Ah, the glorious first week of a season, in which the most mediocre of teams can “be on pace” for unbeaten campaigns, third-line role players lead the league in any number of categories, and even the best goalies are one poorly timed stomach flop away from being labeled by loving fans as “absolute trash.” It’s been only a few days since the NHL dropped the puck, and I already feel like I’ve been watching hockey for months — probably because that’s how long the Bruins’ banner-raising ceremony dragged on.1
Not that I’m judging: I watched every second of Mark Messier’s jersey-retirement ceremony, which I think lasted longer than the actual game it preceded.
But the Bruins’ homecoming avec Cup was tarnished by the new-look Philadelphia Flyers, who killed the feel-good narrative with a 2-1 victory at TD Garden, one of several spoilers to take place in the opening games. Fans who excitedly packed European stadiums2 to see their native sons came away feeling like disappointed dads. Neither Saku Koivu nor his teammate Teemu Selanne, the 41-year-old “Finnish Flash” who is ostensibly on his retirement tour, were able to win in front of the Helsinki faithful, as the Ducks fell 4-1 to the Sabres. (The locals did get to see a younger Finn, Ville Leino, get a goal, though, so all was not lost.) Swedish sensation Henrik Lundqvist had numerous big saves in net for the Rangers in their pair of games in Stockholm, but he failed to pick up a win — the team lost once in overtime, and then again in a shootout. And then there was Winnipeg, where the home crowd got to their feet for a standing ovation as the game’s closing minutes ticked down. Can you imagine how they might have reacted if their team wasn’t losing 5-1?
Since 2007, the NHL has sent a few teams to Europe for their opening games. Fans of this year’s traveling teams — the Rangers, Sabres, Ducks, and Kings — should feel good: Each of the past three Stanley Cup winners — the Penguins, Blackhawks, and Bruins — began their championship seasons in Europe.
On the other hand, there were storylines that appeared out of thin air in the opening week. Like Luke Adam, the 21-year-old who played impressively at the Traverse City NHL Prospects Tournament but was nevertheless expected to spend a bit more time in the minors before suiting up for the Sabres. Instead he made the roster out of the gate, and had two assists in the Sabres’ first game over in Europe and back-to-back goals in their second. Or his teammate, Thomas Vanek, who has five points after the Sabres’ two games, both of which the team won.
And then there’s Phil Kessel, about whom I had heard so much moaning from Toronto Maple Leafs fans going into this season that I, no joke, picked him up for my fantasy team in an effort to become more simpatico with the tortured psyche of Toronto. I figured it might help this column. Alas, Kessel did not live down to the hype, instead scoring a hat trick in the Leafs’ second game, a 6-5 victory over Ottawa also notable for Dion Phaneuf (legally) teaching Sens rookie Stephane Da Costa a lesson about playing heads-up hockey. The Leafs now stand at 2-0, and may never lose a game again.3
Presumably to the delight/horror of these (former?) pals.
Other Undefeated!!! teams include the Flyers, whose goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov, gave the team its first shutout since April of 2010; the Red Wings, whose play has been so consistently dominant that it almost (unfairly) feels unremarkable; and Nashville, whose David Legwand came out to his own five-point start in two games. And then there’s the Pittsburgh Penguins, a team saddled with a rough early-season schedule and still without Sidney Crosby (and, for the past couple of games, Geno Malkin, too). Regardless, they’ve earned seven of a possible eight points, based on the strong play of guys like Kris Letang and Matt Cooke, who has so far made good on his offseason promise to become a more responsible player.
Lighting the Lamp: The Week’s Sickest Snipes
I’m biased, of course, but what the hell: My favorite goal of the first week belonged to Brad Richards, the Rangers’ expensive offseason free-agent acquisition. In New York’s opener against the L.A. Kings it seemed like perhaps they had ended up with the league’s lesser Richards — the Kings’ Mike Richards tied the game late in the third period and then assisted on LA’s overtime winner. But the next day, down 1-0 with only a few minutes to play in New York’s second game, against Anaheim, Brad tied things up himself with a sick short-side snipe that showed just what he’s capable of. (Though if you didn’t know better and judged only by the facial reactions of the Rangers coaching staff, you’d think he had scored on his own net.) For the Blueshirts, who last season could be totally impotent on offense,4 it was a welcome sign.
My favorite line on Twitter came from someone watching the Texas Rangers play Detroit in the ALCS: “It seems so natural to hear a ‘Let’s Go Rangers’ chant during a close game with very little offense.”
