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The Horrible Habs

Trouble in Montreal, Halloween frights, and the rest of the week in the NHL.

Mikhail Grabovski

Score a goal, record an assist, and get into a fight, all in the same game? You’ve just completed the Gordie Howe hat trick.

Pick up an assist, add an overtime goal against a team that drafted you — indirectly leading to the NHL’s first firing of the season — and then reignite the ever-simmering league-wide debate about player safety and equipment? (We’ll give you the span of two games to do this one; it’s a lot.) After this week, we’ll call this move The Mikhail Grabovski.

The oddly productive stretch for the Toronto Maple Leafs forward jokingly dubbed “Crosbovski” last year by a teammate began Saturday with the Maple Leafs down 4-3 midway through the third period against the Canadiens in Montreal. Grabovski assisted on a Nikolai Kulemin goal to tie the game at four. And when the game went into overtime, he pulled out a beauty of a crease-hugging spin move that gave the Maple Leafs the 5-4 win over his former team.

The loss dropped the Canadiens to 1-4-2 on the season, a record made even worse when the Habs fell 2-1 to the Florida Panthers two days later. The team’s dismal start meant that Montreal had officially gone longer without a second win than it had in any season since 1941-42. (For a franchise so obsessed with its own long-ago history, this may have particularly stung.) The media began questioning whether coach Jacques Martin — and his infamous “System” — might be the first on this season’s NHL chopping block.

Well, shortly before the Canadiens took to the ice Wednesday to play the Flyers, the hammer finally came down — not on Martin, but on his longtime assistant coach and close friend, Perry Pearn. (Martin reportedly tried in vain to talk general manager Pierre Gauthier out of making the decision.) It’s been suggested that Pearn, whose responsibilities included the team’s power play, was punished for the extra-man unit’s 3-for-32 start. I don’t profess to be an expert on the appropriate hierarchy of blame within Montreal’s coaching ranks, but the move seemed to come as a general shock1 — it felt a little bit like shooting a hostage’s dog, and you wondered whether the skate sharpener or the massage therapist might be the next one to take the fall.


1.

One Rogers Sportsnet reporter pointed out that “Perry Pearn has been an assistant coach for 15 seasons in the NHL, and his teams have never missed the playoffs.”

Indeed, Gauthier’s comments read a little bit sinister: “There were some eyes opened wide,” he said, describing the team’s reaction when he told them just 90 minutes before the game that their assistant coach would not be on the bench. “I didn’t talk to them very long, but the message was that things need to change.” The Habs responded by powering to an unexpected 5-1 win over Philadelphia, which irritated me a little: I just hate when these half-baked Scared Straight schemes actually work.

As for the former Montreal Canadien, Mikhail Grabovski, whose overtime goal did its small part on Saturday in setting this all in motion: The man’s work was not yet complete. On Monday, his stick connected with the face of the Flyers’ Chris Pronger during a follow-through on a shot and sent the veteran captain running off the ice screaming and clutching his eye. (Early indications are that he’ll be out for several weeks recovering from a sliced eyelid.)

The ugly scene revived the perennial debate over whether the league should mandate that players wear visors. The NHL currently “strongly recommends” that its players wear the extra equipment, but doesn’t require their use; Darren Pang reported last night that 61 percent of the league’s athletes (among them stars like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, and Pavel Datsyuk) opt to wear the eye shield. Others, however — whether fighters who feel the visor will become a nuisance, or players who have gone without the additional protection for the entirety of their careers — bristle against making it mandatory. In 1979, the league began requiring all players who signed pro contracts after June 1 of that year to wear a helmet, grandfathering in grizzled vets who chose not to change.2 It’s possible we could eventually see a similar phasing-in of visors, as well.


2.

The last player to go sans casque was Craig MacTavish, who won the Stanley Cup-sealing face-off for the Rangers in 1994, and retired, still free-headin’ it, as a St. Louis Blue in 1997.

Either way, it was quite the influential week for Grabovski, who before the season began told Yahoo’s Dmitry Chesnokov that he would score “29, or 39, or 49” goals this season. Asked why the odd number, he responded: “There should be one missing from the round number. Because there should always be a motivation to do better.” Regardless of how many goals he scores, you have to give him credit for leading the league in versatility.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

At the start of practice on Monday, Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville made his team work on some shootout drills in response to the team’s woeful early performance in the “skills competition.” (In two shootouts comprising six individual tries, all on home ice, the team had failed to score even once.) The effort paid off the next day in a game against the Anaheim Ducks, who ended up in a shootout:: First, Jonathan Toews got the puck past goalie Jonas Hiller, and then Patrick Kane sealed the win with a one-on-one score of his own.

