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West Coast Bias

The best teams in the league aren’t out East. Plus, the rest of the week in the NHL.

Matt Duchene

After a Los Angeles Kings morning skate on Monday, the media informed head coach Darryl Sutter that Kings center Jeff Carter had been recognized by the NHL as its “Third Star of the Week” for his stretch of six goals in four games, which included his fifth career hat trick.

Sutter (wise and droll as ever, a Canadian Curly) took in the news. “It’s good they’re watching guys in the West once in a while,” he said.

Ah, the old “East Coast bias” complaint! Hello, darkness, my old friend. For years, far-flung fans (and franchise employees) have seen it as their manifest destiny to insist that their teams, divisions, and conferences don’t get the attention, TV time, and marketing oomph they deserve. In the mind of the ECBB (East Coast Bias Believer), no one has ever actually seen his team play, which is why it is perpetually being passed over despite being baseline better than anything out of the — for authenticity turn up your nose in disdain here — Atlantic.

Midway through this season, though, it’s beginning to look like the Westerners will be getting their fair share of attention throughout the next few months. They’ll have to. There were, of course, the Chicago Blackhawks, who “brought hockey back” and “made the game matter again” — no small task. But so many of the other big stories in the NHL currently come from out yonder, too — including the one that goes like this: Sutter’s team is playing about as well right now as it did during its championship-stretch run last season, and ought to be feared and respected, the end. (Depending on whom you tell this to, it’s either a horoscope or a horror story.)

A quick glance at the NHL standings reveals how nutso things are out west: Just four points separate the third-place team from the 11th-place team right now. (Compare that with the East, where the same spread is 12.) The Colorado Avalanche are dead last in the conference, and yet you still get the sense, as when Matt Duchene scored the overtime game-winner the other night against the Sharks, that nothing’s really out of the question.

That’s not all that’s out of whack. San Jose Sharks defenseman and Encino Man ringer Brent Burns is doing stints as a forward. The Calgary Flames might actually trade Jarome Iginla this time. The Phoenix Coyotes live doggedly on.

The biggest free-agent signing of the season thus far (Ryan Getzlaf) was done by the Anaheim Ducks, who now face the compelling challenge of figuring out what to do with another of their stars, Corey Perry.1 The most surprising rookie of the year so far is the Minnesota Wild’s young defenseman Jonas Brodin — or, wait, is it L.A.’s young defenseman Jake Muzzin, or Justin Schultz of Edmonton? And speaking of Edmonton, there’s no team with a more fascinating mix of characters than that merry band of teens. (Well, two teens, anyway.) Also, the Western Conference has Teemu Selanne, Pavel Datsyuk, and the L.A. Kings Twitter account. There’s no answer to that.


1.

For the next four games, the Ducks will get a glimpse of what could be their future without Perry; he was suspended for a hit on Minnesota’s Jason Zucker. As for the Getzlaf contract: It’s expensive, for sure, but one of the consequences of limits on contract length in the new CBA is going to be heftier cap hits, since teams can’t spread out terms by tacking on five extra years. Getzlaf would have gone for even more money in the open market. The next two players to watch? Perry, who becomes a free agent this season, and Geno Malkin, whose contract is up in 2014.

This is nothing against the East, which houses both “my team” and, more broadly, “my childhood.” I was rarely one to stay up until 1 a.m. watching random Northwest Division games. But I’ve slowly come to realize that not everything worth watching originates off a stop on the Acela. And since moving to California a year and a half ago, I can more clearly see the shades of Saul Steinberg and his famous “View of the World from 9th Avenue.” Only this time I’m on the far side of the image. It’s happening. I’m becoming an East Coast Bias Believer. It was only a matter of time.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

You could write a long list of some of the good moves Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero has made, but few have impressed me more in their execution than the way he handled the Jordan Staal situation last summer. This is in part because I’ve grown accustomed to pending free-agent situations in all sports deteriorating into hideous sideshows, but it’s also largely because I happened to be in Pittsburgh at the time and felt immersed in the way the whole thing unfolded.

