Penalty Minutes: Avs exceeding expectations thanks to goalies
Jan 22, 2014 at 8:19p ET
Who's hot: The Colorado Avalanche
With a 5-2 loss on Tuesday, the Colorado Avalanche suffered only their second regulation loss in their past 12 games and their first in seven games.
Entering Wednesday, the Avalanche had the sixth-best record in the NHL with only 32 games left in the season. At this point, they are a safe bet to make the playoffs for the first time since 2009-10.
Colorado coach Patrick Roy said the season has exceeded his expectations thus far.
"I didn't really know what to expect early on," he said. "I watched the tape when I took the job in the summer. ... I had a good idea what I wanted to do. I knew we were a young team but at the same time I mean how fast (first overall pick Nathan) MacKinnon could adapt to the league, (Matt Duchene) and Ryan (O'Reilly), we tried O'Reilly with Duchene on the same line, would that be successful?
"There were a lot of question marks but at the same time everything seems to click well and I have to say the addition of guys like (defensemen Nick) Holden and (Nate) Guenin as a free agent we were not sure if they were going to make the team but not only did they make the team but they're playing a big role in our success. And our goalie has been just phenomenal for us. He's playing really well every night. That's the reason we are where we are. Our best players have taken the lead, which is what you want as a coach."
The goalie, Semyon Varlamov, deserves closer attention. His 24 wins are tied for third in the NHL and his .925 save percentage ranks eighth. Even when he turned himself in on Oct. 30 on charges of domestic violence -- charges that were dropped less than two months later -- Varlamov did not lose focus.
Nashville coach Barry Trotz said he thinks Varlamov is having the type of season that his fellow Russian countryman Sergei Bobrovsky had last season when Bobrovsky won the Vezina Trophy for Columbus as the league's top goalie. Trotz said Roy deserves credit for getting Colorado to play better defense.
"He's been outstanding," Trotz said of Varlamov. "To me, he's been probably the best goalie and they still give up a lot of shots for a high-skill team" -- Colorado ranks 25th in the league, allowing 31.9 shots per game -- "but he's difference-maker. When they're not on their game, boy, he's been good this year."
Roy gave credit to Varlamov for working with new goalie coach Francois Allaire, one of the game's goalie-coaching gurus, and for his hard work. Roy said Varlamov has stolen games for the Avs while rarely having an off night.
Nonetheless, Roy, who won the Vezina three times in his career, tried to discourage any trophy talk.
"I don't agree with this because Vezina -- it's a word I don't want to say and I don't want to hear about," Roy said. "We said something very interesting at the beginning of the year: We're always going to stay in the present world. We're not going to be low after a loss, too high after wins. At the same time, we just want to be even keel. Vezina, Hart, Masteron or whatever the trophy -- could be Stanley Cup -- it's a result.
"We want to make sure we play hard every night and we reset every night that's what I suggest to Varly after every game. Don't pay attention to what people will say."
For now, it's a formula that keeps working for the Avs.
Who's not: The Washington Capitals
The Washington Capitals might have the league's leading goal scorer in Alex Ovechkin but lately they've hardly been able to light the lamp.
Ovechkin has 35 goals on the season and continues to score at a pretty good clip -- he has three goals in his past five games while sitting out on Tuesday with a lower-body injury that appears to be day-to-day -- but that hasn't stopped Washington from going winless in its past six (0-4-2) and falling out of the top eight in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals have 52 points, two fewer than surging Columbus for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. Washington has played one more game than the Blue Jackets.
In five of their losses during their current streak, the Capitals have scored one goal or no goals at all. They also lost to Pittsburgh 4-3 in a game in which they led in the third period.
Washington's scoring woes have exposed larger issues. For one, their ROW -- regulation and overtime wins, the statistic that is used as a tiebreaker come playoff time -- ranks among the worst in the league. The Capitals have only 14 regulation and overtime wins, placing them eighth among eight teams in the Metropolitan Division.
Not surprisingly, the Capitals' eight shootout wins are tied for second-best in the league. The issue is that lately the Capitals' luck in shootouts has run out. Shootout losses to Buffalo and San Jose back on Jan. 12 and 14 started the Capitals' winless streak.
For a time, rookie goalie Philipp Grubauer was carrying the Capitals but they sent him back to Hershey of the American Hockey League on Monday after he was pulled in consecutive outings. He has a 6-4-5 record -- note all of those overtime or shootout losses -- but his goals-against average (2.38) and save percentage (.926) still remains the best among the three goalies Washington has used this season. Grubauer was winless in his final four decisions before going down.
"We're in a slump right now, that's for sure," center Nicklas Backstrom told The Washington Post after a 4-1 loss to the New York Rangers on Sunday. "It's tough, but we've got to find a way to get through it. We've got to start playing way better than we do right now. We've got to find a way to play good every night. That's the expectations we should have on ourselves every night."
Otherwise, the Capitals will end up underachieving, as they have done too often in recent seasons.
1. Anaheim: Up-and-down week for the Ducks: They set a franchise record for goals with nine against Vancouver last Wednesday, then suffered their first home regulation loss of the season to Winnipeg on Tuesday.
2. Chicago: With a plus-25 rating (tied for NHL's best), right wing Marian Hossa is showing he is still one of the league's top two-way forwards.
3. St. Louis: The Blues took a rare beating on Tuesday, 7-1 at the hands of New Jersey. The game was played despite a blizzard in Newark.
4. Pittsburgh: Chris Kunitz's 11 power-play goals rank second in the league.
5. San Jose: The Sharks have rebounded from a mini-slump in which they lost four of seven to win four straight.
26. Florida: Rookie Aleksander Barkov, the second overall pick at the 2013 NHL Draft, leads the team with 24 points.
27. New York Islanders: Isles are 7-3 in their past 10 but still sit seven points out the final playoff spot in the East.
30. Buffalo: The Sabres trail No. 29 Edmonton by only three points, the closest that gap has been in a while.
Game of the week
Anaheim at Los Angeles, Saturday, Dodgers Stadium, 9:30 p.m. Eastern. The NHL's "Stadium Series" begins this weekend with the first outdoor game in California. Call it a miracle of technology -- the high is forecast for 80 degrees with a low of 52 and a zero percent chance of rain, the greatest danger of all to ice -- and just as the Winter Classic has proved a feast for the eyes, so should this one. We won't have the snowscapes of Buffalo or Ann Arbor. Instead, get ready for the possible sight of fans in beach garb.
The league had excellent timing with this game, as these two archrivals are having great years. The Ducks, despite two regulation losses in its past three games, own the best record in the league while the Kings are eighth-best overall.
Kings goalie Jonathan Quick has mostly played well since returning from a long bout with injury -- he's 4-2-2 since -- while Ducks goalie Jonas Hiller had won 14 straight, tied for the second-longest streak in league history, but has now lost two straight. Each will likely start in goal for his respective Olympic team next month, the United States for Quick and Switzerland for Hiller. Despite plenty of top offensive players on each side, the goalies could be the ones to watch.
Stat line of the week
Dennis Wideman, Calgary. In a 3-2 shootout loss to Vancouver last Saturday, Wideman played the most of any player this season: 38:05. He was forced to play that much when a line brawl resulted in the ejection of two of Calgary's six defensemen following the opening faceoff. (The same was true for Vancouver.) He posted an even rating, had three shots, one hit, two giveaways and four blocked shots.
Honorable mention: Evander Kane, Winnipeg. Kane scored the game-winning goal in a 3-2 win on Tuesday against Anaheim, handing the Ducks their first regulation loss at the Honda Center this season in 23 games. Kane's goal, which came shorthanded, was his 15th goal of the season. He also had an assist and finished plus-2 with two hits, three blocked shots and one giveway in 20:07 of time on ice as Winnipeg won its fourth straight since firing coach Claude Noel and hiring Paul Maurice.
Dishonorable mention: Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh. In a 5-1 home loss to Florida on Monday, the illustrious trio finished minus-3 each. Crosby, the league's leading scorer and the captain of Canada's Olympic team, and Neal each finished without a point. Malkin had an assist. It's a pretty rare night when that happens.
Spotlight: Bob Hartley vs. John Tortorella
One of his former players who played for him both in Colorado and Atlanta once told me that Bob Hartley doesn't do anything that isn't calculated.
Consider that, then, when Hartley elected to put out a starting lineup last Saturday that ended up provoking an old-fashioned line brawl and resulted in a six-game, 15-day suspension for Vancouver coach John Tortorella.
The Flames' starting forward line that night was comprised of Brian McGrattan, Blair Jones and Kevin Westgarth, a threesome that currently has 146 combined penalty minutes to its credit in 82 combined games and averages a collective 23:34 -- or less than what one of the Flames' top-four defensemen logs on a nightly basis. Also consider that the line was somewhat contrived with Westgarth, listed by the league as a right wing, at center. He had taken only two faceoffs prior to that game.
Why did Hartley do it? You won't find the answer in his public comments. He said after the game that, "We had zero intentions there" of starting a brawl, as happened.
Part of the answer lies in Hartley's calculating nature: In a strategic sense, he had Tortorella over a barrel. Add in the fact that the two have shared an uneasy rivalry over the past decade -- one might even call it a rift -- and it's easier to understand why Hartley did what he did.
Entering Saturday, Vancouver was fading from playoff position with a 1-7-1 mark in its previous nine games while Calgary has the third-worst record in the league. In consecutive games earlier that week, the Canucks had allowed seven-minute power plays. In a 9-1 loss to Anaheim, that seven-minute power play was a 5-on-3 as the Ducks went 6-for-11 on the power play in dealing Vancouver a humiliating defeat.
Hartley was pushing Tortorella, with the Canucks reeling, to the limit. Would he take the bait? Hartley knew his rival and knew he would.
"I know the other guy across the bench," Tortorella said somewhat ominously after the game of Hartley's intent.
Maybe it was payback for an incident at the start of the 2005-06 season when Tortorella coached Tampa Bay and Hartley Atlanta in the Southeast Division. In a 6-0 loss to the Lightning, Thrashers wing Eric Boulton elbowed Lightning defenseman Paul Ranger late in the game, breaking Ranger's jaw and eventually earning a suspension in the process. After the game, Hartley, who had coached against Tortorella in the AHL and had a level of mutual respect for his opposite number, went to Tortorella's office in the visiting locker room to apologize. By the time Tortorella spoke to the media, he was still fuming and unleashed one of the expletive-filled tirades for which he has now become famous. Tortorella said Boulton did not belong in the NHL, calling him an "East Coast League player." (Mind you, Boulton, at age 37, remains in the league, with 631 career games under his belt and scored a hat trick during the 2010-11 season. Seemingly, he's an NHL player.)
Early that season, the Thrashers continued to pile up penalty minutes and game misconducts, including one memorable bout against Toronto, leading one writer to play off the team's marketing slogan of Blue Land and dub Philips Arena "Goon Land" -- a marker that stuck for a time.
Later that season, Hartley had his chance for verbal revenge on Tortorella and took it. As Atlanta was making a late push for the playoffs with the best team it ever had during its run there, Lightning forward Chris Dingman crashed into Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen in a game in Tampa Bay and Lehtonen suffered a high ankle sprain with six games left, effectively ending Atlanta's playoff chances. The Thrashers missed the playoffs by two points.
Hartley, who coached Dingman in Colorado, said the play was intentional and called Dingman "the worst three-minute player in the league."
Tortorella responded in kind. "He can look at it another 40 times and I call (expletive)," Tortorella said at the time. "I call (expletive) because (Dingman) wasn't trying to run him. ... So I don't care how many (expletive) times he looks at the video..."
So with a chance to stick it to his rival on Saturday, Hartley took it. The game ended with eight ejections, 204 penalty minutes and a 3-2 Canucks shootout win.
Hartley has a way of getting under the skin of opposing coaches and executives. Tortorella was suspended for trying to get at the Flames locker room during first intermission. Then-Washington coach Glen Hanlon did the same following a fight-filled game in November 2006 against Hartley's Thrashers. Following an early October 2005 game against Toronto, Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. attended Hartley's postgame press conference and exchanged verbal barbs with the coach.
With his tactics on Saturday, Hartley appears to have rallied his team and his community around him. Thirteen years removed from winning the Stanley Cup in Colorado, he's coaching for his job with a roster that works hard but is perhaps the least talented in the league. New Calgary president Brian Burke, who did not hire Hartley, fired the general manager who hired Hartley, Jay Feaster -- who is godfather to Hartley's children.
Burke wants his teams to play, as he often likes to say, with "truculence". Calgary did that against Vancouver, helping Hartley to ingratiate himself with his boss. Burke issued a statement backing Hartley in light of the incident, for which Hartley was fined $25,000 -- getting off light in comparison to Tortorella.
"I am perplexed by this fine," Burke said. "I stand behind Bob Hartley completely in this regard and remain confident that he acted properly in every aspect of this game."
From Hartley's perspective, it seems like mission accomplished.