New York Hockey: Chicago Blackhawks

Hawks show Isles' streak was suspect

January, 10, 2011
The Islanders lost 5-0 to the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday night. Normally a lopsided beating by the reining Stanley Cup champs wouldn’t register as unusual, but given the Islanders’ 8-2-1 record coming into that game it sure seemed to be a hasty reversal of fortune.

But after breaking down that hot streak a little bit, the one-sided Sunday loss may not be that strange at all.

Over the course of the Islanders’ streak they dialed up goal scoring and seriously cracked down on the opposition. In the Isles’ first 28 games, they averaged a mere 2.1 goals per game, while yielding 3.43. Simply put, that’s pretty wretched and given these figures it was no shock to see the Islanders dueling with the New Jersey Devils for occupancy of the NHL cellar.

Then something sensational happened and the Islanders seemingly blossomed. During the last 11 games heading into Chicago, the Isles upped their goals per game average to 3.01 while cutting goals against to 2.36 per contest. You don’t need to be a genius to see how those two drastic changes in the scoring department could lead to an 8-2-1 hot streak.

Another encouraging sign: The Isles’ core of young talent was leading the way during the streak. John Tavares was averaging better than a point per game (six goals, eight assists) heading into ChiTown. D Andrew MacDonald smoothly transitioned to his role on the top defensive pairing by posting 10 assists. Josh Bailey potted three goals and three assists after being recalled from the AHL and five goals and four helpers from Blake Comeau were notable as well.

The Isles were especially clicking on the power play. New York averaged 1.1 goals per game with the man advantage over the previous 11 games, half a goal better than their season average through the season’s first 28 games. A man down, the Isles improved their PK percentage by 6.4 percent during the streak.

Those are all reasons for optimism as this young club continues to develop. But there are a few signs that seem to indicate the Islanders are about to come back to Earth.

By looking a little closer at special teams we start to see why the previous 11 games may have been a skewed sample. The Islanders may have outscored their opponents 34-26 over that stretch, but if you look only at even-strength performance, usually one of the best predictors of future success, the Islanders were just better than even (22 goals for, 21 against). That’s not a bad mark at all, but it’s not one that indicates the Islanders can keep playing .800 hockey.

The real discouraging mark comes in the shot department. Despite their success, the Islanders were outshot 409 to 293 during the hot stretch. That’s an awful lot of reliance on the goaltending trio of Rick DiPietro, Nathan Lawson and Kevin Poulin.

On average, NHL teams score on about nine percent of their shots. The Islander opponents converted just six percent. Had those foes clicked at the NHL average rate they would have potted 36 goals in the previous 11 games, two more than the Islanders, who enjoyed a shooting percentage of 11.6 percent. If you believe in regression to the mean, it looks like the Isles have just been enjoying a stretch of good luck that coincided with some timely breakouts by their young stars.

For the previous 11 games, the Islanders seemed to be on fire. Turns out the may have just been playing with it. Sunday in Chicago they got burned. The young core is a solid one and lately demonstrated their vast potential. But if the Isles can’t crack down on their opponents’ shot totals, they're more than likely going to get burned again.

Devils hang tough in win

November, 4, 2010
Rejoice! The Devils are no longer in the NHL cellar. A 5-3 victory over the reigning champion Chicago Blackhawks spurred by Brad Mills’ first NHL goal has finally given the Devs some sunshine to conclude a very gloomy six-game road trip.

Game Story | Box Score

Up 2-0 in the second period, it seemed as though the hockey gods would again crush the beleaguered Devils when Martin Brodeur left the contest with a bruised elbow. With backup Johan Hedberg between the pipes, the Blackhawks knotted the score at 2 and seemed fated to claim a comeback victory, given the Devils’ early-season script. But Mills and Co. flipped it Wednesday night, as New Jersey got goals from five different players in the win.

Jason Arnott’s fourth goal of the season started New Jersey’s scoring, a scarce commodity to this point on the schedule, and a pair of empty netters from Jamie Langenbrunner and Andy Greene capped the win. And even better news: X-rays on Brodeur’s elbow came back negative and he says he believes he will be in net for the Devils’ next game against the Rangers Friday at Prudential Center.

That the Devils didn’t roll over and let the game slip away after the Blackhawks tied it told me a lot about this team. That’s the kind of resiliency you don’t get from a team that has quit in the face of mounting hardship. Come Friday night, Wednesday’s effort will mean nothing. But now there’s something to build off of and a feeling that better days are ahead.

Here’s some more reaction to the win.

Morning Links
  • Mills told The Record’s Tom Gulitti the goal may have been ugly, but it may get a little prettier over the course of a few re-tellings. I don’t think anything could have looked more beautiful to the Devils though.
  • Brodeur is pretty sure he’ll play Friday, according to Gulitti.
  • In Lou We Trust writes that there’s a lot to critique about Wednesday’s performance, but also a lot to like.
  • Here’s a little more on Mills' goal from Rich Chere of the Star-Ledger.
  • Puck Daddy gave Wednesday night’s third star award to Langenbrunner.

W2W4: Devils vs. Blackhawks

November, 3, 2010
Three months. That's how long the New Jersey Devils, a team struggling to put the puck in the net, will be without last season's top scorer, Zach Parise.

Averaging just 1.5 goals per game, New Jersey already needed someone to step up their offense simply to get the Devs off their early-season slide. Now they'll need someone to carry them all the way through the end of January.

With this ominous development hanging over their heads, the Devils take on the reigning Stanley Cup champions in Chicago tonight, a team whose defensive corps ranked as the league's best a season ago. Here are three keys to watch for as New Jersey seeks a badly needed W.

Shoot. Again. And Again.
Ilya Kovalchuk has recorded just two shots on goal in each of the Devils' last three games after getting completely shutout against San Jose. Just like in basketball when good shooters need to shoot themselves out of slumps, Kovalchuk needs to keep firing. Not that shots will come easy against the Hawks tonight. Chicago's netminders faced the fewest shots of any NHL team last season, but so far the Blackhawks haven't been able to lock down opposing offenses in the same way (20th in shots against per game). The Devils, and particularly Kovalchuk, need to fire at will.

Even Strength?
The Devils are the NHL's worst team when skating five aside. Any improvement by the team needs to start here. Getting outscored 28-15 at even strength just isn't going to cut it. Part of the reason for that lopsided margin has been bad turnovers. You may have the same number of players on the ice, but when your players try to dangle the puck in the neutral zone only to get their pockets picked, suddenly the math gets a lot uglier with an odd-man rush going back towards Martin Brodeur. Needless to say, that's not an equation for success.

Watch All The Weapons
Patrick Sharp. Marian Hossa. Patrick Kane. Jonathan Toews. New Jersey isn't going to be able to match up the way it wants against all of Chicago's top skaters, particularly not on the road where John MacLean won't enjoy the last line change. Everyone on the ice will need to keep their heads on swivels to keep Chicago off the scoreboard. With the litany of Devils injuries, this is an opportunity for some young players to step up and make a solid impression.

NHL drops gloves over long-term deals

September, 2, 2010
We may be gaining some clarity on why the verdict of Ilya Kovalchuk's second contract was delayed. The New York Post's Larry Brooks reports, according to "several well-placed sources," that the league is taking a hard line on long-term contracts and seeking amendments to the collective bargaining agreement. If the NHL Players Association doesn't accept the proposed amendments, Kovalchuk's contract will again be struck down and the contracts of Vancouver Canucks G Roberto Luongo and Chicago Blackhawks wing Marian Hossa may also be in peril.

According to Brooks, the NHL would grandfather in all three player contracts if the NHLPA agreed to the following changes to the CBA:
1. That the cap hit on future multiyear contracts will not count any season that ends with the player over 40 years of age. The cap hit would be based on the average salary of the seasons in the contract up to age 40.

2. That the cap hit on future contracts longer than five years would be calculated by granting additional weight -- perhaps the average -- to the five consecutive years with the largest average salary.

If the NHLPA does not accept those changes, the league threatens the following actions:
1. It will reject the Kovalchuk contract.

2. It will de-register Luongo's contract under which the goaltender will earn $3.618 million over the final three years of his deal. The goaltender is carrying a $5.333 million cap hit.

3. It will move to open a formal investigation of Hossa's contract under which the winger will earn $4 million over the final four years of his contract. Hossa is carrying a cap hit of $5.275 million per.

Brooks notes that the league has accepted the lengthy deal between Chris Pronger and the Flyers, but the status of Marc Savard's seven-year $28.5M contract is unknown.

The NHLPA has until 5 p.m. Friday to accept the changes, according to the Post's report.

Considering the small number of players who last in the league past age 40, the first amendment makes sense in terms of restricting salary cap circumvention. The second amendment however could drastically alter future deals for players, as teams may become reluctant to subject themselves to the extra weighting. That means star players may not be signing contracts that endure through the end of their careers and taking a hit in the wallet.

Instead of using their current production as leverage for a guaranteed contract into their late-30s, players may now see shorter contract terms. They may then be forced to negotiate another contract after their production has started to trail off and accept less money than they would have enjoyed with a long-term contract such as the one signed by Hossa.

If the Post report is accurate, this would be a very big change in a very small window of time. And apparently Kovalchuk's deal with the Devils hangs in the balance.

UPDATE: ESPN's E.J. Hradek tweeted last night that NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly says no ultimatum has been given to the NHLPA.