After scoring the game-tying goal last night in the Chicago Blackhawks’ eventual win over the Colorado Avalanche, captain Jonathan Toews finished his postgame TV interview and then scampered over to interrupt someone else’s.
Typically, any media attention surrounding Daniel Carcillo means that the Chicago tough guy is in trouble or injured.1 But here things were all good: Carcillo had knocked in the game-winner with less than a minute to play, helping to decisively extend the Blackhawks’ 24-and-counting streak of games without a regulation loss. He had fallen to his knees like Andre Agassi winning Wimbledon, if Andre Agassi had been missing his most prominent teeth. And now, the game over and the United Center emptying out and the microphone held in his face, he was being sneaked up on from behind by Jonathan Toews and receiving a loving tousle of his shaggy wet hair. It was one step away from a noogie.
The camera-bombing was a rare display of abandon from the hard-to-crack Toews, though it was also in keeping with his personality. The 24-year-old often projects the beyond-his-years ethic of an oldest child in a brood of orphans: workmanlike, baby-faced, instinctively protective, no-nonsense, but also given to moments of brotherly humanity. (In this Dickensian universe I’ve constructed, Patrick Kane is the ruffian wild child adept at stealing bread and Joel Quenneville’s facial hair is unchanged.) He’s usually serious, because the situation — the unrelenting grind of a season — is usually serious, too. Although it goes deeper than that. In this great 2010 piece on Toews and Kane as kids, the former’s mother recalls, “Even when he was coloring, he made sure he was not going to go over the lines We always told him, ‘Just let your hair down. Have fun.'”
Maybe that’s why he seems to understand that the team’s flush times need to be celebrated and embraced, especially when they’ve been so hard-earned. And when he’s scoring shorthanded and serpentine goals like he did against Colorado, he deserves to appreciate them.
“We’re pretty much cheering and almost laughing on the bench,” he told ESPN Chicago. “It’s just fun right now.”
The Blackhawks’ streak is in many ways a perfect one: impressive but not oppressive; noteworthy but low-stakes. It has reached a clear tipping point in sports culture, becoming part of the news-news and not just the hockey news, getting roped into meaningless but lucrative debates like “Which streak is more impressive: the Blackhawks’ or the Miami Heat’s?” Even LeBron James has taken note; the other night he tweeted, “Hey Chicago Blackhawks, u guys are AWESOME!! #streaking.” (The best were the responses from Patrick Kane and Bryan Bickell. I would pay large sums of money to hear their inner monologues while constructing their replies. “Should I call him ‘bud’ or ‘man’?”) One radio show even featured Wayne Gretzky trying to rope Michael Jordan into the Blackhawks love-in.
And yet despite all this, there’s nothing too overwhelming about the Blackhawks’ streak right now. It’s not Sidney Crosby in the fall of 2010 trying to score a point every game, or an NFL team getting publicly undermined by the 1972 Miami Dolphins at every turn. Not that LeBron James should be considered an expert in hockey just because he touched upon it on Twitter, but still — someone should ask him if he knows what the Blackhawks streak actually is. The Hawks have leeway — had Carcillo not scored last night, they still probably would have extended the run by playing to a regulation tie. The result is that, far from being distracted by the streak, the Hawks have been able to use it to their advantage.
“If we’re down a goal in the third period we can put a lot of pressure on the other team,” Toews said, “and really make them have to really just survive the pressure we put on them.”
That’s a hallmark of all the best teams or athletes — think the New England Patriots in their undefeated season, or Tiger Woods pre–that one Thanksgiving, or even the Blackhawks’ new buddy LeBron James at the moment. Their reputations precede them. Their opponents perceive it to be only a matter of time before they take over a game. Sure, everyone playing them might “get up” for the occasion, but that also makes those opponents more easily rattled.
Carcillo became the 13th different Blackhawks player to earn a game-winning goal this season; there are only eight guys on the entire roster who have so much as dressed for a game without winning it. He’s not the only player to be lifted by his surroundings. Last night’s win improved (backup!) goalie Ray Emery’s record this season to 10-0-0 — the best stretch to start a season by any netminder. Not bad for the once wayward Razor.
A good team is like the clear night sky in which you can see not only the biggest stars but the makeup of entire constellations. And when you say a team or a person is “streaking,” it sounds almost celestial, and it carries with it the implication not just of brightness but of an ultimate burning away. That’ll happen, sooner or later, for Chicago; already the injuries (Marian Hossa, Patrick Sharp, Andrew Shaw) are beginning to pile up. But it’s been lovely to watch while it’s lasted, even if we don’t always know precisely what we’re looking at.