I was driving from the airport to my hotel in my rental car when the news hit drive-time sports-talk radio that Staal had rejected a 10-year offer from the team; I was milling around during the early first round of the draft when Gary Bettman took the stage to smirkingly announce that Staal had been traded to the Hurricanes, provoking a pretty incredible and sort of indescribable reaction from the local crowd;2 I was wedged in a mob around Carolina GM Jim Rutherford when he remarked that he hadn’t yet talked to Staal on account of it being his wedding day; and I spent the rest of the weekend in bars listening to Yinzers say “I hear this Sutter kid’s pretty good.”


2.

It was this great raw mix of excitement (a draft-day trade, involving the home team!), relief, nostalgia (Staal was one of Pittsburgh’s more popular players), general drunkenness, and genuine surprise.

“This Sutter kid” was Brandon Sutter, who wasn’t even the headliner in the deal — most people were focused on Staal and the no. 8 overall pick that Carolina gave to the Penguins — but was reportedly a main target of Shero’s. It’s become evident why. “He’s so much like Jordan [Staal],” Penguin Tyler Kennedy told the Tribune-Review. “They’re both great defensively. And he’s got that scoring touch, too. He can score goals when he wants.”

Kennedy looked prescient on all counts Tuesday night, when Sutter netted both the game-tying and -winning goals in a 3-2 comeback win by the Penguins over the Boston Bruins. The game-winner came when he alertly picked off a Boston breakout pass and skated in to score, passing up an in-position Sidney Crosby in the process.

“I think Sid will be all right for a day,” Sutter said of the Sid snub. “He’s already jabbed me a bit. But it’s a good win for us.”3


3.

They’re all ostensibly kidding around, but this whole thing has nevertheless gotten me wondering if we could ever see a Kobefication of Sid. He’d join Twitter; his assist numbers would start to plummet; he’d make up hashtags about the velocity of wine or whatever. He’d maintain an emo Instagram account at the 2030 Olympics and give interviews in which he smirks and says things like “I don’t like them, because I don’t like any guy on their team, soooo …” (hey, wait), and he’d definitely see to it that guys like Brandon Sutter are made aware of their transgressions.

Elsewhere this week: This spinorama by the Phoenix Coyotes’ young treasure Oliver Ekman-Larsson reminds me of one of those animated videos explaining plate tectonics. Except those things are slow and steady time lapses covering billions of years, whereas this took place in the span of a few seconds. Ridiculous. Play like that and you can chill like this.

And the Ducks’ Andrew Cogliano and his 23 percent shooting continued to laugh in the face of statistical regression with this shorthanded snipe; Alex Semin converted a pretty backhand (and was rewarded with a prank call); breakout Penguin4 Chris Kunitz recorded a hat trick; and Marcus Foligno of the Buffalo Sabres showed off a nifty piece of stick work, putting the puck between his own legs and past Henrik Lundqvist.


4.

I hope I just inspired the formation of a Pittsburgh-area punk band called Breakout Penguin Chris Kunitz.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

“You lose both games, you done,” said Philadelphia goalie Ilya Bryzgalov on Tuesday, a day before the Flyers were set to face the Devils in two pivotal games. “You done. That’s it. This is it. This is probably reality. You’d be eight points behind … and not many games to catch up. It would be very, very difficult.”

Here’s how the Flyers rose to the challenge in Wednesday’s game:

http://nhl.cdn.neulion.net/u/videocenter-v1/embed.swf

Most of the game was like that. Most of this season has been like that. That’s Braydon Coburn sliding helplessly on the ice there as Andrei Loktionov makes it 4-1, but really, it could have been anyone. His jersey might as well just say ALL OF US5 on the back. “The Flyers look like a beaten, dejected team right now,” tweeted NHL.com’s Mike Morreale. “There is absolutely no emotion on the bench and Lavi gum-chewing meter at 8.5.” Broad Street Hockey’s Travis Hughes was straightforward in his game recap headline: “Okay, so they’re just bad.” His commenters, meanwhile, coped through denial, trading cute baby-animal GIFs (chinchillas chilling in wine glasses!) and making small talk about Viggo Mortensen — anything to avoid facing their Flyers.


5.

EXCEPT JAKUB VORACEK.

