Just under four minutes had gone by in the second period of the Boston Bruins’ Wednesday night road game against the New Jersey Devils, and the Bruins were seconds away from killing off a New Jersey power play. With the man advantage winding down, the Devils’ Adam Larsson, a prized 19-year-old rookie defenseman who was picked fourth overall by the Devils in this year’s draft, received the puck at the right point and took a low, heavy slap shot that he hoped might find its way through a screen, or off a stick or a skate, and somehow get past Bruins goaltender Tim Thomas to tie the game at 2-2
Barely five seconds later, the Bruins were instead up 3-1, because Boston’s Patrice Bergeron had barreled out toward the blue line with such speed and strength that the attempt caromed right off him and back behind Larsson, who could do little else but reach back and try to impede Bergeron’s forward momentum with his stick. The ref raised his arm to signify a delayed penalty on Larsson, Bergeron barely even registered the contact as he broke away toward Martin Brodeur, and the Devils goalie barely even had a chance, ending up sprawled onto his side as Bergeron slid the puck past his outstretched glove and into the net.
It wasn’t a shorthanded goal, technically, as the Bruins penalty to Nathan Horton had ticked down to zero right around the time that Bergeron flew past center ice, but start to finish it was as close as could be to the 13th shorthanded goal surrendered by the Devils this season. (In contrast, the Bruins are the only team in the league to have given up none.) One thing it absolutely was, though, was pure Selke.
“It’s the body, it’s the head, it’s the feet, it’s the hands that make it work for Bergeron,” gushed NBC Sports’ Pierre McGuire.
A strange way to put it, perhaps, but you could pretty much say the same thing about the Boston Bruins in general over the last two months, a span in which the team has only three regulation losses1 following a groggy 3-7 October start. They are the NHL’s most productive team in goals scored per game, the stingiest in goals allowed, and they have amassed a gaudy +60 goal differential less than halfway through the season. No one has a better tandem in net than Tuukka Rask and Thomas, who are, respectively, first and second in the league in save percentage and first and third in goals against average. (Rask has appeared in 13 games this season, while Thomas has been in net 25 times.) No one is better at faceoffs. Only the New York Rangers have gotten into more fights.
Before a New Year’s Eve loss to Dallas, they’d rattled off seven straight wins.
If there’s a category in which the Bruins don’t straightforwardly shine, it’s in league scoring leaders. The team has no one who is within the top 30 in individual points. But that’s precisely what makes them so scary. In the Devils game, which they went on to methodically win 6-1 — the 10th time this season they’ve scored six or more goals — there were 12 players who earned either a goal or an assist, and only five who did not. How can you defend against that kind of depth? (And sync: It seems like each goal is tic-tac-toe-ier than the last.) And even if you’re able, how can you score? The last time the Bruins gave up more than two goals was December 10.
But being this good halfway through the season, or even through to the end of the season, is no sure sign of a Stanley Cup run. Just ask the Washington Capitals. Or ask the Vancouver Canucks, who lost to Boston in seven games last year in much the same way that everyone keeps losing to them now: by getting beaten up and worn down, getting shut down and lit up. The Canucks are one of the few teams that are up there with the Bruins in most statistical categories, which makes this Saturday’s afternoon showdown between the two teams — the first time they’ve met since the Bruins hoisted the Cup on Vancouver’s home ice as the streets outside raged with fire — a game that is not to be missed.
Another game worth checking out takes place tonight: the gold-medal game of the World Junior Championships between Russia and Sweden. The annual under-20 tournament has long been a hotly contested and closely watched showcase of the world’s rising hockey talent.2
The word “rising” might not apply to the U.S. team, which had been expected to make a deep run after winning gold in 2010 but failed to even advance to the medal round.
Russia, which shocked Canada last year in the finals (and then got so drunk they were kicked off their flight out of Buffalo the next morning), faced off against its Canadian rival in Tuesday night’s semifinals and very nearly squandered a 6-1 lead in the third period. They held on to win 6-5 and will face Sweden, the only team to have defeated them in this year’s tournament. Sweden advanced by virtue of a 3-2 shootout victory over Finland in which they battled back from a 2-0 deficit. A gold medal would be their first since 1981.
