There is always a danger of reading too much into first-week results in the NHL. For proof, consider how it started last year, with the Detroit Red Wings getting blown out of the rink by the St. Louis Blues 6-0 in their opener – Jimmy Howard getting pulled, the Red Wings looking old and creaky, making you wonder if this finally was the year the bottom fell out on their team, after 21 consecutive years in the playoffs.
Meanwhile, St. Louis – which was a popular choice to compete for the Stanley Cup after coming close to winning the President’s Trophy – had a fabulous January, going 6-1 and making everybody believe they were for real.
Instead, it went just the other way. The Red Wings got better as the season went along – putting up with youthful mistakes – and by the time the playoffs rolled around, they were their usual dangerous selves. They knocked off Anaheim in a mild first-round upset and then in the second round, pushed the Chicago Blackhawks harder than anyone else before, losing to them in seven games.
St. Louis always seems good out of the gate – a credit to coach Ken Hitchcock, who prepares his team as well or better than anyone – but last year, when the calendar turned to February, they completely lost it. They dropped five games in a row, were outscored 26-11 and had such a complete about-face that there were some dark hints that maybe the coach was on the hot seat.
The Blues eventually got back on track, and then pushed Los Angeles to the limit in a tough physical first-round series, but they were never really the match of the Kings in goal, which is why Jaroslav Halak’s strong play in the first two games this season is so noteworthy.
Halak was in goal for a 19-save shutout Saturday night as the Blues pasted the Florida Panthers 7-0.
A 7-0 win, no matter when it happens, or against whom, is an attention grabber. 7-0 gets you noticed.
For Halak, it was his 17th shutout since joining the Blues from Montreal in that controversial Lars Eller trade (more about later), which he accomplished in his 121st game as a Blue. It’s a team record, surpassing the mark held by the legendary Glenn Hall, who had 16 shutouts in 140 games with St. Louis between 1967 and 1971. Halak’s shutout ratio with the Blues is one for every 7.11 games-played, which is the best in the NHL since he came over from Montreal in June of 2010, the Canadiens swapping their playoff hero of the previous spring for Eller, an unproven former first-rounder from the hockey hotbed of Denmark.
But Eller is proving his worth to the Canadiens now (when is your No. 3 centre really your No. 1 guy? Right here, right now). Halak, meanwhile, is showing the form that he had when he first arrived in St. Louis, where he posted three shutouts in his first nine starts. The Blues used a two-headed goaltending monster two years ago and almost divided the work evenly among three goalies (Halak, Brian Elliott and Jake Allen) last year, largely because Halak suffered his annual injury.
This year, with the Blues having a fairly light schedule through October, Halak will be the starter for the next couple of weeks, so they can genuinely allow him to emerge as the No. 1 man, which is what they want to see from him this year.
Neither the Kings, who seem to be able to win in the playoffs, nor the Blues, who seemingly can’t, tend to score a ton, but L.A. just has more players – notably Anze Kopitar and Jeff Carter – that can conjure something out of nothing. St. Louis needs to grind for everything.
They had seven different goal-scorers in the win over the Panthers; and thus far, have 10 different players on the board with at least one goal, through two games. Eventually, Vladimir Tarasenko may be their best hope of developing a game breaker, but right now, they are relying mostly on a line centred by David Backes that includes Alex Steen and T.J. Oshie.
The Blues are built to weather the storms of the regular season better than most because of their depth – up front and on the blueline – but the key to postseason success may be just a different match-up this year in the playoffs. Getting Detroit out of the West and minimizing their chances of a third straight playoff meeting against Los Angeles is probably the biggest help the league gave St. Louis in its quest to win its first-ever Stanley Cup. A nice test looms this week – Wednesday against the defending champion Chicago Blackhawks.
Meanwhile, Eller has five points in Montreal’s first two games, which is the most for a Canadiens player to start a season since Brian Savage had six in the first two games of 2001-02. Savage couldn’t keep it up and there’s no reason to think Eller can either, but he is centring Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galcheynyuk on the team’s most productive and electrifying line and looks fully recovered from that nasty Erik Gryba hit in last year’s playoff that started all the lunacy between the Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators.
Montreal hits the road this week for a four-game trip that starts in Calgary and then moves on to Edmonton, where Oilers’ fans can ponder what might have been had they taken Galchenyuk instead of Nail Yakupov with the No. 1 pick two years ago. At this stage of the game, Galchenyuk looks like the far more complete player, as Edmonton sorts through a 0-2 start that has seen them surrender 11 goals.
