Canada was understandably focused on the Hockey Night In Canada doubleheader Tuesday, and why not? What a boffo first night for the start of the 2013-14 NHL season – three wild games that saw 26 goals scored in total; and two teams rally from two-goal deficits to pull out victories.
Can the goal rush last? Probably not. The only downside of the whole thing was having to listen to coaches and announcers lament about the mistakes, and the turnovers, which is what cranked up the excitement level in the first place. It was explained away as the predictable effects of early season hockey. We were promised things would get better, which of course wouldn't be better at all. This sort of high-paced and error-prone hockey is what fans want to see – when the skill shows through, as it did when the current Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks played the high-scoring Washington Capitals of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mikhail Grabovski.
Yes, that Mikhail Grabovski, the Toronto Maple Leafs castoff. The Leafs had such little regard for how Grabovski fit into their scheme of things that they paid him to go away in the off-season, using one of their two compliance buyouts to make his contract go away. Grabovski eventually landed in Washington, signed to replace Mike Ribeiro, who left as a free agent, and he scored four points – three goals, plus an assist – in his debut (after managing just 16 all of last season). The Capitals are using Swede Marcus Johasson on the Ovechkin line in even-strength situations, but they needed a puck distributor to replace Ribeiro, who was the catalyst in leading Washington to the best power-play record in the NHL. With Mike Green as the quarterback and Backstrom on the half boards, Grabovski dug in, in front of the net, the Capitals were dynamite, scoring three with the man advantage.
The only downside was that the Caps couldn’t hold onto a 4-3 lead, and then couldn’t get a fourth power-play goal when they fell behind 5-4 and were awarded a five-on-three advantage. It was at that point when Blackhawks’ goaltender Corey Crawford, who’d had a so-so night up to that point, shut the door, permitting Chicago to win its home opener, on banner-raising night. Teams frequently play poorly on the nights they celebrate the previous season’s championship – it’s hard to get into the here-and-now when your mind still is still lingering in the near-and-gone.
Chicago didn’t lose a game in regulation for the first 24 games of last season and showed the same sort of ability to pull a game out of the fire on Tuesday night. Chicago showed why they’re the champions and why the Capitals – a contender to be sure – still have work to do. At even strength, Washington generated little, while the Blackhawks can run three lines and get production from every corner of their lineup.
It is something Edmonton is going to need to do as well, or at least until they get their two top centres, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Sam Gagner, get back in the lineup. At the moment, they have switched Taylor Hall, a 50-point player on the wing, to centre – and paid for it Tuesday night. Hall turned the puck over twice, which led directly to goals, which led directly to the Jets’ two-goal comeback in a 5-4 win.
Winnipeg’s strength is its big three on defence – Dustin Byfuglien, Tobias Enstrom, Zach Bogosian – and now that looks like a big four, with Jacob Trouba, making a sensational debut, scoring the tying goal, adding an assist, and playing a big-bodied defensive game. In all, Winnipeg received eight points from its blueline corps, which was always the strength of the team, and will be the reason they make or don’t make the playoffs this year. Winnipeg is back in the Western Conference and, once upon a time, had a superior rivalry with the Oilers in the 1980s during the Dale Hawerchuk/Thomas Steen era. The Jets were a top-five NHL team in those days, but were stuck in a division with both the Oilers’ dynasty teams as well as the best clubs the Calgary Flames ever assembled.
Edmonton-Winnipeg was always fun to watch in the old days because of the pace in which the games were played, and the current editions of the teams can fly too. Beyond Trouba and Byfuglien, Mark Scheifele was another distinctive bright spot. In his third try at cracking the Jets lineup, Scheifele looks as if he’ll stick and maybe even make an impact. He looked more physically mature and far more confident with the puck. He scored a goal on the power play and may actually be a centre that can play with Evander Kane, which has been an issue for the organization ever since Kane broke into the NHL. Kane tends to freelance with the puck so much that it is sometimes hard for his centre to find him, but Scheifele has size and hockey sense, so it will be interesting to see if they can develop the necessary chemistry.
The Oilers and Jets are in different divisions – Pacific and Central – but they are realistically competing for the same goal, one of the wild card playoff spots in the Western Conference. One game early on is never conclusive, but Winnipeg took the first small step in achieving that with a fun and timely win.