Sweden has been led lately by Max Friberg, an Anaheim Ducks prospect who scored the game-tying goal and assisted in overtime during Sweden’s round-robin game against Russia this weekend, and who had a goal and an assist in the third period against Finland, not to mention the shootout winner. On the Russian side, players to watch include Nail Yakupov,3 whom many project to be the first pick in next year’s NHL draft, and Yevgeni Kuznetsov, who leads the tournament with six goals and 13 points and raised the ire of certain Canadian writers with his ebullient play Thursday.
I enjoyed Yakupov’s remarks after his team’s semifinal win: “We win. We’re pretty excited. We beat Canada. Russia’s better than Canada.”
Kuznetsov, whose rights are owned by the Washington Capitals but who could very well end up remaining in Russia to play for the KHL, was profiled at age 12 — a year after his older brother was murdered in 2003 — in Dave Bidini’s Hockey Nomad film. It’s really worth checking out, just as the game tonight will be.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
The Montreal Canadiens have tried everything to get a jolt out of their team, firing an assistant coach earlier this season and more recently bidding au revoir to head coach Jacques Martin. But it was, of all things, the shelving of the team’s usual goal-celebration song in favor of an old, pre-lockout light-the-lamp anthem that seemed to actually do the trick — at least for center Lars Eller. The 22-year-old Dane, who entered Wednesday’s contest against the Winnipeg Jets with four goals on the season, scored four more last night alone, the last a penalty shot spin-o-rama, in Montreal’s 7-3 win. He must really like the new-old song.4
And the fans must really like Eller: In addition to all the hats that were thrown onto the rink after his third score, someone may have tossed out … a dildo. (That link, by the way, has quite possibly the highest obscure-reference-to-total-word ratio of anything Greg Wyshynski has ever written, which is saying a LOT. And who doesn’t love a good Hal Gill zinger?)
Other goals I enjoyed this past week included (but are not limited to): some vintage Ovechkin,5 the hockey equivalent of an alley-oop pass, and Dallas’ Loui Eriksson making everyone else on the ice look entirely worthless.
If you need me, I’ll be staccato-ing “that was just a wicked dart over the butterflyer Kiprusoff” happily to myself for the next couple of hours.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers
Tampa Bay coach Guy Boucher had a quote worthy of the name of this section, saying of his team following its 7-3 loss to Toronto: “We’re horrible against everybody on the road. Sometimes I feel we could have four orange cones against us on the road and still wouldn’t manage to get a shot.”
The Lightning’s offense has certainly lagged, despite the efforts of Steven Stamkos, who leads the NHL in goal scoring with 27.6 But it’s the team’s own defense and goaltending that are more likely to conjure the image of inert traffic cones. Injuries to the blue line — from Mattias Ohlund, whose projected midseason return from knee surgery no longer seems possible following reports that he’s had significant setbacks in his recovery, to Victor Hedman, who was recently sidelined with a concussion — have combined with unreliable goaltending to make Tampa Bay one of the league’s most porous squads. Only two other teams have given up more goals against.
Only five of them have come on Tampa’s sad power play, though.
When Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman was spotted Wednesday night at a game between the Vancouver Canucks and the Minnesota Wild, speculation increased that he’s considering making a move. But Tampa Bay’s problems are such that it’s hard to pinpoint whether he was taking a look at Josh Harding, Minnesota’s backup goaltender who could be a worthy replacement to struggling Mathieu Garon or 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson, or the deep corps of defensemen on both the Wild and the Canucks. There’s a good chance it was probably both.
Taking It Coast to Coast: A Lap Around the League
- I don’t want to go without mentioning a serious and sad story out of the greater hockey world. Sixteen-year-old Jack Jablonski, a sophomore at Benilde-St. Margaret’s high school in Minnesota, took an awkward check in a junior varsity game over the weekend that left him paralyzed. On Wednesday his family wrote that the teen, known as “Jabby,” who had scored a goal earlier in the game, had suffered a severed spinal cord and “will not be able to walk or skate.”7 The outpouring of encouragement from the hockey community, up to and including current and former NHL players, coaches, and executives, is at the very, very least a testament to the sport’s closely knit brotherhood, one that will hopefully remain an ongoing source of inspiration and support to Jack and his family in the days, weeks, and even years to come.
