Penalty Minutes: Ottawa making timely playoff push

Following a slow start to the season, Ottowa Senators goalie Craig Anderson is 6-0-1 in his past seven games. 

Don McPeak/Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Not so long ago it seemed the Ottawa Senators were an afterthought.

But in the Eastern Conference, it seems no team that can put together a winning streak of any length is out of it for long. Thus, Ottawa, which has not lost in regulation since Dec. 27, is 6-0-1 in its past seven games and on the cusp of a playoff spot. With 50 points, the Senators are in 10th in the East but only two points out of fifth.

A playoff berth — and, really, the higher they can finish in the standings, the better — is especially important for the Senators, as they traded their first-round pick to Anaheim, owner of most points in the league, in the deal for high-scoring wing Bobby Ryan last July. With things trending the right way, general manager Bryan Murray was awarded a two-year contract extension on Monday.

As of the first week in December, Ottawa was yielding 3.18 goals per game and goalie Craig Anderson, who led the league last season in goals-against average (1.69) and save percentage (.941), was struggling mightily. At the time, his GAA was 3.42 and save percentage ranked 57th of 76 goalies in the league at .897. As a result, Anderson went from being a lock for the U.S. Olympic team after last season to being left off of it when the team was announced on New Year’s Day.

What a difference a month can make.

Ottawa has shaved 0.18 goals per game off its goals-against per game and Anderson’s save percentage is up to .905 (35th-best). In his past seven games, he has stopped 207 of 222 shots (.932) and is 6-0-1 dating to Dec. 23. Backup Robin Lehner shut out Minnesota on Tuesday, 3-0.

Coach Paul MacLean said early on the issue was not Anderson’s play but the play of the mostly young team in front of him, citing Anderson’s style of play as a factor.

"I think Craig has played very consistent all year," MacLean said. "I think our team game has gotten much better than it did at the start. When our team is good then Craig Anderson really becomes a good goaltender because that’s one of his strengths: he’s a technical goaltender, and if the team structure is good he can be very good."

When things aren’t going right, hockey teams often talk about focusing in on "the details" — mostly making smart plays with the puck by putting it in safe areas and getting it out of the defensive zone; essentially, eliminating turnovers. Anderson echoed those old standbys.

"We’re playing well and we’re getting results, but it’s a result of us doing the little things properly and focusing on small goals — the process," he said. "We’ve been really working on the process of doing things the way they’re supposed to be done and not worrying about the end result and lately, obviously, the end result is working our way because we’re taking care of those little details."

Having lost five straight games in regulation as of Saturday, subsequently landing in the cellar of the Central Division, the Winnipeg Jets pulled the plug on coach Claude Noel after two-plus seasons.

Having followed this franchise intimately during its days in Atlanta, Penalty Minutes always found the selection of Noel as a bit of an odd fit. In the franchise’s final season in Atlanta in 2010-11, general manager Rick Dudley overhauled the roster so the team could play uptempo. He changed the position of acquisition Dustin Byfuglien from wing to defense, turning Byfuglien into an All-Star defenseman that season, and Byfuglien proved an integral part of that shift — as was the hiring of coach Craig Ramsay.

In a puzzling move, Ramsay was not retained in the relocation and the roster was never overhauled to go with Noel’s more defensive approach. As a result, the straitjacket never took. (It seemed a case of too-little-too-late in moving Byfuglien back to wing in Noel’s final game.)

Paul Maurice, who twice took underdog Carolina Hurricanes teams to the conference finals, including the 2001-02 team that went to the Stanley Cup Final, now steps in as coach. If there is a criticism around the league on Maurice, it is that he can take a team far, but only so far. Seeing as this franchise has only been to the playoffs once since it entered the league in 1999 and still has never won a playoff game, that criticism hardly would seem to apply. And when Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford hired Maurice the second time during the 2008-09 season, it was to provide defensive structure, which is exactly what the Jets need.

One player who was on that Hurricanes team that went to 2009 Eastern Finals thinks the hire is a fantastic move.

"He did an unbelievable job," Nashville forward Matt Cullen said. "I have nothing but the utmost respect for him as a coach. I think he is a very, very good coach. I think Winnipeg is lucky to have him. I mean, that year he took our team, which really wasn’t expected to do much, and if you look at our team on paper we probably didn’t belong in the conference finals. He did a heck of a job. I was just so impressed with the way he went about his coaching, getting the most out of his guys.

"He provided a good structure but also gave you the freedom. Really good motivator. I was really impressed with him, I really was. I didn’t know what to expect when he came in. I remember (captain) Roddy Brind’Amour telling me I was going to really like him, he’s a really good coach and he was right."

One of the blind spots on Maurice’s resume is his two-year tenure with Toronto in which he was unable to get the Maple Leafs into the playoffs. One player from those teams said it was not Maurice’s fault.

"You know what, we were close one year and we missed it by a shootout," said Calgary center Matt Stajan. "Things just didn’t come together. We had some injury trouble and then I think the Islanders won 10 in a row at the end of the season to get in. It kind of screwed us over a bit. It’s a long season every year and you can look at a lot of things and show a lot of reasons why a team isn’t successful but I would never say that it was Paul Maurice."

Cullen said that he thinks Maurice will get the Jets turned around. He cited the fact that in their move to the Western Conference this season, the Jets have struggled to adapt to a higher level of competition. Winnipeg ranks 23rd in the NHL in goals-against per game at 2.96.

"You know, you have to these days, especially if you’re out in the West, you really have to have that focus" on defense, Cullen said. "I thought (Maurice) did a really good job, was really detailed as far as ‘This is where you need to be, this is what you need to do.’ And it’s clear and as a player that’s all you want is clear and defined roles, especially in your end and when you get the puck he’s got a plan, but he also allows you the freedom to do what you need to do."

That could suit the likes of a roamer like Byfuglien and an offensively-talented player like Evander Kane. If Maurice can provide that structure, the Jets’ future should improve. He’s off to a good start. On Monday, they won his first game as coach, 5-1 over Phoenix, the initial renovation of the Jets.

One has to wonder if Anaheim coach Bruce Boudreau wakes up in the morning these days and is thankful for getting fired in Washington a few years back. The mighty Ducks are an unstoppable force lately, winning 17 of their past 18 games entering Wednesday. Going back a little farther, they are 18-1-2 over their past 21 — meaning they’ve lost once in regulation since about Thanksgiving, more than a quarter of the season. This game could prove a preview of the Western Conference finals as the Ducks prepare to take on the defending Stanley Cup champions, who always manage to pick up points, even when they aren’t winning much. The Blackhawks have won only four of their last 10 games, but they have lost only once in regulation during that same time period.

If you like offensive hockey, this is the game for you, as Chicago and Anaheim each rank in the top three in the NHL in goals per game. It will also be interesting to see if these foes play nice: five of them (Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry and Chicago’s Duncan Keith, Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp) will be on Canada’s Olympic team in a few weeks.

Tuukka Rask, Boston: Last Friday, the goalie made 26 saves to shut out San Jose 1-0 in a matchup that featured the two leading contenders to win the job as Finland’s starting goalie at the Olympics next month. Playing on the road, Rask upstaged countryman Antti Niemi, who made 21 saves. Rask upped his record to 22-11-2, while Niemi fell to 23-10-6.

Honorable mention: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton. Nugent-Hopkins scored two goals, including the game-winner, and added an assist in a 4-3 overtime win against Eastern Conference-leading Pittsburgh last Friday, helping the Oilers rally from a 2-0 deficit. He also had two penalty minutes, six shots and one hit in 21:49 of time on ice.

Dishonorable mention: Tom Sestito, Vancouver. In a 1-0 loss to Los Angeles on Monday, Sestito logged one second of time on ice and racked up 27 penalty minutes: five minutes for fighting, two for instigating, a game misconduct and a misconduct for instigating (each of which count as 10 minutes). The penalties came as a result of Sestito’s jumping of the Kings’ Jordan Nolan after Nolan hit Vancouver captain Henrik Sedin. Nolan did not receive a fighting major. As a result of Sestito’s penalties, Los Angeles received a seven-minute power play but did not score. The game featured 109 minutes in penalties between the two teams.

In many ways, Minnesota defenseman Ryan Suter is a throwback — the kind when NHL teams played with four or five defensemen instead of six.

Seemingly, he can skate effortlessly and endlessly without any defect to his game. With the kind of minutes that Suter is logging this season, that premise is being put to the test. 

Suter leads the NHL in time on ice, which is nothing new. What is new is the amount of time that he is playing. He averages 29:36 per game, which is 1:38 per game more than the next-highest player and 2:22 more than he averaged last season when he led the league and was a finalist for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman). To put it another way, Suter has logged 165 minutes more than the next-highest player, Florida’s Brian Campbell, which is the equivalent almost three games more.

Suter has surpassed the 30-minute mark 23 times in 49 games and in one three-game peak in November, Suter played 35:51, 35:28 and 36:00, respectively.

"I enjoy it," Suter said. "I like to be on the ice. I think it’s easier for you to get into the game when you’re on the ice. I like to be out there."

All of it begs the question as to whether that level of play is sustainable without risk of Suter losing something from his game or falling victim to injury. Wild coach Mike Yeo said he tries to manage practices in light of the minutes being played by Suter and his other top players.

"Yeah, for sure, especially as the season goes on," he said. "Start to do more optional skates and how we plan our practices, based on sort of our top guys, our top-minute guys. Once practice is over, guys who need more can do extra. We’re always making sure we’re keeping an eye on that and when a guy’s playing that much it’s obviously very important."

Asked if he were worried that Suter might wear down late in the season, Yeo responded after a game-day skate, "I’m worried about tonight. That’s my worry right now."

Suter’s average is the highest in the league since Chris Pronger averaged 30:14 in 1999-2000. The difference is that Pronger is about five inches taller than Suter and at least 20 pounds heavier, reducing the wear-and-tear.

The other major difference is that when Pronger did it — defensemen like Brian Leetch, Ray Bourque and Chris Chelios also averaged better than 30 minutes per game in that era — the rules were different. After the lockout of 2004-05, the league changed its standards on restraining fouls. Whereas defensemen could previously slow down opponents by hooking and holding them — essentially taking a free ride and making the forward carry them through the neutral zone. Now, that is a penalty. It forces defensemen like Suter to have skate and exert more energy.

One pro scout told Penalty Minutes that he thought Suter could handle the minutes but that he might have to cut back on other areas. Former NHL defenseman and a teammate of Bourque’s, Gary Galley, now an analyst with Hockey Night in Canada, also said he thinks Suter can handle it.

"There is a part of your game that you have to adjust to," Galley said. "You’ve got to make sure you’re compartmentalizing your game, putting the important things in place at the right times, backing off at the right times, taking shifts and breaks at the right times. It’s a package that you put together as a player."

Galley said that Bourque used to tell him he could reach the 100-point plateau but that if he did, "’I would be giving up way too much on the other side of it and I don’t think that’s what I want to do,’" Galley said, "So he puts up 75, 80 points and he’s lights out in every zone of the ice so you have to be able to live with yourself and what you’re doing."

Penalty Minutes: Olympic Edition

Galley went even further, suggesting that eventual Stanley Cup champion Chicago almost got itself eliminated in the second round of the playoffs last season as coach Joel Quenneville was trying to manage the minutes of top defenseman Duncan Keith.

"They had him down to 22, 23 (minutes) and they were talking about how they were saving him," Galley said. "All of the sudden, you get in games in the playoffs 22, 23 minutes, this guy is bored. He’s used to playing these heavy minutes. All of the sudden as they started to lose grasp of that series in Detroit (Chicago trailed 3-1), they put (Brent) Seabrook back with Keith. They started loading up their minutes, both guys started playing way better."

Galley said he thinks 35 or 36 minutes per night is too much, but that he thinks Suter can handle 30 just fine.

At the conclusion of games, as media members conduct postgame interviews, players often can be seen riding bikes and lifting weights. Not Suter. He said it’s one way he manages his body, along with eating and sleeping well.

"Some guys do it because they don’t play a lot of minutes," Suter said of postgame exercise. "So that’s how they stay in shape. I don’t work out after games. I just try to get out of the rink and get away from it as fast as I can just to try to stay fresh. I usually work out the next day but for guys that work out after the games a lot of them are the guys that aren’t playing a lot of minutes, I think."

Suter clearly is not in that category.