive team. With their No. 1 and 2 defencemen, Mark Giordano and Dennis Wideman out indefinitely with injuries, the Flames need all-star calibre goaltending to stay competitive and to capitalize on a work ethic that rarely fails them. Twenty-six games in, Berra, Ramo and Joey MacDonald, who is currently in the minors, have three wins apiece. All have goals-against averages over 3.00 and save percentages under .900. Wonder if Miikka Kiprusoff would ever consider a comeback? They miss him even more than anyone could have forecast.
BLACKHAWKS RISING: Quietly and without much fanfare, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks blasted through their annual “circus trip” – when Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus take over the United Center - winning the final six games to go 6-1 on an extended two-week road trip. It gave them the best road record in the NHL – 11-3-1 – and put them atop the overall standings with 44 points. Last year, Chicago earned a point in 24 consecutive games to start the season, but they haven’t been too far off that pace this year, now sitting at 20-4-4.
The Blackhawks had one of the shortest summers in NHL history to enjoy their championship, so if there was ever a year in which they might have to deal with a Stanley Cup hangover, this would have been it. Instead, they’ve simply picked up where they left off, clicking on all cylinders. Coach Joel Quenneville moves and shifts his lines around constantly, but at the moment, he is getting masterful work from a top unit that features Jonathan Toews playing between Patrick Sharp and Marian Hossa. Sharp has recovered from a slow start to move into the top 30 and Hossa is healthy again, after missing five games earlier this season.
Tactically, teams are obliged to use their shutdown defensive pairs against that line at even strength and it means that Patrick Kane, their leading goal scorer with 16, doesn’t see the same heavyweight defencemen who could lean on him, because he’s playing on a second line that currently features Michal Handzus and Brandon Saad. Last year’s playoff hero, Bryan Bickell, had only six points in 22 games before getting hurt, but Saad has done a nice job of eating up top-six minutes (a little over 17 per night) in his stead.
And Duncan Keith is back to putting up big numbers, and giving the Ottawa Senators’ Erik Karlsson a run for top spot among the league’s defensive scoring leaders. The Blackhawks could have up to eight Olympians based on their strong start. It will be interesting to see if the wear-and-tear of a long season punctuated by a trip to Sochi for so many of their players eventually catches up with Chicago in May and June. It sure doesn’t look like an issue now.
THE SHARKS BITE: Saturday’s overtime victory permitted the Sharks to complete a 5-0 home stand and leapfrog the Ducks for top spot in the Pacific Division. There is a long-held theory in the NHL that once teams pass U.S. Thanksgiving, they tend to move in tandem for the rest of the season; and that with few exceptions, ground is hard to make up from here to the end, even though two-thirds of the schedule remains to be played.
The prevailing theory going into the year was that the Pacific could qualify five teams for the playoffs and the Central just three, but that did not account for the Colorado Avalanche’s strong start or the fact that the Minnesota Wild is hanging tough, despite a sputtering time of it this past fortnight. Fans in Minnesota can be excused for being leery because the Wild, in 2011-12, Mike Yeo’s first year as the coach, started off 13-5-3, and were first overall in the West at Thanksgiving. The team unraveled soon after and finished out of the playoffs at 35-36-11.
Minnesota’s home-and-home series with the Avalanche was considered an early litmus test; and while they made a stirring comeback to force overtime Saturday night, they ultimately ceded all four points to Colorado in the two games, while earning just one.
Zach Parise, speaking to Michael Russo of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, had strong words after the first loss, saying the team played “soft”, was guilty of “cheating” and that “we turn away from everybody.” The Wild spent a lot to sign Parise and Ryan Suter as free agents two summers ago and they are getting their money’s worth. Suter is leading the NHL in minutes played by a ridiculous margin and Parise is providing offence at key moments in the game.
Parise, who was supposed to be out two to three weeks with a foot contusion, but returned after just a single game on the sidelines, set up linemate Mikko Koivu for the tying goal with six seconds to go Saturday night. The two combined for 28 points in November on identical 5-9-14 score lines, but what was most remarkable was that five times, they scored the game-tying or winning goals in the final five minutes of regulation.
GAME OF THE WEEK: It might be Tuesday’s date between the Kings and the Ducks in Anaheim. The Ducks are the only NHL team undefeated at home in regulation this season (10-0-1 at the Honda Centre), while L.A. had a team record points in 11 games streak snapped with the loss to Calgary Saturday night. If there was any question about Ryan Getzlaf’s status as an Olympian, he’s answered them this year, with points in the last 10 games he’s played (15 points in all). It is not an official NHL scoring streak, because Getzlaf missed three games in the middle of it with an undisclosed upper body injury.
Getzlaf’s strong start (tied with Alex Steen of the St. Louis Blues for third in the NHL scoring race) has also helped linemate Dustin Penner get his game back on track. After scoring 31 points in 98 regular-season games over two years with the Kings, Penner has 21 points in 22 games with the Ducks this year, and that’s counting time missed as a healthy scratch.
The Ducks have been doing all that without getting a meaningful contribution from Teemu Selanne (zero points in his last 12 games) and despite a defence corps riddled by injuries. For the game against the Sharks, Anaheim played without four defencemen who would be in their top six if not for injuries: Francois Beauchemin, Bryan Allen, Luca Sbisa and Sheldon Souray, who has yet to play a game this season. Currently, their bluline consists of Cam Fowler, Ben Lovejoy, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen, Alex Grant, Nolan Yonkman and Mark Fistric.
There are currently eight Western Conference teams on pace to record a hundred points this season. Even in this devalued era of three-point games, thanks to shootouts and overtime, that’s an impressive pace.
“We’re all moving together like a peloton in cycling,” is how San Jose coach Todd McLellan put it. “The group just keeps moving. Nobody seems to be able to break away.”
THIS AND THAT: As expected, James Neal’s return to the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup helped ignite his regular centre, Evgeni Malkin, who had a four-point night Saturday, capping a month in which Malkin recorded 21 assists, the most by any NHL player since Wayne Gretzky did it for the Los Angeles Kings in January of 1996, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Malkin’s surge carried him to within a point of teammate Sidney Crosby for the overall NHL scoring lead … Islanders’ coach Jack Capuano is the latest to hear it from the boo birds at Nassau County Coliseum. The fans have been calling for his head, most vehemently during a 5-0 loss at the hands of a Detroit Red Wings’ team playing without star forward Pavel Datsyuk. All the promise of last year’s playoff berth – and a wholly respectable opening-round performance against the Pittsburgh Penguins – evaporated, partly because of goaltending issues, injuries to key defencemen, and a lack of production from young players such as Josh Bailey, who was a healthy scratch the other night after his goalless streak was extended to 15 games. The Islanders have been forced to play defenceman Andrew MacDonald almost 27 minutes per night, and Travis Hamonic is close behind at a little over 25. It’s too much. General manager Garth Snow tried to send a message by trading away the popular Matt Moulson (plus a first and a second-round draft choice) for Thomas Vanek, but he might have been better off targeting an established starting goaltender or a minute-munching defenceman, if he was prepared to sacrifice that much of the future to win in the present.
AND FINALLY: It appears as if the Sabres’ attempt to rehabilitate Patrick Kaleta by teaching him to play with more discipline is going to have to wait. According to the Buffalo News, Kaleta tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee this past Friday, playing in the American Hockey League, and will miss the rest of the season. Kaleta had been suspended 10 games earlier this year for a hit to the head of the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Jack Johnson.