On the day before the NHL regular season began, the Vancouver Canucks resident funnyman, goaltender Roberto Luongo, tweeted: “Happy October everyone!!! Or as I like to call it: How did that go in?”
Luongo was spoofing his notoriously slow starts and, intelligently, getting the jump on anyone preparing a “what’s wrong with Roberto?” story if it happened to go that way again.
Thankfully for Luongo and the Canucks, it hasn’t been completely terrible. Prior to Tuesday’s game in Philadelphia, he was 2-3, with a goals-against average of slightly less than three, and a save percentage less than .900.
But Luongo isn’t alone when it comes to forgettable Octobers, past or present. All around the NHL, a discouraging number of good to great players are busily explaining away slow starts.
In Boston, for example, there was concern because Jarome Iginla, their highly touted off-season signing, has just a single point in his first four games.
News flash to Beantown from Cowtown: Iginla always struggles to find the net in the first month. Generally, with the former Calgary Flames captain, you can tell if it’ll be a memorable or forgettable season by the way November unfolds. Some years, he’ll ramp it up to a goal-a-game pace and soon be challenging for the NHL scoring lead. When November is just average for Iginla, then he’ll be average until February, when his game traditionally cooks for a while.
How about Chicago Blackhawks winger Marian Hossa? Prior to Tuesday’s game against Carolina, he had cracked the scoresheet for a single goal this year, and he didn’t actually put that one in himself. (He was hauled down on a breakaway, staring down an empty net and was awarded the goal by the referee.)
Hossa is recovering from off-season back surgery and just hasn’t been right yet this season. He blames his slow start on timing issues.
Jiri Tlusty led the Carolina Hurricanes with 23 goals in 48 games last year. Prior Tuesday, it had been zeroes across the board and he’s been dropped to the second line. A one-year wonder? Could be. Tlusty’s usual centre, Eric Staal, along with Mike Ribeiro (Phoenix Coyotes), Loui Eriksson (Bruins) and Andrew Ladd (Winnipeg Jets) are struggling, too.
And we haven’t even mentioned Nail Yakupov, who so impressed first-year head coach Dallas Eakins with his play, he sat out two games in a row for Edmonton after failing to score a point in his first four games. Yakupov had 17 goals for the Oilers last year, leading the team.
Perhaps the most jarring early season slump involves Philadelphia Flyers centre Claude Giroux, who signed a monster contract extension that will kick in next year and put him in the Sidney Crosby category (paycheque-wise anyway). But whereas Crosby kicked it up in the second week and prior to Tuesday was tied for the NHL scoring lead with long-time rival Alex Ovechkin, Giroux had played six games for the Flyers and had just a single point to show for it.
Giroux injured his hand in a freak off-season golfing mishap, but he says it isn’t his index finger giving him problems, it’s his confidence – which has been shaken and has him pressing around the net.
This is always a difficult concept for laymen to absorb. Even professional athletes at the highest levels occasionally have crises of confidence, where suddenly, the game becomes hard for them. Instead of reacting, they’re thinking – and as soon as players start thinking too much, it slows them down.
Because the pace of NHL play has never been quicker, hesitation is death. That split-second opening closes fast – there for a flash and then gone and disappeared.
After five games, Iginla led the Bruins in shots with 19.
“Right now, it just isn’t there,” Iginla’s new bench boss, Claude Julien, said. “I see maybe a little hesitation in shooting. When a player has confidence, his release is a little quicker, too.”
Inside the dressing room, via the Boston Herald, Iginla explained it this way: “At times, you squeeze a little too hard. It’s all those clichés, sayings you hear. You try to swing a little too hard and I lift my head a little bit. And I’m just not in a groove there. You just want to kind of will it in the net as opposed to let it happen.
“Unfortunately, I’ve been here many times. It’s all part of the game and you just try to work hard and keep going and keep getting the chances and always keep saying that the next one is going to go in.”
Yes, October. Will apologies to T.S. Eliot, sometimes the cruellest month for those perennially slow-starting NHL snipers.
Follow me on Twitter: @eduhatschek