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Puck Luck

Picking through the signal and the noise one-fifth of the way through the (abbreviated) NHL season

We just were(n’t) getting all the bounces,” the players and coaches always explain after games, at a loss for much of anything else. “The puck luck was on our/their side tonight. Sometimes things just (don’t) go your way.” It’s simple to view these all-purpose answers as cop-outs or clichés, sports-speak for “Can I just go home now?” But they ‘re actually much more substantial than that.

We’ve reached an odd and adolescent phase of the NHL season, one in which roughly a fifth of its schedule has been played: enough to be at the point when you want to start making sense of everything going on and yet still only about nine or 10 games in. How to extrapolate whether the 8-0-2 Blackhawks are as formidable as their record suggests? Are the Capitals toast? Are the Anaheim Ducks “the real thing”? How does everyone’s talent stack up? We try to answer this by looking for small bits of information — well-stocked depth charts, in-game improvements, particularly jelling lines, favorable stats, affability in postgame interviews — and putting them together like a mosaic. It’s a worthy effort, but it’s often in vain. The players are right: Sometimes things just (don’t) go your way.

Maclean’s columnist Colby Cosh wrote this weekend about the “randumbness” that permeates NHL seasons. He cited some statistical work that concluded that, in this era of penalty shootouts and the mess they can make of the standings, it can take somewhere around 73 games in an 82-game season before measurable, repeatable “talent” begins to have a bigger impact on a team’s position in the standings than pure randomness. In a season about half that length, Cosh explained, “the final league table this year will be more a product of randomness than of talent.”

There are ways to look at how much a given team or player might be benefiting from the vagaries of luck; one measure, called PDO, adds together a team’s save percentage and its shooting percentage, the idea being that over time the number will sum to something close to 100 percent. (PDO on the individual level uses the numbers accumulated while the player is on the ice.)

For example, the Los Angeles Kings are struggling in the standings right now — but their PDO of .954 is the third-worst in the league, suggesting that they may just be essentially down on their luck. (Ditto the Capitals, although the Kings have much stronger underlying possession numbers than Washington.) The Kings’ Mike Richards has one of the worst PDOs in the league, due to a combination of 5.7 percent shooting (very low) and, almost absurdly, a .765 save percentage when he’s on the ice. He just hasn’t, as they say, been getting the bounces. At some point, he’ll be seemingly getting them all.

It’s that “at some point” that makes things difficult, though. A stroke of good or bad luck could presumably last this whole season. As Cosh wrote, “after the season is over, we still need to remember how information-poor the 2012-13 league table will be. There will be teams falsely perceived as newly overpowering because they attained a high playoff seeding, and teams falsely perceived as being in crisis because they were at the bottom of their division.” As for which teams will end up where — well, there’s not much anyone can do but watch and wait, fingers crossed.

One random outcome that I do hope takes place: a playoff series between the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Philadelphia Flyers, two teams whose increasingly heated relationship is verging on rivalry. (Or maybe that’s just the Flyers with everyone.) But if last season’s stubborn stare-down was like slow-drip psychological torture, this year’s hatred has manifested itself in more physical ways. A fight on Tuesday night between Zac Rinaldo and B.J. Crombeen was viscerally felt: It was hard to see Rinaldo’s fist make crackling contact with the collapsing Crombeen’s temple and not feel a dull little jolt in your own.

Rinaldo, who beat up Crombeen in response to his slashes to Claude Giroux’s wrists in a previous game,1 was miked up during and after the fight. At one point he asks the ref, almost nervously, whether he had hit Crombeen while he was down; later, he pleads his innocence to an angry Tampa player in an almost childlike manner. “You know I’m not like that!” he whines. Later, it will appear that Vinny Lecavalier does hit Max Talbot while he’s down, as if to make a point. Crazy stuff. Let me know where to sign up to get seven playoff games out of this. And wish everyone luck.

Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes

Just over five minutes into Tuesday night’s game between the Sharks and the Blackhawks, San Jose’s Tommy Wingels scored on a wrister from the left faceoff circle. It might not have been a goal-of-the-year candidate, but that hardly matters: What made Wingels’s goal — only the fourth of his young career — worthy of note was the date it took place.

Three years earlier to the day, a car accident claimed the life of 21-year-old Brendan Burke, the son of former Maple Leafs GM Brian and a buddy of Wingels’s from college. Burke had been the student manager of the Miami of Ohio hockey team, on which Wingels played; Burke came out to the players and coaching staff in spring 2009. It was the supportive (and, even better, practically blasé) reaction from that team, as well as his family, that led Burke to pursue more publicly the cause of equal rights for GLBT athletes until his untimely death.

