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Coldhearted: Masters of the Midwest

Breaking down the toughest division in hockey — and the rest of the week in the NHL

This past week, the Detroit Red Wings set a new franchise record with their 15th-straight home win at Joe Louis Arena. Chicago captain Jonathan Toews, perhaps the league’s most complete player, has five points in the Blackhawks’ past four games. The St. Louis Blues have fallen only once in 2012, an overtime loss to Vancouver. And the Nashville Predators are 8-2-0 in their past 10 games and over the past month have sold out their arena for just about every home tilt. Whether you look at total points (which excludes the effect of who’s got more games in hand) or points percentage (which doesn’t), these teams all stand among the top 10 — not just in the Western Conference, but in the whole league. This is a stacked Central Division that truly contains all the elements. And I do mean the elements.

The Red Wings are Wind: capable both of dancing around you (Pavel Datsyuk) and stopping you dead in your tracks (Nicklas Lidstrom, Niklas Kronwall, Jimmy Howard). They’re always in motion, and now they have even more room to maneuver — they have more cap space leading up to the trade deadline this season than they’ve ever had in the cap era. When they harness their talent, they sail. When protected by friendly environs, they thrive — Detroit is 18-2-1 at home — but in more uncertain conditions they can tend to whip around aimlessly. The team has a less lofty 12-13-0 road record this season, based in part on defensive breakdowns. “You can’t outscore your mistakes,” said head coach Mike Babcock. “You’ve got to be diligent with the puck if you’re going to have success.” When the Red Wings are diligent, it can be difficult to wrest the puck away from them — like trying to chase down a windblown $10 bill.

The Blackhawks, who can be red-hot and unstoppable (yet have in the past veered toward volatile when allowed to rage out of control) are Fire. Only two teams in the league have scored more goals per game than Chicago, and three different players — Toews, Marian Hossa, and the recently injured Patrick Sharp — are in the NHL’s top 20 in goal scoring. The Blackhawks are second in takeaways; for as much as they burn other teams, though, they have a little more trouble snuffing them out. Their penalty kill is particularly bad, 26th in the league. Still, despite something of an up-and-down season, Chicago currently holds first place in the hotly contested Central. And head coach Joel Quenneville knows as well as anyone that a fire needs to breathe, not to be smothered.

Water is a fitting element for the St. Louis Blues, in that it seems (in a good way!) like every player on the roster has settled at a near-equal level. While captain David Backes leads the team in points with 32, he does so just barely: T.J. Oshie is right there with 30, while Jason Arnott, Alexander Steen, and a pair of defensemen (Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pietrangelo) are all clustered closely behind. This is a roster so evenly distributed that the team’s lone All-Star representative, Brian Elliott, isn’t even in theory the no. 1 goalie. CBC’s Elliotte Friedman asked some Western Conference opponents what makes the Blues so difficult. “[I got a] very similar answer from several players,” he reported. “‘They are always in the right position.’” What’s most impressive about the Blues, really, might be how serenely they’ve reacted to some big splashes this season — the replacement of their coach early on, the ongoing drama surrounding their ownership — without spilling a drop.

The Nashville Predators, with their coach and GM unchanged over the entirety of the franchise’s lifespan, and with their big, powerful blue line? They would be stubborn, strong, steady Earth. (They’ve missed the playoffs just one time since the lockout, but they’ve advanced past the first round only once, too.) All eyes will be on the team as the trade deadline approaches to see if they’ll shake up their core and put someone like defenseman Ryan Suter — who becomes an unrestricted free agent after this season — on the market in exchange for some more goal scorers up front.1 But Shea Weber, the team’s other All-Star and soon-to-be restricted free agent on the blue line, is in favor of stability. He told NHL.com’s Dave Lozo on Wednesday: “It’s a place I love to play. If we can keep guys around and keep getting better, then it’s a place I want to stay.” How positively Earth.

(The Columbus Blue Jackets, meanwhile, probably best exemplify the little-known fifth element found in certain Japanese frameworks: Void.)

Due to the quirks of the NHL calendar, the Red Wings and Blackhawks did not play head-to-head until December 30; since then they have faced off three times. Each of these games have ended in a hard-won 3-2 score, the first in favor of Chicago and the next two — including this past Saturday’s matinee NBC showcase — won in overtime by Detroit. They have all been outstanding, with goals traded and leads exchanged, exactly the kind of back-and-forth frenzy that you might imagine would happen when Wind whips up Fire. It’s enough to make the mind wander to thinking about just what life might be like under the NHL’s proposed (and now shelved) realignment plan, under which the Blackhawks and Red Wings could find themselves on a collision course in the first two rounds of the playoffs year after year after year. The prospect is as thrilling — all those incredible games! — as it is daunting: Only one out of all of these above teams would ever make it out of the second round in the new format.