- The Calgary Flames’ Jarome Iginla currently has 499 goals and will try to become the 42nd player to reach the 500 club when the Flames play the Boston Bruins tonight. Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom netted his 100th on Friday against Buffalo. And Ottawa’s Daniel Alfredsson earned his 400th career goal in a big-time way Friday night, scoring in overtime to give the Senators a 4-3 win over Calgary in a game they had trailed 3-0 after the first period.8 Three days later, the 39-year-old captain, who has played for the Senators ever since they selected him in the sixth round of the 1994 NHL draft, scored his 401st goal in the same way: in overtime for a come-from-behind win, this time over the Devils.
- If you came here only to seek Rangers-Flyers Winter Classic coverage, check back tomorrow — I’ll have a recap of tonight’s final (tear!!!) episode of HBO’s 24/7 mixed in with some observations from my weekend in Philly. (You can also read my 12 observations from the 2012 Winter Classic here.)
- The Blue Jackets’ Derek Dorsett alleged that Alex Ovechkin spat on him during a Saturday game between Columbus and Washington. But honestly, whether he did or did not Ovech-torate is beside the point as far as I’m concerned, because all I can think about are these lines from the Washington Examiner‘s Brian McNally’s report on the matter: “Ovechkin seemed taken aback by the question, not quite getting what ‘spit’ meant in English. When given a visual demonstration he was emphatic that the incident didn’t happen as Dorsett said.” I mean I need to know everything about this. Which poor reporter performed the pantomime? Did it take several tries to get the translation across? Were they so flustered that a little bit of drool actually came out of their mouth? Because that would 100 percent happen to me.9
- Speaking of Russian translations: I ran this tweet by Slava Malamud through Google Translate and the broken result is a joy: “Met yesterday with Lou Lamorello. A very interesting grandfather. He rang me when Fetisov. It turned out that he was vacationing in Mexico.”
- The small exterior changes had been slowly creeping in all season, but on Monday the artist formerly known as VERSUS (née Outdoor Life Network) officially had its big surgery and is now biologically the NBC Sports Network. In a sign of the synergies that we might expect from this life change, Islanders coach Jack Capuano will be a special guest on something called Charlie Moore: No Offense, an NBCSN original series in which “Emmy Award-winning sports fanatic and avid angler Charlie Moore leaves his home waters and goes on numerous adventures taking viewers on a rip-roaring ride through the water.” Not sure I’d want to be alone on a boat with Capuano; the guy looks like he may have had some experience dumping bodies.
- I’ve watched this YouTube video of Don Cherry’s “piano desk” more times than Grapes has ever hollered the phrase “he’s a good Canadian boy.”
- The St. Louis Blues are 16-5-5 since replacing former head coach Davis Payne with Ken Hitchcock in November, but off the ice the franchise is still facing a huge question mark: Who will buy the team? Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that an October purchase agreement between the Blues and Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer was terminated by the NHL this week after a Saturday deadline passed without final financing terms being settled. The situation remains murky, however: While a consortium of investors led by current 10 percent minority owner Tom Stillman (and possibly including Brett Hull) is reportedly considering buying the team, there are also reports that a deal with Hulsizer may still be in the works. If that’s not the case, Hulsizer will now have two black eyes, Tom Poti-style: Earlier this summer, he abandoned a bid to buy the Phoenix Coyotes after encountering resistance from the city of Glendale, Ariz., from whom he hoped to raise funds via the issue of municipal bonds.
- Jiri Hudler scored twice Tuesday night to help the Detroit Red Wings defeat the Dallas Stars, 5-4. The goals were his 10th and 11th of the season, meaning that in 38 games the Czech, who turned 28 yesterday, has already topped his goal-scoring total from all of last season. It’s a promising comeback for Hudler, who was an integral part in the Red Wings’ 2008 Stanley Cup win but who in 2009 turned down a Red Wings contract-extension offer, defected to the KHL’s Dynamo Moscow for more cash after a protracted NHL arbitration and NHL-KHL transfer dispute,10 then was released by Dynamo a year later when the club essentially ran out of money and merged with another Russian squad.11 The Red Wings welcomed him back last season, but he failed to live up to the potential he had shown prior to leaving the league. This season, though — his final one before his current two-year deal with the Red Wings is up — he appears to be getting back on track, with 11 goals and 14 assists and recent success on a line with Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filppula.
The accident was reminiscent of the one suffered by former Boston University player Travis Roy, who was paralyzed in 1995 just 11 seconds into his first college game. Roy’s number is the only one to have been retired by BU, and in 2011 alone the foundation bearing his name awarded close to $300,000 worth of grants to over 100 individuals with spinal cord injuries toward the purchase of adaptive equipment.
The Senators may very well be this season’s biggest surprise. Roundly projected to finish as one of the (if not the) worst teams in the league, Ottawa currently stands in sixth place in the Eastern Conference and would make the playoffs if they started today. With the All-Star game being held in Ottawa later this month, the league announced this morning that four Senators had been voted in.
Which is why I like to remain as pointlessly far out on the periphery of scrums as I possibly can.
Chirping Like a Chump: The Worst Mouthing Off
Some background can be found here; as with so many things in the NHL and in life, it all came down to botched paperwork.
As George Malik described: “The only equivalent I can compare this to in professional sports is witnessing the Chicago Cubs merge with the Milwaukee Brewers, or the New York Rangers merge with the Islanders.”
I tweaked the usual title of this section ever so slightly this week.12 That’s because the NHL has had quite a bit on its hands — if you thought your first couple of days back at work after the holidays have been brutal, just be glad you’re not employed by the league. In addition to the Shanabans doled out yesterday to the Blackhawks’ Daniel Carcillo and the Flames’ Rene Bourque, the league issued a $30,000 fine to Rangers coach John Tortorella for comments he made following the Winter Classic in which he called the officiating “disgusting.” And the NHL also announced the Florida Panthers’ Krys Barch, who had been accused of uttering a racially charged remark at the Canadiens’ P.K. Subban on Saturday night, would be suspended for one game.
For any newcomers: (a) Welcome! and (b) it’s usually spelled with a “Champ” and a “Best.”
Now, I wasn’t there for what Barch said on the ice, obviously, but the rumors are that, after seeing Subban fall down, Barch later inquired as to whether the Canadiens player had perhaps chanced upon the detritus of a certain fruit commonly depicted in cartoon gags and games of Mario Kart to be mighty slippery. Barch insists that it was not an intentionally bigoted statement, but the whole thing seems pretty lose-lose regardless. If he did mean that sort of harm, well that simply ain’t OK, particularly considering the Wayne Simmonds incident this fall.13 If he said it with complete innocence, however, that’s pretty upsetting, too — I need my NHL players to have a better trash-talking arsenal than “Have a nice trip? See you next fall!”-level zingers, you know?
During a preseason game, someone in the stands threw a banana at Wayne Simmonds, who is black; the man was later tracked down by authorities. Three days later, in a game against the Rangers, a camera caught pretty clear footage (but no sound) of Simmonds calling Sean Avery a “fucking faggot.” He was not disciplined for the incident because the on-ice official, who was standing about a foot from Simmonds and even skated over to restrain him, claimed not to have heard anything. In the Barch case, the linesman’s hearing was a whole lot sharper — but the intent of what was said remains much more unclear.
I was there when Tortorella made his remarks, though, and I think the general reaction in the room was that he was kind of half kidding. I say “kind of half” because anyone who watched the closing minutes of the Winter Classic knows that his underlying assessment of the quality of the officiating was pretty legit.14 On the other hand, anyone who actually thinks that Tortorella really believes that “NBC got together with the refs or what to turn this into an overtime game” must not be very much fun to hang out with.
Also, his qualifications — he called the officials “two good refs” and also “good guys,” in the same way that when you’re making fun of someone you always tack on a token “but she’s really nice, though” — suggested he was being somewhat honest.
I’m not disagreeing with the fact that Tortorella got fined. Any coach knows better than to explicitly call out officials (and broadcast partners!), especially after a game with as many eyes and ears as the Winter Classic. The fact that the clip has been so repeatedly played on TV, and the conspiracy theory vibe of it all, makes it even more difficult for the league to ignore. But I do think there’s a reason that it took more than a full day for the whole episode to really blow up. And that’s the fact that most of the media assembled in the room sensed that, while a “good quote” and “something that has to be covered,” his words weren’t quite as malicious in context. Really, Torts’ biggest mistake was that, with his never-changing expression of half exasperation and half twinkle, he’s just lousy at being much of a ham.
For all 12 reasons
(But mostly “Show Me Your V”)
I’ll miss you, VERSUS.
Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Katie Baker:
Wedded Blitz: December in the New York Times Wedding Section
The Sacre Bleu Issue With the Canadiens’ New Coach
The Hidden Drama in HBO’s 24/7
Hockey’s Fighting ‘Problem’
The NHL Coaching Carousel Spins Off Its Axis
Broadway Blueshirts Are Becoming Must-See Theatre
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