But it wasn’t his shootout goal that left everyone whispering “that was NASTY” — it was an assist that came earlier, right around the game’s midway point. Kane’s perfectly executed spinorama pass across to Marian Hossa left agape Ducks defensemen and viewers alike. I bet the guy pulls a mean “Hey, what’s that over there?” before eating your fries.

Honorable mention goes to the tic-tac-toe passing by the New Jersey Devils that was capped off by Patrik Elias, and these dekes by Tampa Bay’s Marty St. Louis that were dirty enough to undress one of the league’s top goalies.

Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

After losing the Atlanta Thrashers, here comes another huge bummer for hockey fans in the Southeast: The University of Alabama in Huntsville has demoted its hockey program from Division I to club level, effective after this season. Joe Yerdon’s impassioned and well-informed rant is the essential read on the subject, sparing no one his anger: “This was a hired hit and one that the leaders of the CCHA, WCHA, NCHC, and Big 10 all helped bring about,” he writes. “This is what the college hockey landscape turned into — one that saw schools turn on each other to save their own skin and left the weakest of the litter out to starve.” Adding insult to injury? UAH is the host school of this season’s NCAA Frozen Four.

Coast to Coast: A Skate Around the League

  • Perennial trade partners the Florida Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks pulled the trigger on a transaction that sent David Booth (as well as Steven Reinprecht and a third-round pick in 2013)3 out to the defending Western Conference champions in exchange for Marco Sturm and Mikael Samuelsson. While Booth was one of very few Panthers who had any tenure on Florida’s reshuffled roster (he began his NHL career with the team in 2006), you’d be forgiven for not being completely up to date on Sturm’s status as a Canuck. Following his second knee surgery, in the past calendar year alone he has been a Boston Bruin, an L.A. King, and a Washington Capital before being signed this summer by Vancouver.
  • After beginning the season 5-0, the Detroit Red Wings’ showdown with the also-undefeated Capitals — which happened to be Nicklas Lidstrom’s 1,500th career game — didn’t quite go as planned, as Detroit lost 7-1 and followed up the Saturday loss by falling Tuesday to the Columbus Blue Jackets, 4-1.4 Both games, however, were played without goalie Jimmy Howard in net, as he celebrated the birth of his son, James Russell Howard IV. “Anytime you have a baby, that’s a gift from God and great for them,” said Detroit coach Mike Babcock; I really want “anytime you have a baby” to become a standard sports-related cliché along the lines of “one game at a time.”
  • As Halloween approaches, so, too, do hockey players — even the retired ones — in mildly terrifying costumes. Here, feast your eyes on Zdeno Chara in what looks like some sort of Bad Santa version of Peter Cottontail! (Brad Marchand actually pulls off his look pretty nicely.) And check out three of the Ottawa Senators’ Swedish rookies as KISS! One of them, David Rundblad, described the team’s festivities on his blog: “Other guys costumes ranged from Osama to an ‘Old man’, some more serious than others (a question of salary?)”
  • For one of those three rookies, the Halloween costume was more of a (/puts on sunglasses) kiss good-bye. The Senators sent 18-year-old Mika Zibanejad back to Sweden to develop for the remainder of the season, making him one of several young prospects who will be reassigned back to their junior teams — or tapped on the shoulder and told to “go find yourself a place to live, kid” — in the coming days. Junior players can appear in up to nine games for an NHL squad before they start to count against the salary cap, meaning that plenty of teams have some hard decisions to make right about now. But for every Mark Scheifele, who was sent back to the Barrie Colts of the OHL by the Winnipeg Jets, there is an Adam Larsson, the New Jersey Devils’ 18-year-old defenseman whose time on ice per game is the team’s second highest, behind only Ilya Kovalchuk. The question with Larsson isn’t if he’ll be sent back to juniors — that’s highly unlikely — but whether he could win the Calder Trophy if he keeps up his play.
  • This past weekend I opted to watch X-Men: First Class over Green Lantern on a cross-country flight. According to Devin Setoguchi, I chose wrong. :(
  • There’s been all kinds of save-that-puck milestones lately: In addition to Lidstrom’s 1,500-game mark, Hal Gill5 and Joe Thornton each logged their 1,000th. (Thornton also recently recorded his 700th assist with two setups in a 3-1 San Jose Sharks win over the Nashville Predators.) Phoenix’s Shane Doan netted his 300th goal Tuesday night, while Vancouver’s Sami Salo hit the 700-game mark on Saturday — no big deal, on the surface, but also no small feat for an oft-injured man who, as Yahoo’s Harrison Mooney reminds us, “is a dude so snake-bitten he once missed two games after literally being bitten by a snake.”
  • I cannot tell a lie: Sometimes I feel a little bit sorry for the Washington Capitals. I realize that as the league’s only remaining undefeated team, they don’t need my sympathy, but it’s almost impossible these days to read even the driest of game summaries without coming across some snide remark that says, either straight-up or implied: “Whatever, have fun choking in the playoffs this year.” That’s what happens when a team like the Capitals consistently wins its division — including a 121-point season in 2009-10 that earns the Presidents’ Trophy for the NHL’s best record — and then, in either the first or second round of the postseason, it gets bounced. Like a little rich kid in school, the Capitals spend their daytime hours as irritating objects of jealousy — for the fancy car that dropped them off in the morning, for the pretty outfits they wear, for the cool gadgets they have — but at the end of the day they go home to an empty mansion, their parents nowhere to be found, their dinner getting cold on the table. Not only is this exhausting, it’s a lose-lose proposition: Despised if they do, decried if they don’t. Have another strong regular season and they’ll endure an early postseason media narrative heavy with phrases like, “But are they really built for the playoffs this time?” Try to fly under the radar early on and instead they’ll be ensnared in some kind of sweeping “What’s wrong with them? FIRE BOUDREAU!” dragnet.
  • Speaking of which: Great dog names, or the greatest dog names?
  • The Edmonton city council voted 10-3 to approve a controversial new downtown arena. Councilor Tony Caterina, who had previously vehemently opposed the deal, surprised many by finally throwing in his support. “If there are people upset on both sides that actually means that this is probably a good deal,” he said. Ah, I call that line of reasoning “the pro blogger’s fallacy.” In other arena news, Gary Bettman spoke for nearly an hour with Mike Francesa on Monday, at one point addressing the New York Islanders’ ongoing saga. “I refuse to accept that this team is not going to get a new building at some point,” he said, later adding that a move to a place like Flushing, Queens is “not the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.”6
  • A number of last-(micro)second goals were scored this past week: Corey Perry knocked in a rebound with just a tick left in the second period of the Ducks’ game against Dallas, though Anaheim would fall 3-1 to the Stars; Minnesota’s Dany Heatley tied a game against Edmonton with less than a second to play to send it to overtime (the Wild ultimately won in a shootout); and the Rangers’ Ryan McDonagh tallied the OT 2-1 game winner over the Calgary Flames.

3.

To give you an idea of just how often the two teams do business with one another: The third-round pick heading from Florida to the Canucks actually came from Vancouver in the first place in exchange for Chris Higgins just before the trade deadline last year.

4.

The game was the first back for Shanabanned defenseman James Wisniewski, and the team’s first win.

5.

To understand why the lumbering 6-foot-7 Hal Gill reaching the thousand-game club is such a delightful surprise, just know that his nickname of “Skillsy” is the equivalent of a 300-pound bouncer called “Slim,” or check out this great HFBoards post: “Is there a historical comparison for Hal Gill?”

6.

Can you even begin to imagine what might be the craziest thing Gary Bettman has ever heard?! I’ve got to think that Brian Burke, a delayed flight to Vancouver, and an airport bar were involved.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

After getting off to a good start, Flyers goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov has fallen into a bit of a mini-slump. Still, even when losing, the affable and honest netminder can always be counted on for a winning quote — even if it comes at the expense of the easiest of targets:

“You probably would love to stay home once in a while too, instead of go here and write something, right?” he ribbed a cluster of sportswriters in a sound bite posted by Philadelphia Sports Daily.“Ask some questions from the players, same over and over again, just change the name. … It’s a very boring life for everybody, for you guys, for us … practice, game, practice, game, sleep, game, practice. You write, you ask questions, sit at a computer, write answers.”

Ah, those Russians … they really know how to make anything sound totally bleak.

Hockey Haiku

Stolen cash stolen?
Maybe Saku Koivu wrote
The screenplay for Drive.

Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.


Previously from Katie Baker:
Coming to Grips With the Winter Classic
The Endless Battle Over Hockey Fights
Week 1 in the NHL
How to Pick an NHL Team
Coldhearted: Our Weekly Hockey Column Debuts
Wedded Blitz!: A sabermetric analysis of the September New York Times wedding announcements
The Timetable: Sidney Crosby’s Lost Year

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