Teams like the Dallas Stars and Minnesota Wild were upset by the news that realignment, and thus their being grouped in a new expanded Central Division, had been delayed by at least a year. Stars president Jim Lites called it “depressing,” while Wild owner Craig Leipold lamented that “our fans were universally excited to be playing against Midwestern teams in the previous old Norris Division.” Really, though, those teams ought to be glad they’ve now got some extra time to prepare for fearsome company. If I were the Winnipeg Jets, I’d be taking a good look at the NHL standings and concluding that life in the geographically confused Southeast Division for one more season may actually not be that bad.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

Just as linguists strive to pinpoint the provenance of words like “whatevski” or “webinar,” hockey fans love to assign credit to players for coining particular moves.

When Detroit’s Jiri Hudler successfully pulled the puck sharply to his forehand at the last minute during the Red Wings’ shootout against the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night and one-handed it into the net, the sequence was immediately reminiscent of one that another Wings player had converted in a shootout just five days earlier. “Jiri Hudler ‘Zetterbergs’ his shootout chance,” read the NHL’s video description, alluding to this shootout move by Henrik Zetterberg that left Phoenix Coyotes goalie Mike Smith helplessly sprawled:

The headline was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the verbified-proper-noun construct most commonly used to describe this particular trick:2 To Forsberg. It was with this move that Peter Forsberg famously won the 1994 Olympic gold medal for team Sweden over Canada in Lillehammer in the seventh round of a shootout, and so it is for “Foppa” that this move is most fondly remembered.

Of course, the most well-known origin story about anything is rarely the most accurate. While it was Forsberg who made the move famous, he was not the first to try it out. In a 1994 Sports Illustrated article written after the gold medal game,3 Forsberg credits his countryman Kent Nilsson, who completed the maneuver in a 1989 game between Sweden and the U.S. that Forsberg watched as a 15-year-old. (“I liked it right away,” Forsberg said.)

When Alexei Zhamnov did it in games as a Winnipeg Jet during the 1992-93 season, the broadcast crew remarked that he looked like Gilbert Perreault out there. And so it beats on, borne back ceaselessly every time. One HFBoards participant swears that during the 1994 Olympic game in which Forsberg made quite a name for himself, the Swedish commentators reached back beyond even Nilsson in the annals of their national hockey history, deeming the daring dangle, once and for all … an “Ulf Sterner move.”

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

Here are some grievances that have been publicly aired during this NHL season:

(A) “They make you look bad. It’s, like, embarrassing when you’re on the ice and guys are beating you. The other night, [we] get beat one-on-four, just playing like a bunch of losers. You’re going to lose if you play like that — you’re going to lose every night in the league. Let alone talking about playoffs and all that. You’ll lose every night in the league, and I think we all went through that last year.”

(B) “I can’t accept that we will display a losing attitude as we’re doing this year. We prepare for our games like losers. We play like losers. So it’s no wonder why we lose.”

And:

(A) “Of late, I don’t know if we’re all committed. It’s sad to say, and we all look bad because of the result — because we won’t all commit. We look great when we’re all committing; we look all like a bunch of clowns when we don’t. A very average team when we’re not all committed.”

(B) “When you display a losing attitude like we do now, you lose more often than you win and you stay in the same place. When you show a winning attitude, you are not stifled by mistakes and you respond to a mistake with 15 good plays at the other end, you win and you get out of misery. This is not what we are doing here now.”

Quotes A, the ones containing both the words “losers” and “clowns,” came from Mike Knuble, the hard-nosed Washington Capitals veteran, back in November. At the time, Knuble was mostly praised for his frank and necessary statements: He was talking the no-bullshit talk of a former Stanley Cup champion, he was holding the team rightly accountable, and he was acknowledging the obvious differences between the invincibility of a winning locker room and the nihilism of a losing one.