Last season Patrick Burke, a scout with the Philadelphia Flyers, unveiled an organization called You Can Play to honor and further the legacy of his younger brother. Wingels was and remains on the advisory board. “Our first two checks that were ever written to get us off the ground were done by Tommy Wingels and Andy Miele,” Burke told the Mercury News.2 “I think it’s pretty safe to say that without those two, we wouldn’t be in the position we are today.” That position is as strong as ever: You Can Play has gotten support not just from the NHL, but from minor league teams and numerous college programs; now, their outreach is expanding to other leagues, including the NFL.

As for Wingels, early Tuesday morning, he sent this tweet: “‘The hope still lives, the cause endures, and the dream shall never die.’ BB.” And late Tuesday night, he scored. It’s a small thing, sure, but I got goose bumps all the same.

Piling On the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers

The sun rises in the east, water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit, and athletes, coaches, and fans are unimpressed with the state of officiating. Benign grumbling began early this season, when Don Cherry railed against linesmen getting too precious about policing faceoffs. But things have really escalated in the last week or so, with a couple of calls that have been so egregiously bad that they’ve affected the outcomes of games and led to questions about whether the NHL ought to expand its use of video review.

On Friday, David Backes was sent into the locker room with a game misconduct after what the officials deemed was a shot at the head of Detroit’s Kent Huskins. It was a hell of a hit, for sure — Huskins crawled off the ice gasping for air — but it didn’t take too many replay angles for it to become obvious that Backes had struck him squarely in the chest. But Huskins’s head snapped back from the force of the hit, and in the flash of the moment the officials declared it illegal. Pavel Datsyuk scored the eventual game-winner for the Red Wings on the ensuing power play; a later empty-net goal padded their 5-3 win. The league rescinded Backes’s match penalty the next day.

Then on Tuesday, San Jose Sharks forward Andrew Desjardins leveled the Chicago Blackhawks’ Jamal Mayers; the hit was destructive enough that Duncan Keith skated over to fight Desjardins on his teammate’s behalf. For his effort he got 19 penalty minutes, including an instigator penalty and an additional minor for instigating with a face shield.3 But instead of the Sharks getting a four-minute power play, the officials ejected Desjardins from the game for targeting the head — which, once again, turned out to be the wrong call. It was a moment of whiplash for San Jose, and the Blackhawks went on to break the 3-3 tie and win the game 5-3. The NHL withdrew the charge to Desjardins after the game.

Either botched call could have been righted by a video replay from the good folks in the Situation Room, which is already used to review things like controversial goals. When there’s a questionable hit, the staff monitoring the games immediately start the process of determining whether additional discipline will be required. (The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review‘s Rob Rossi wrote a great piece about the scene in the Situation Room, basically the NHL’s hottest nightclub.) It would have been straightforward to take a quick look at the Backes and Desjardins situations and let the officials know that there was no contact with the head.

As such, some have suggested that coaches ought to be able to challenge calls. But while I enjoy that idea in theory — watching NFL coaches throw challenge flags is one of football’s distinct pleasures — it’s difficult to imagine in broad practice. This isn’t a question of “was the puck completely over the line” or “who touched the puck last”; it’s not always something that “zoom and enhance” can necessarily solve. Reducing hits that take place at great speeds into a frame-by-frame Zapruder film can often be more distortive than less. It’s one thing for refs to get a call wrong in real time; it’s another if they make an iffy decision even after watching a screen or picking up a bat phone. That’s the stuff that conspiracy theories are made of — not that hockey fans would ever hatch anything like that.

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

  • Thomas Vanek continues to pile on the points; the Buffalo Sabres winger leads the league with 19 in nine games. Last Thursday, he scored a hat trick and added two assists in a 7-4 Sabres win over the Boston Bruins; he’s racked up another two goals and two assists since then. What’s most amazing is that he’s done so while being deployed as a two-way player: Only 46.3 percent of his shifts have begun in the offensive zone,4 and he drives possessions even against strong talent on other teams.