Friday’s rematch against the Devils now takes on more significance than even Bryz assigned. Peter Laviolette’s seat is getting increasingly hot. The trade deadline is approaching, and the Flyers — never ones to turn down the chance to transact big time — might be entering it as unexpected sellers if their slide continues. Their odds of making the playoffs, as estimated by Sports Club Stats, have dwindled to the mid-single digits, and another loss could be the knockout blow. Hey, on the bright side, Seth Jones would look pretty fantastic in Flyers orange.

Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League

• Speaking of the annals of Eastern Conference despair, Ryan Cooper of Capitals Outsider has a few questions he’d like to ask Washington GM George McPhee: “Did he, as some have postulated, think there was going to be no season, and built his team that way? Did he think because his division is so terrible, that they could go super cheap and still contend for a division title? … Are the Capitals ever going to sign another significant big name free agent ever again (the last one I can think of is Jagr)?”

• I loved this little segment on NBC Sports about how Zdeno Chara6 has to defend Sidney Crosby. It was fun to watch him using Brian Engblom as a body double. The whole thing is really a testament to how impressively both players use their bodies: Chara is agile despite being 6-foot-9, while Crosby, with his epic bottom-heaviness, is like the Michael Phelps of hockey: His frame is so well tailored to his sport, it might as well be bespoke. (I’ve referenced this a lot, I think, but one of my favorite Crosby details will forever be his childhood YMCA lifeguard telling his mom that she had never seen “a 4-year-old with developed pecs before.”)


6.

For more Chara fun, enjoy this video of him standing next to 95-year-old Milt Schmidt.

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• A couple of Thursday-night games will result in big swings in the playoff picture — something we ought to get used to over the second half of the season. The eighth-place Rangers and ninth-place Jets will play in a game with substantial implications: A Rangers win, for example, would put New York’s playoff likelihood at 78.7 percent, while a loss would drop their chances to 62 percent. A game between the St. Louis Blues and Phoenix Coyotes, who are separated by just a point in the deadlocked West, will produce similar 20-percentage-point swings.

• I really enjoyed this piece by Ryan Lambert about the retirement of Jack Parker — the Boston University coach who was more like an institution — and the kind of legacy he’ll leave behind.

• After Kaspars Daugavins of the Ottawa Senators tried but failed on a bonkers style of shootout attempt (above), hockey snobs the world over rushed to compare it to a similar move tried out in 1990 by Phil Bourque. The only problem? No one really had video of Bourque’s move, and YouTube was no dice. Props to the NHL video crew for realizing this and making available some of the Bourque footage so quickly.

http://nhl.cdn.neulion.net/u/videocenter-v1/embed.swf

• There are two traditions in high school athletics that I eagerly anticipate throughout the year: the release of the “All–Old Lady Name Team” in women’s lacrosse and the recap of the best hair in the Minnesota high school hockey state tournament. “One tier. The way it should be. Pure.”7


7.

If you can’t stomach words like “moist” (shudder) or “sneaky little mustache — a caterpillar” being used to describe the hair of high school boys, you might want to listen with the sound off, fair warning.

• The news that Chris Kelly broke his tibia made me think of one of the better details in Brad Marchand’s latest entry into the diary he’s keeping for ESPN.com. (It’s Christmas when I find out that a new entry has been posted.) Asked who the grumpiest guy on the team is, he wrote:

Thorty [Shawn Thornton] is a grumpy dude but I have to say it’s [Chris] Kelly. Kelly is by far the grumpiest guy on the team. It’s just him and how he is. But he’s also a funny guy who is just a little grumpy at times.

I would definitely watch a Daily Show–style segment of NHL players being asked to expound upon the relative grumpiness of their teammates. You wonder if Chris Kelly’s injury will suddenly turn him into a super-relaxed, affable guy — you know, the kind of bro who enjoys a good Claude Julien GIF here and there.

• Great stat from Devils beat writer Tom Gulitti regarding Ilya Kovalchuk: Of his 10 goals this season, three have come five-on-five, one four-on-four, two on the power play — and four shorthanded. If that doesn’t say enough about his outrageous all-around importance to the Devils, maybe this will: Take a look at the time-on-ice-per-game leaders in the NHL. The first 60 guys are all defensemen, with the exception of Steven Stamkos (59th overall) and Kovalchuk, whose 25:31 per game is the 11th highest in the league. Says it all, really.