Quotes B, on the other hand, were uttered by former Montreal Canadiens forward Mike Cammalleri last week. Supposedly uttered, that is; his widely derided use of the word “losers” was later said to have been an unfortunate byproduct of the circuitous journey from Cammalleri’s original English into French and back into English again. (There’s really no more damning an indictment of the current hockey situation in Montreal than that game of téléphone.)4 Do that with any turn of phrase and you’re apt to wind up with something equally blunt. But nor was there any nuance in the way Montreal ultimately dealt with Cammalleri: Not only did the team trade him in between periods of last Thursday’s Bruins-Habs game,5 they didn’t even immediately tell him where he was going, instead calling him a cab from the rink to the team hotel to “await further instructions.” (That has the sound of either a really cute proposal story or a really bad bachelor party.)

It was appropriate that earlier on the day Cammalleri was shipped out of town, an issue of SportsNet Magazine hit the stands bearing a devastating cover story by Gare Joyce: “Inside the Long Pathetic Fall of the Once Great Canadiens Empire.”6 Cammalleri’s own fall is emblematic in its way. Once considered a future face of the franchise, Cammalleri less than two years ago led all goal scorers in the playoffs and propelled Montreal within one three games of the Stanley Cup finals. Now, depending on whom you ask, he’s disgruntled, a scapegoat, undersized, overpaid — and, as of the second intermission of last Thursday’s game, gone. But one thing he wasn’t was wrong: The vibe surrounding the Canadiens organization for pretty much this entire season has not been the glow of success but rather the gloom of defeat.

Trading Cammalleri back to the Calgary Flames, where he spent a lone 2008-09 season and put up 82 points, the best numbers of his career, for Rene Bourque did, at the very least, suggest the kind of clean break that is sometimes necessary for everyone to move forward. But the most integral person in all of this may just be a dead man walking. When a team has fired first an assistant coach, then its head coach, then disposed of one of its star players all in one season, there’s nowhere else for the next ax to fall other than on the GM’s neck. Despite the fact that Pierre Gauthier swore that Cammalleri’s inflammatory comments were not the reason for the trade, that it had been in the works for weeks, TSN’s Bob McKenzie reported that “there are a number of NHL GMs who had no idea Montreal was prepared to trade Cammalleri. This was not a player who was shopped around the league.” It can’t be much fun living under the active rule of a man with his head in the guillotine.