If anything, I’m rooting for the streak to continue just so we can keep around At-Ease Toews. When the guy’s in a good mood, he’s a sneaky crowd-pleaser, as you can see in one of the great press conference exchanges of all time (from a 2011 Blackhawks fan convention).2 It’s just that even when he’s all loosey-goosey, when he’s having fun and ruffling tops of heads, when he’s laughing in the locker room or delivering his most comic material about Patrick Kane, it’s all still a function of the thing he cares most about: winning hockey.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
In his first 14 games this season, Rick Nash scored three goals. In the last three games, he’s netted four. But while it’s tempting to search for What’s Gone Right lately, it’s also not all that necessary. Nash’s play hasn’t been markedly different when he’s been scoring lately versus when he wasn’t earlier this year. He’s been getting to the goal all season, his size and spacing like a basketball player in the low post. He’s been averaging just north of four shots per game all year long. The only difference is just that now those shots are going in. Which means that the only difference is, basically, randomness.
Forgive me — I’m still reeling from the lessons in probability theory that were hammered into me this past weekend at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. Larry Brooks probably phrased the concept better in his February 11 column, written just as Nash was about to “heat up” and explaining why the notoriously demanding fans at MSG hadn’t gotten on Nash’s case for his production:
If it is clear we’ve yet to see the full kaleidoscope of Nash’s imposing game, it is equally clear that lack of production hasn’t been for a lack of trying. The winger has been involved, he has been on the puck, he has been recording shots at a rate historically consistent with his first nine years in the NHL and he has been defensively responsible.
This is all straightforward stuff; there’s nothing “fancy” about goals divided by shots. (Although, when beat writers are calling points-per-game “Sabre stats” you start to wonder.) Still, after all the discussion there had been at Sloan about the tension between narrative and numbers, about how to communicate math to someone without having their eyes glaze over, I wondered how things looked from the other side.
After his two goals helped the Rangers to a 4-2 win over the Flyers on Tuesday night, Nash explained that it was nice to have pucks going in for him now. What I wanted to know was whether he ever pays attention to the numbers behind that. Does he see, halfway into this season, that he’s generating shots at a career pace, but that he was only making them at less than half the rate of his long-established average? And if so, is that something that helps him focus on maintaining, rather than changing, his game?
Don’t worry, I worded the question even more confusingly than that. He gave me an odd look and I figured I’d struck out with my “But do you look at the numbers???” barrage, but then he said, “You know, you’re the first person to ask me that. Yeah, I do.
“I have a pretty good idea of where I should be, and what I’ve done throughout my career, and what I need to get to,” he said. “And I felt like earlier this season I was right there, getting the chances I needed.”
It made one of John Tortorella’s brief comments Tuesday night all the more clear. What had happened in these last few games, he was asked, to make Rick Nash so confident in the Rangers’ system?
Tortorella didn’t bite. He didn’t have to. “He’s been confident since day one,” he said. Next question.
Other top goals: After a rough start to the season, the Washington Capitals are 7-3-0 in their last game and trying to claw their way back into playoff contention. It’s a tricky situation: While they’re only five points out of playoff contention right now and have a few games in hand on many top Eastern teams, they’re also estimated by Sports Club Stats to have somewhere just south of a one-in-four chance of making it into the East’s top eight. After all, playing a shortened intraconference schedule means that a direct opponent is always winning every night.
At any rate, overtime game-winners like this one from Eric Fehr, who sealed a Caps comeback from down 3-0 in the first period and gave them the 4-3 win over the Bruins, certainly can’t hurt those chances.
When you see “Perry (Ryan, Getzlaf)” in a box score, you know something good happened.3
And Jeff Carter picked up a hat trick, the fifth of his career.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers
The only thing better than the footage of two minor league fighters in Quebec endlessly circling one another as if held apart by a forever force field is that the incident was randomly given Daily Mail coverage. Such a treat when my favorite U.K. tabloid and hockey collide! It usually only happens with Hilary Duff and Mike Comrie! Anyway, I’ll let the publication’s frank photo captions explain what went down, in three parts:
Still Circling: The two players struggle to get grips with each other as the referees look on
Almost: The pair seem to think about having a fight but only reach their arms out towards each other as if trying to grab one another
Alright, that’s Enough: The referees lose patience with the non-event and decide to intervene as the crowd jeers
Man, that’s some bleak stuff. Possibly the saddest synopsis of a three-part trilogy about love and loss that I’ve ever read. Tolstoy?