And a Beauty! The Week’s Nicest in Net

There are a lot of great things about the NHL, but I think one of my top three (the other two being the way Canadian TV crews tape their microphones to old hockey sticks so they can better position them during big media scrums, and John Tortorella in general) is the concept of the emergency backup goalie. This is a person who does not exist anywhere near the team’s depth chart but who for whatever reason — usually, it’s a road team’s goalie getting injured or sick on the day of a game without enough time to fly in a guy from the minors — gets to suit up, take shots in pregame warm-ups, open and close the bench doors, and pray that the starting netminder doesn’t somehow get injured.

It’s never not a great little Area Man story. Guys are, variously, 51 years old; plucked from barber chairs; and fantasy hockey owners of their new teammates. I wish this kind of thing could happen more in other sports. Imagine a Rudy situation with some local high school gym coach. The movie treatments write themselves.

Anyway, earlier this month Florida Panthers goalie coach Robb Tallas, a former NHL backstop who is now the team’s goalie consultant, spent a hot minute suiting up for the team after Jose Theodore got injured and United Airlines misplaced Jacob Markstrom’s equipment. (It finally arrived in time for Markstrom to get out on the bench.)

And this past Tuesday, when Anaheim Ducks starting goalie Viktor Fasth was hurt at the last minute while the Ducks were in Minnesota to play the Wild, Anaheim needed a stopgap. It found one in Zach Sikich, a 32-year-old new father and goalie consultant who had stood in net during a Ducks practice last year. He didn’t last long — minor leaguer Jeff Deslauriers showed up before the first intermission — but he got a sweet NHL game-worn jersey and, more importantly, some precious advertising. Asked about his conspicuous baby-blue equipment, Sikich told the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the goalie school he founded.

“Blue is one of our colors at ProHybrid,” he said. “When I was getting pads awhile back, I wanted a distinctive color, so people would ask about them, and I could plug ProHybrid.”

Mission accomplished. There are 8 million stories in these backup goalies, as they kind of say.

On to a few of the week’s notable saves. Henrik Lundqvist doesn’t normally spend too much time rolling around, but the Buffalo Sabres brought it out of him. (It was less-celebrated Swede Jhonas Enroth who picked up the win, though.)

Philadelphia’s Brayden Schenn briefly moonlights as a goalie (this is what passes for a sweet highlight out of Philly these days):

Also: Jonas Gustavsson stretches out a leg to stop Mikael Backlund on a penalty shot (don’t watch if you’ve got a tight groin); Miikka Kiprusoff bails himself out; and Ondrej Pavelec makes a glove save with authority.

http://nhl.cdn.neulion.net/u/videocenter-v1/embed.swf

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

Less than a year ago, the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Jake Gardiner was one of six players to be selected to the 2011-12 NHL All-Rookie Team. As a seven-goal, 30-point contributor who appeared 75 times for Toronto, Gardiner led all NHL rookie defensemen in scoring and logged more than 20 minutes on ice a game.

He’s spent most of this season in the minor leagues, though. Like many young players, Gardiner played in the American Hockey League during the lockout, but in December he suffered a concussion. He returned — perhaps too hastily — to play two games for the Leafs in late January, and was sent back down to the AHL affiliate Toronto Marlies soon after. He hasn’t been called up again since, even though the Leafs have cooled off lately.

Which is why, the other night, his agent Ben Hankinson of Octagon tweeted “#FreeJakeGardiner.”

It wasn’t anything too crazy, as these things go, but it was also done in the aftermath of an ugly 5-2 Leafs loss to Winnipeg and thus grabbed the rabid attention of an increasingly restless fan base. Hankinson has left the tweet up — although, curiously, he did un-retweet this — but it’s been as much of a pain in the ass for his client as it has been an endorsement.

At a Marlies practice on Wednesday, Gardiner and his head coach, Dallas Eakins, were peppered with questions about the situation; Gardiner did his best to diffuse things, while Eakins held forth in candid fashion. “I don’t want him happy to be here,” Eakins said. “I don’t want any of our players to be happy being here. I want him to be clawing to get out of this dressing room and back to the NHL. And he’s there.”

For the time being, the Toronto Maple Leafs don’t appear to agree with the last part of that assessment.

Hockey Haiku

The barbaric yawn
Adrenalin’s evil twin
We have all been there