Taking It Coast to Coast: A Lap Around the League

  • Rick DiPietro, done for the season. At this point the whole thing just genuinely makes me sad. :(
  • The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Dejan Kovacevic filed a report on Friday that spoke of growing discord in the Penguins’ dressing room over the treatment of Crosby’s injury and alleging that, according to “three sources,” a group of Penguins players “held a 45-minute meeting last week to discuss a temporary captaincy.” With a six-game losing streak hanging in the air, the organization roundly denied this report; the players went so far as to skate onto the ice for practice later that morning all pointedly sporting taped-on C’s — except for Evgeni Malkin, who went with a more nationalistic K. (The Penguins would snap their losing streak later that night with a much-needed 4-1 win over Florida.)
  • Speaking of which, some intrigue out of Russia, courtesy of James Mirtle: “There’s something called a Captains’ Duel at the KHL all-star game this weekend: ‘The details of this event are to be kept as a surprise.’” (After reading this and this I’m kinda scared.)
  • Taylor Hall’s head got skated over during warmups the other night. Say, I wonder how the Edmonton Oilers youngster is recoveri — AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!
  • I love this quote from San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan on 22-year-old Logan Couture: “He’s quietly becoming the part in the washing machine that makes it go, for lack of a better analogy.” Can we make these vague mechanical references more of a thing? It would work well the other way, too — like, “Hal Gill is slowly becoming the part in the lawnmower that keeps getting caught on the curb,” or, “Ilya Bryzgalov is loudly becoming the part in the garbage disposal that makes all that noise — what the hell is that noise? Oh, it’s a spoon.”
  • The Boston Bruins’ Zdeno Chara and the host Ottawa Senators’ Daniel Alfredsson were named team captains for next weekend’s All-Star Game, a bummer for those who were hoping that Phil Kessel or Dion Phaneuf would be the ones drunk with power.7 But the inclusion of Chara makes for an interesting subplot: Will NBC reference the ill-fated 2001 draft-day trade, orchestrated by their boy Mike Milbury, that sent Chara, Bill Muckalt, and the no. 2 overall pick to Ottawa for Alexei Yashin? The Islanders are still paying off Yashin, whose monstrous contract they finally bought out in 2007. Chara, meanwhile, is a Stanley Cup captain, and that no. 2 pick is now Jason Spezza — another Ottawa player voted into the All-Star Game this season.
  • St. Louis Blues goaltender Brian Elliott, meanwhile, diffused some All-Star chatter of his own in a phone conversation aired on the NHL Network on Wednesday. Asked by E.J. Hradek about his feelings on returning to Ottawa — from where he was unceremoniously shipped at last year’s trade deadline after losing a long string of games — the netminder replied: “I don’t really think I’ll be thinking so much about Ottawa as I’ll just be trying to get autographs from the other guys around me.” He had reason to be chipper: His sparkling play for the Blues this season was rewarded when the team inked him to a surprise two-year, $3.6 million contract extension earlier that day.8
  • I’m sure the league will hold off on making it official for another six months, but all indications are that the Maple Leafs will be playing the Red Wings at Michigan Stadium in next year’s Winter Classic. Let me know when we can start doing fake mock-ups of the retro-fab jerseys, OK?
  • The toxicity surrounding Buffalo is beginning to seep overseas. Several days after embattled goaltender Ryan Miller said that “there’s no such trade” that could appropriately shake up the team, backup netminder Jhonas Enroth’s brother Mattias weighed in sarcastically from back in Sweden during a game between the Sabres and the Blackhawks. “3-2 Hossa (Leino)” he tweeted after a lazy between-the-legs pass-to-no-one from pricey offseason acquisition Ville Leino was stolen by Duncan Keith and fed to Marian Hossa for what would become Chicago’s game-winning goal. Later, he got even more direct: “They have pay checks as superstars but they do not play as any superstars. What is the problem?” You and Terry Pegula both, Mattias Enroth. You and Terry Pegula both.
  • Patrick Kane, who has been struggling to score goals of late, discussing this first-period save on him by his former Stanley Cup-winning teammate, Antti Niemi: “I didn’t know if I wanted to smile or cry afterwards. Great goaltender. We witnessed that here a couple years ago.”
  • Just weeks after spookily showing up in the Rangers’ locker room post-Winter Classic, MSG top boss Jim Dolan made a “rare, impromptu” appearance in the interview room following the Rangers’ 3-0 win over Nashville on Tuesday and referred cryptically to a “pact” that he made with GM Glen Sather in 2004. “I gave him something, which I won’t reveal today, but I gave him something to seal the pact,” Dolan said. “I said, ‘You can’t give it back to me until we win the Stanley Cup.’ And I think we’re pretty close to getting that thing back.”9 WAIT, WHAT THE?! WHAT “THING”? ACTUALLY YOU KNOW WHAT? FORGET IT. PLEASE DON’T EVEN TELL ME. I bet Dolan just tramples the locker room logo. He’s up there in the suite calling shutouts for Lundqvist five minutes into a game, isn’t he? Thank god for John Tortorella, who followed up the appearance with this: “I have my owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup,” he said. “That’s a bunch of bullshit.”
  • And finally, some words that were shouted live on television Saturday night during the St. Louis Blues’ shootout win over the Minnesota Wild: “That’s a lot of shake and bake right there, isn’t it? That’s a lot of howdy doody.” I love this sport.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

When Alex Ovechkin filmed a music video (and filled in a verse!) with Russian rap star Sasha Belyi this summer, lyrics like “In the All-Star Game all attention is on me” may have been a little more current. Still, the man who is “among the 10 best players of the decade/stick in my hands, rap in my headphones/ saying hello from Washington” turns in a strong performance in the video, which was recently released.

Russian Machine Never Breaks, which translated the verse, notes that Ovechkin is on record as loving hip-hop, Eminem in particular. (“I always have his CDs in my car, and I would be very glad to meet him. By the way, Eminem’s 8 Mile is just great,” he said.)10 It’s too bad Ovi isn’t more of a Digital Underground enthusiast, so we could have gotten something like:

My name’s Ovechkin
Pronounced with an echkin
Yo ladies you better not be Chechnyan
And all the skaters in the top ten: someday I’m going to wreck them.
I’m skating well, hell, and just like Alex OV
You’ll be on fire when the highlights all show me.
I like to score,
I like to wear black T’s,
I’m crafty. Don’t like my coaches zaftig.

Which tangentially reminds me: This video inspired Puck Daddy’s Harrison Mooney to reflect back on certain hockey-rap crossovers through time — but to his list, I’d add this video of Brandon Dubinsky and Sean Avery doing the Fresh Prince theme in happier days.

Hockey Haiku

Mystical bracelets,
Learning to speak Italian
Is this Skate Pray Love?

Filed Under: Art, General topics, Katie Baker, Movies, NHL, NHL Playoffs, NHL Viewing Guide, People, Sports, Ted

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes