So this was the first week that was in the crazy, chaotic lockout-shortened NHL season:
Injuries abounded and not all of them were the simple groin strains and hip flexors that many general managers predicted would occur, because of the absence of a regular training camp. Sure there were a few of those too, but how do you explain away a fractured forearm (the Maple Leafs’ Joffrey Lupul), a herniated disc (the Kings’ Matt Greene), a broken foot (the Flyers’ Scott Hartnell), an ACL tear (the Avs’ Steve Downie) or a leg laceration (the Red Wings’ Ian White)?
Every one of those injuries could have occurred at any time in any NHL game played in any season. Freakish things happen in the game and the problem with playing only 48 as opposed to 82 is the psychology of it all. Every result is magnified. Even sensible analysis usually give a team a couple of weeks at the start of any season to work out the kinks, so why wouldn’t you this year, when teams didn’t even have a training camp or exhibition season to get into a proper rhythm? The 0-3 Washington Capitals, for example, are still adjusting to life under new coach Adam Oates, who felt the need Thursday to say that he wasn’t much for Knute Rockne-style rah-rah motivational speeches. Good for him. You’d think with all that high-priced help at his disposal, he wouldn’t need to crank up their emotional levels.
The Caps represent an interesting case study because you’d think that with Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin playing together in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, they might have gotten off to a quick start. But no. In fact, TSN’s excellent analyst, Ray Ferraro – who breaks down games as well as anyone in the industry right now – had a couple of great isolation shots of Backstrom during last week’s loss to Winnipeg, illustrating how soft his coverage was in the defensive zone. Ferraro raised an interesting question that others have wondered too – how much of an advantage was it really to play in Europe, on the larger ice, in leagues where you could avoid body contact pretty much at will? For some, you’d have to say it might have been a disadvantage – and they may need a couple of weeks of playing in closer NHL quarters to get it out of their systems.
Contact – or the lack thereof in Europe – was a subject the San Jose Sharks’ Joe Thornton raised during a chat prior to their season-opener against the Calgary Flames last week. Thornton played in Switzerland for Davos during the lockout, same as he did in 2004-05, where he met his wife. They now have a daughter, so giving her a chance to spend time with cousins, aunts and uncles during a hockey season was a primary reason why Thornton went overseas so quickly.
Did Thornton see his time in Switzerland as an advantage or not? He wasn’t sure.
“Playing over in Europe, it’s the big ice, so you don’t get hit as much as you do here,” said Thornton. “Conditioning-wise, I feel great. You’re up in the mountains, so the high altitude helps with that. My timing’s on. I played 30-some odd games, so I hopefully feel better than the rest of the guys. We’ll have to see though.”
Thornton is off to an exceptional start, with a league-leading nine points in his first three games. So, for that matter, is the Blackhawks’ Patrick Kane, who is also among the scoring leaders early with seven points – and actually played with Thornton for Davos in the Spengler Cup over Christmas.
At the other end of the spectrum is Los Angeles Kings captain Dustin Brown, who played for former Kings’ coach Marc Crawford in Switzerland this winter, and is struggling to find his game. Then there were players such as the Kings’ Anze Kopitar and the Flyers’ Daniel Briere, who were injured in European leagues just before the lockout ended. Kopitar has played two games so far; Briere may get back soon.
Kane spoke for a lot of NHLers, when he noted to reporters in Chicago this week that what you see now is not necessarily what you’re going to get in a couple of weeks, once the rust disappears:
“It’s early,” said Kane. “I think every team is going to get a little better, including us. We know we can only go up from here and keep getting better.
“It’s a good start (4-0, the first time since 1972-73 that the Blackhawks started so quickly), but you can’t think about it too much. One of the things about this season is you’re playing so many games in a short time it’s almost like you win one and it’s time to think about the next one.”
Beyond the injury factor, there were also a lot of good NHL goaltenders who had some bad nights to start the season. Prior to the start of play Thursday, a who’s who of the league’s top goaltenders, including the reigning Vezina Trophy winner (Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers), Conn Smythe trophy winner Jonathan Quick of the Los Angeles Kings, and former Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes’ Cam Ward all had goals-against averages over 4.00. The Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne (0-1-2) was still looking for his first win, as was the Calgary Flames’ Miikka Kiprusoff.
Eventually, they’ll get their acts together and actually Quick was excellent in Thursday night’s 2-1 controversial weirdly officiated overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers.
Figure on seeing Quick’s peers hit their strides soon as well. The Vancouver Canucks’ Cory Schneider was a much better in his second start than in his first. Kiprusoff was better in his third than in the first two.
The need to rush to judgment after so few games are played never makes a lot of sense – and the need to rush to judgment in a season without a proper training camp or exhibitions makes even less sense. The cream generally rises to the top; it is just take a little longer some years than others. In the meantime, may as well enjoy some of the quirky and disjointed action. It probably isn’t going to last.
BACK IN TIME : As soon as they learned the NHL was committed to playing a shortened schedule, the San Jose Sharks broke down the records at the 48-game point of the last two seasons to see how it all shook out.
“Last year, there was a 12-point difference from one-to-eight,” explained coach Todd McLellan. “The two or three teams that weren’t in the playoffs were only a point or two out. So everybody stayed in it. The opportunity to stretch out the lead isn’t as great.
“I believe L.A. had 10 points in overtimes and shootouts, which made a significant difference, because the two teams that didn’t make it below them only had two – so we’re aware that that may come into play.
“But it’s hard to do studies. The last time a true 48-game schedule was played, the game was completely different. The set of rules were different. Goaltenders look a lot different than they did then – and I think Larry Robinson (now a Sharks’ assistant) was still playing then. It’s been that long ago.”
The Sharks were spectators on opening night of the season, but according to Thornton, the players watched the action on TV the same way they would in the playoffs. Normally, hockey players don’t pay that close attention to what the opposition is doing on an off night early in the season. Thornton called the experience “kind of weird. You kind of felt you were in the post-season already, everybody just watching games. It’s kind of a weird feeling, being so late in the season and everybody, sitting all around, watching the same game. It’s kind of neat and exciting.”
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