Other contenders: Edmonton’s Ryan Nugent-Hopkins’ first goal in his first NHL game,5 which tied the game with Pittsburgh and ultimately led to a shootout so exciting that even a Maple Leafs blogger admitted that “we need a phone tree this season in case Edmonton goes to the shootout.” Vinny Lecavalier’s baseball-style batting. Get that guy a tryout with the Yankees! and two goals resulting from gorgeous passes: the Bruins’ Tyler Seguin to Brad Marchand, and the L.A. Kings’ Justin Williams to Anze Kopitar.
Coach Tom Renney called the game “hormone hockey,” which sounds more like a description of a middle school dance floor.
Note: I’ve just been informed, and I feel I must share, that “Lamplighter” is the name of “the worst strip club I’ve ever been to in Worcester” (Mass.). Whether the unnamed-to-preserve-his-own-dignity person who told me that meant that he’s sampled all of Worcester’s wares or whether the “in Worcester” was extraneous information, I’m not sure. But hey, if anyone else has patronized a similar establishment with a hockey-sounding name, feel free to help me compile a list.
Piling on the Pylons: The Week’s Worst Performers
You have to feel a little bit sorry for goaltender Tomas Vokoun: While he upgraded teams in the offseason, going from the sad Florida Panthers to the stacked Washington Capitals, it can’t be too great to be the guy who is considered “the biggest steal of the summer.” A few eyebrows were raised when Vokoun wasn’t in goal during the Caps’ opening game, namely those of Allan Walsh, his agent, who told the Washington Times that “this can certainly be perceived as a slap in the face.” Vokoun got the start in Game 2 and responded by letting in five goals on just 28 shots, though he did rebound for several big saves in overtime and during the shootout, which Washington won. To his credit, he owned right up to his poor performance, saying that the team “literally won today without goaltending” and that “it was just an ugly, ugly, ugly game for me.”
Other contenders: It was an ugly, ugly, ugly week for certain media members, as well. Don Cherry used the first broadcast of the season to rail against former NHL tough guys who have come out with warnings about the dangers and drawbacks of fighting and head shots, calling Stu Grimson, Chris Nilan, and Jim Thomson “pukes,” “hypocrites,” and “turncoats.” Normally this would be the usual Cherrian nonsense, but it struck a nerve: The players are now threatening legal action if he doesn’t apologize.6 On a day that should have been devoted to celebrating the rebirth of hockey in Winnipeg, the CBC crew instead felt it necessary to get in gratuitous digs about fans in Atlanta. Their mocking may have been better directed at the pathetic Atlanta Spirit ownership group. On the other hand, Albany hockey fans are feeling wounded over being TOO passionate: A local sports radio programming director told the Albany Times-Union‘s Don Ferlazzo on Twitter to “#getahobby” when Ferlazzo called it a bummer that the station didn’t air more coverage of the Albany Devils, New Jersey’s AHL affiliate. (He has since “set the record straight.”)
Taking It Coast to Coast: A Look Around the League
- If the Pittsburgh Penguins were assigned the NHL’s most intense early-season schedule, the San Jose Sharks got the laziest. San Jose opened its season last Saturday with a 6-3 win over Phoenix, but is now in the midst of nearly a full week off before playing Anaheim this Friday. This gave the team plenty of time to go bowling, and for young forward Logan Couture to record his first edition of “Chirping with Couture.” I found the one-on-one to be appropriately awkward yet enjoyable, with my favorite revelation being that while Couture bristled at teammates’ attempts to call him “Juicy” for the reason that he didn’t like “being named after women’s clothing,” he’s perfectly fine with the nickname “Coutch.”7
- In my latest mailbag, I helped counsel an Indiana Pacers fan about which NHL team he should cold-support. (I went with the Blues.) And he’s not the only NBA expat testing out hockey. We’ll see if the writer is able to keep it up for the entirety of a season, but one website — by a disgruntled basketball fan who has decided to become a “hard-core” Caps enthusiast — is off to a promising start. “Is the penalty box really called the ‘sin bin’?” he asked. (Unfortunately, my friend. Unfortunately.) More recently, he learned about hockey’s gloriously vague injury reports and tried to parse what exactly a “lower body injury” means. (He should be glad he’s not a Bruins fan: When asked about a setback to David Krejci and whether it could be characterized as a lower-body injury, Boston coach Claude Julien replied: “It’s a body.”)
- If you’re looking for a Christmas gift for the hockey fan in your life, might I recommend these minimalist team-logo posters? I particularly like the Islanders, Capitals, Bruins, Oilers, Flyers, and Flames.