  • Asked what he was doing at an optional Devils practice in which only nine guys went out on the ice, Ilya Kovalchuk was hilariously straightforward: “I drove 40 minutes here, my kids are in school and I have nothing to do at home.” I think we may have just found the exact opposite to this legendary press conference.
  • First LeBron James was spotted with his teammates at a Maple Leafs game, and then the Fresh Prince of the Bell Centre pulled … up! in Montreal. I’d like to see it become a hip thing for various U.S. personalities to go to Canada to get the most authentic hockey experience. Mark Zuckerberg and his hoodie getting season tickets in Ottawa. The Kardashians wearing cowboy hats in Calgary. Rex Ryan with a True North tattoo. In other news, is Will Smith wearing lipstick in that clip?!
  • Near the end of 2012, I wrote a small amount about the underratedness of the University of Minnesota’s women’s ice hockey team after being bewitched by the team’s play in a game I saw in November. At the time, they were setting an NCAA record for consecutive wins with 22 (which included a national championship last spring). A month and a half later, the streak is now up to 36. Amanda Kessel (Phil and Blake’s sister) is the team’s leading scorer, with 83 points in 27 games;5 freshman Hannah Brandt has 67. Start learning those names: With the Sochi Olympics coming up a year from now, the odds are excellent that there will be Golden Gopher representation on Team USA.
  • Speaking of Sochi, a shout-out to a highly entertaining few minutes on NBC Sports Network’s NHL pregame show Wednesday night. Host Liam McHugh asked TSN’s Bob McKenzie about the status of NHL players participating in the Olympics next winter, and McKenzie answered simply that the players will be there “because of you guys” — meaning NBC, which broadcasts the Games and is in the second year of a 10-year deal with the NHL and would definitely prefer the synergy of combining the two for a lucrative few weeks. Like, really prefer it. Like [twisting arm behind back], “does NBC need to make itself clear” prefer it. He also brought up that the NHL is hoping to wrangle some kind of sponsor-style treatment at the Games (think: VIP treatment and good tickets for league and team execs who want to attend), which just gives me a funny mental image of Lou Lamiorello standing exasperatedly in a long line to buy hot chocolate. Anyway, the segment closed out with McHugh for some reason quoting “the warrior poet, Charles Oakley” saying, “if it ain’t broke, don’t break it.” Just some great TV all around.
  • Watch out, Western Conference: The Dallas Stars’ Jamie Benn has been hitting his stride this week, with three goals and two assists in the team’s last two games, both 3-2 wins over Edmonton and Colorado.

  • With 12 games scheduled for Thursday night, there’s a lot to take in. But a few key matchups include Washington at Pittsburgh (the Capitals, who at the start of the week were one of the unluckiest teams in the league, are desperate to turn their fortunes around), Detroit at St. Louis (both teams have lost their last two, and the Wings are hoping to climb back into the thick of things while the Blues are most likely fired up after a 6-1 drubbing at the hands of Nashville on Tuesday), and Islanders at Rangers (the two teams hate one another and are neck and neck in the standings). This weekend’s schedule brings, among many other games, Maple Leafs–Habs. You think that one will be watched by a person or two up in Canada?

And a Beauty! The Week’s Best in Net

In each of his past two seasons playing in Sweden’s top hockey league, Viktor Fasth has earned the Honken Trophy for being its best goaltender. And now he’s been making the most of his NHL debut for the Anaheim Ducks. On Wednesday night, Fasth posted a 3-0 shutout over the Colorado Avalanche; he’s now undefeated in his four starts this season and has posted a GAA of 0.98 and a save percentage of .962.

“He keeps reminding me of Dwayne Roloson,” Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau told Pierre LeBrun of ESPN.com. “Rollie never got to the NHL until he was 30 and then had a great NHL career.” If Fasth keeps this up, maybe they’ll learn how to spell his name.

In other netminding news, Tuukka Rask improved his record to 6-1-1 Wednesday night with a Bruins win over the Montreal Canadiens; the Nashville Predators’ Pekka Rinne allowed just one goal for the third straight game; and the Flames were left scrambling after Miikka Kiprusoff — who has played in more than 70 games in each of the past seven seasons for Calgary, to the point that their backup depth chart has started to atrophy — left a game against Detroit in pain. Kiprusoff is out indefinitely.

And finally, I hereby dub this Martin Brodeur stop on Marc Staal the “Fire Save-ty.” Stop, drop, and roll.

Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off

This item is a few weeks old and I missed it at the time, but I cracked up when my pal Steve Lepore told me about it this week. (Its biggest competition was Roberto Luongo heckling Toronto Star columnist Damien Cox, so …)

Anyway! The daughter of Boomer Esiason, the soothsayer who foretold the end of the NHL lockout, is dating the New York Islanders’ resident scholar, Matt Martin. And so a few minutes into Islander captain John Tavares’s appearance on WFAN’s “Boomer & Carton” radio show, things got alpha male–y and weird. “This Matt Martin is taking too many penalties, I can tell you that right off the bat,” Carton burst out abruptly, adding that “I worry about him being on the ice.”

Tavares was caught off guard, but managed to remain ever the diplomat. Then Boomer chimed in, requesting that the Isles trade Martin. “I’m thinking maybe Vancouver.” According to Isles communications coordinator Jesse Eisenberg, “sources say that the first time Sydney brought boyfriend Matt home to meet the parents, Boomer wore a Rangers jersey.” No word on whether he tried to start a custom “Martin sucks” whistle, too.

Hockey Haiku

“Hey, why the long face?”
So asked the dude in the mask
A horse who went hoarse.

Filed Under: Hockey, Luck, Philadelphia Flyers, Series, Teams

Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ katiebakes