Taking It Coast-to-Coast: A Lap Around the League
• Over the past year, Andrey Osadchenko of Oilers Nation has conducted a series of interviews with the Edmonton Oilers’ Nail Yakupov, the first overall pick at the 2012 NHL draft, that are uniformly illuminating, funny, and engaging in a way that so much of access to athletes usually is not. Here are a few old ones, but the most recent — about Yakupov’s life thus far in the NHL — is probably the best. (Still can’t decide if my favorite line is “And then I just calculated the trajectory of the puck and scored” or “I have warm clothes and my parents taught me when I was a kid how to stay warm.”)
• Since Erik Karlsson was injured midway through Ottawa’s game against Pittsburgh on February 13, the Senators have gone 5-3-2: an impressive run, considering that up until that game they were a not very markedly different 7-4-2 with the reigning Norris Trophy winner in the game. Ottawa has done this without Jason Spezza — though he is reportedly on the road to a return later this season — and with Craig Anderson on the sideline battling an ankle injury. It sure helps when you have two highly touted prospects in Ben Bishop and Robin Lehner as dueling backups.
• Struggling teams I have faith will rebound: Tampa Bay Lightning, St. Louis Blues. Struggling teams I fear will not: New Jersey Devils, Florida Panthers.
• The Toronto Maple Leafs coaching staff is a little bit leery of all the kudos that have been coming the way of Nazem Kadri, the young player who somehow has managed to emerge from a few years of muddled development and constant trade rumors (he was reportedly on the table for Roberto Luongo) no worse for the wear. “You guys just want to anoint him, don’t you?” asked head coach Randy Carlyle on Monday after the Leafs beat the Devils and Kadri contributed a goal and an assist. With his five goals and 10 points in the past six games, the urge is understandable.
• Speaking of Toronto: If the United States ever sent a Trojan horse into Canada it would be in the shape of James van Riemsdyk setting up Phil Kessel for a Toronto Maple Leafs goal.
• Alex Ovechkin, responding to Mike Milbury’s rant about him the other night:4 “You know, it’s better to not pay attention to such people. I can talk about his work as an Islanders general manager. And so what? Do we need to get into a battle of words?” If you need me, I’ll be here still patiently waiting for Ovi to get to the Islanders GM part. Biggest tease ever.
• I am not linking to the video of Marc Staal taking a puck to the eye area because I saw it live and am trying to forget it, but the aftermath has to start with grandfathering in visors. If current players want to be forever known as the Craig MacTavish of eye protection so be it, but most have worn visors as they’ve climbed the ranks anyway. We’re not exactly harnessing wild stallions here. It’s difficult to hear players like Chris Pronger, who broke his long silence this week, discuss the effects of his cumulative injuries and the potential for retirement, although it’s also a reminder that this is an inherently dangerous game no matter what measures you take. (Oddly, a freak injury to Pronger — when he was hit in the chest as a member of the St. Louis Blues and collapsed — was one of the formative sports injuries that scarred me back in the day.)
And a Beauty! The Week’s Nicest in Net
It was troubling news for the Carolina Hurricanes early this week when the team announced that goalie Cam Ward had sprained a ligament in his knee and would miss up to two months. Ward is one of the more heavily relied-upon goaltenders in the league, regularly playing all but a dozen or so games every season, and the Hurricanes are trying to take advantage of a weak Southeast Division and a revamped roster to make the playoffs. They brought in AHL goaltender Justin Peters to supplement Dan Ellis, and it sure wasn’t a bad start. He should get credited with an extra save or two considering it was on Thomas Vanek.
Jimmy Howard looked like a soccer goalie guessing correctly on a penalty shot with his diving two-handed rejection of John Mitchell on Tuesday night.
Finally, remember last week when Beau Bennett could cross “convert a pass from Sidney Crosby into my first-ever NHL goal” off his bucket list? Well, if you’re the New Jersey Devils’ Keith Kinkaid, now you can grab the Sharpie and proudly cross out “stop Steven Stamkos on a breakaway in my first NHL game.” Moments like these are so much fun.
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
I definitely understand the motivation Bruins head coach Claude Julien had when he ripped the amount of “embellishment” that goes on in the league Sunday night, and he’s not wrong. But considering the highlight reels of a few of his players, there is also no denying that he left himself vulnerable to plenty of “you’re one to talk” incredulity — particularly from, say, wronged Vancouver Canucks fans. Et voilà: Here’s a mash-up of Julien’s comments and some choice footage from the Bruins’ days of yore. Shine on, you crazy Marchand.
Good-bye Stompin’ Tom
Oh, the good old hockey game
E’er on JumboTrons.