The good news is that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is due back for Monday’s date with the New Jersey Devils, which theoretically should allow them to switch Taylor Hall back to left wing, where he was excellent last season. Hall was minus-4 in the Saturday loss to the Vancouver Canucks and had a couple of key turnovers in the defeat to the Winnipeg Jets back on Tuesday. And at this stage of his career, moving Ryan Smyth off the top line can only help the Oilers recover from that slow start.
Homecomings were all the rage in the early going, including Sunday’s final regular-season appearance by Teemu Selanne in Winnipeg as a member of the Anaheim Ducks.
Selanne started his stellar career with the Jets and, with apologies to Bobby Hull, Anders Hedberg or Ulf Nilsson, might be the most popular player in team history. Selanne is getting some enforced rest this season – he sat out Saturday so he could be fresh for the second game of back-to-backs – but Ducks’ coach Bruce Boudreau did a nice thing and started Selanne on the top line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
The next most intriguing return will surely come Tuesday night in Vancouver, when the Devils play the Vancouver Canucks in Cory Schneider’s homecoming. It’s always different for goalies. A position player plays every game. The Devils are playing on back-to-back nights, so it gives Devils coach Peter DeBoer an option – he could play Schneider against Edmonton and come back with Martin Brodeur against the Canucks, which would just turn it into a hockey game, not a grudge match. Schneider, in an interview with the Newark Star Ledger, was his usual approachable self. Some players will dodge the issue of what these games mean. Schneider isn’t that guy. He was forthright and honest, noting: “There’s going to be a lot of attention and coverage,” he said. “I felt I had pretty good relationship there with most of the media. I did my best to answer the questions and be accountable and upright. They were pretty fair to me. They judge you and critique you, and that’s fine.
“That’s part of the job. You have to play well. But that’s one of the things that make it unique. It was a privilege to play in a Canadian hockey city like that where it’s kind of the big deal in town. You learn to deal with it and you can make it more fun sometimes.
“It will be interesting to be on the other side of it, but at the end of the day it’s another important hockey game for us. We need to win, so all that stuff will be short-lived and we’ll have to get down to playing hockey.”
The Devils lost in regulation to Pittsburgh and in a shootout to the Islanders, are have just three goals in their first two games. The last time New Jersey played a Western Conference team was in the 2012 Stanley Cup final, which they lost in six games to the Kings. Since then, Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk have moved on, leaving the team with a lot of offensive holes to fill. New this year: Damien Brunner, Michael Ryder, Ryan Clowe and Jaromir Jagr, while Andrei Loktionov joined midway through last season from the Kings. They are trying to forge a new identity and according to Brodeur, this swing out west is “a little bit of the unknown.” Except of course for Schneider, who knows the west very well.
“It’ll be exciting. I have a lot of fond memories there and a lot of former teammates who are still friends of mine,” Schneider said. “It’s just another game we need to win. Whoever is in the net has to play really well because they’re a good team. You want to compare yourself to some of the elite teams in the other conference, so this will be a big game.”
THE U.S. GOALIE WATCH
There are questions in Canada over the selection of the Olympic goalie and the same is true in the U.S., but for different reasons - too many good choices. Schneider is a perennial save percentage and goals-against leader, but he’s probably well down the pecking order behind the Kings’ Jonathan Quick, the Senators’ Craig Anderson and the Sabres’ Ryan Miller.
Anderson and Miller faced each other Friday night and together combined for 80 saves in Ottawa’s 1-0 victory. Oddball stat of the week: The teams combined for 39 first-period shots (OTT: 23, BUF: 16), the most in a scoreless period since 1967. Detroit’s Jimmy Howard is 2-1 after three starts, with a 2.31 GAA and a .915 save percentage.
The Capitals’ high-scoring offence was derailed Saturday night in Dallas, on a day that started badly for Washington’s Joel Ward. Ward was having breakfast in the dining room of the team’s downtown hotel, when he left to go to the bathroom and then got stuck in the stall, unable to get the latch to open. Unsure of what to do next, Ward texted teammate Karl Alzner and asked him to ride to the rescue. Alzner and John Carlson had a good laugh at Ward’s expense but couldn’t get him out, and neither could hotel staff. Eventually, they brought in a ladder so Ward could climb out the top of the stall.
“Basically we had the whole Dallas SWAT team come in and still couldn’t open the door,” Ward told the Washington Post. “The latch on the inside where I was would turn but the bolt wouldn’t move, I think it was stripped.
“I sat there for 40 minutes, listening to toilet flushes all morning.”