- In an odd early-season trend, a remarkable number of goals have gone in from behind the goal line. The Score’s Backhand Shelf blog investigated several (and also made the good point that throwing the puck blindly to the net from behind it is often a coach-angering play), and a few games later it happened again, in that tough game for the Capitals’ Vokoun against Tampa. “They scored three goals from behind the net,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.
- Poor Rick DiPietro. The Islanders goalie is something of a punch line: Drafted no. 1 overall in 2000 (Mike Milbury, the team’s GM at the time, traded Roberto Luongo to clear room for him), DiPietro was given a bonkers 15-year, $67.5 million contract but has become one of the league’s most fragile players. (It didn’t help that one of his injuries, which would ultimately require surgery, took place during the skills competition in the 2007-08 All-Star weekend, or that he fractured his face while getting KO’d in a goalie-on-goalie fight.) Now comes the news that he left Wednesday’s practice early after taking a teammate’s slap shot to the helmet. On the bright side, this might help the Islanders’ current goalie situation, in which young Al Montoya has been getting the start over DiPietro and Evgeni Nabokov.8
- There are some great games coming up in the next couple of days. Highlights tonight include last year’s HBO stars, the Penguins and the Capitals, facing off in Pittsburgh. The Canucks will play Detroit in an early-season look at two of the Western Conference’s projected top teams, while two lesser esteemed but potentially enjoyable franchises will meet when the Oilers play the Minnesota Wild. Both of Friday night’s games are good ones — Carolina plays Buffalo in a “we deserve more respect”-off, while the Sharks and Ducks will play the first of their six games this season. For those of you with Center Ice or GameCenter packages, get ready to do a lot of clicking around Saturday: Fourteen games are on the schedule, seven of them starting at 7 p.m. ET, including the Rangers at Islanders (Potvin sucks!), the L.A. Kings’ Mike Richards’ return to Philadelphia, where until this summer he was the team captain, and an intriguing matchup between the Devils and Predators, two teams loaded with talent but considered question marks. The two most recent Stanley Cup champions, Boston and Chicago, will play at 8 p.m. ET that night, while the late game between St. Louis and San Jose ought to be fast and fun.
Chirping Like a Champ: The Best Mouthing Off
The NHL has a history of brushes with the law: Montreal fans infamously flooded police phone lines with calls after Zdeno Chara broke Max Pacioretty’s neck; the LA Kings “looked at legal avenues” after making a trade with Edmonton for Colin Fraser, who turned out to not be as healthy as the Oilers had supposedly claimed; Dino Ciccarelli and Marty McSorley were both convicted of criminal assault during hockey games (Ciccarelli was sentenced to a day in jail); and Todd Bertuzzi, who pled guilty to criminal charges after sucker-punching Steve Moore in 2004, will face a civil trial in 2012.
Let’s just say it is not pronounced “couch.”
The Nabokov story is one of the league’s most absurd: You can read about it here, but basically the Islanders claimed him off entry waivers after he had already signed a one-year contract — which even included a no-movement clause — with Detroit to help give them depth going into the playoffs. The Isles then refused to back down even after he expressed no interest in joining the team. (“The Islanders are terrible, so I’m not sure why they did that,” said Red Wings goalie Chris Osgood.)
(Note: I almost named this section “The Slickest Tongue in the League” in homage to an actual thing Pierre McGuire said on air about Steven Stamkos this weekend, but I didn’t think I could look at those words for an entire season.)
One annoying (and potentially dangerous) consequence of Brendan Shanahan’s iron fist when it comes to suspensions for illegal hits to “vulnerable players” has been the growing number of targets who turn their backs when they sense contact is imminent in hopes of drawing a stronger penalty. (We’ll call this move “the preemptive dive.”) The Ottawa Senators’ Milan Michalek did just that on Monday as the Minnesota Wild’s Cal Clutterbuck approached, and Clutterbuck, once back on the bench, made his frustration known: “Turn your back on me again and I’ll fucking bury you! I’ll fucking bury you!” he yelled. The Ottawa rink was so quiet that his words were picked up with sterling clarity on the TV broadcast. “He seems upset,” the broadcaster noted. I’m totally using that line the next time I get ignored by a bartender.
Spelling can be hard
Particularly when it’s
The word “banana.”
Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.
Previously from Katie Baker:
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
Mike Modano Says Goodbye
Bake Shop: Advice for Dads With Daughters
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