Sunday, October 9, 2005
Updated: October 10, 11:56 AM ET
We're all still figuring it out
By Scott Burnside
It has been a wild and wooly first few days since the return of the National Hockey League.
Shootouts, comebacks, a bewildering parade of penalties and the arrival of a host of young players whose future seems to be now.
Here is a look at some of the highs and lows, surprises and disappointments of a season in its infancy, and a league whose recovery is likewise in its toddling stage.
Hey, it happens to the best of them
Much was made of Wayne Gretzky's lineup gaffe that left the Coyotes short-handed in their second game. Gretzky inadvertently listed forward Fredrik Sjostrom as a scratch when he was supposed to be in the active lineup. Officials discovered the discrepancy and Sjostrom had to leave the game early in the first period.
It brings to mind a similar error made by Leafs coach Pat Quinn during the 2002 playoffs, when Quinn mixed up the numbers and names of Mikael Renberg (who was injured) and Robert Reichel (who was merely ineffective). Reichel had to leave the game early.
Luckily for Quinn, the error didn't cost his team as they won both the game and the series. Luckily for Gretzky, whose team got its first win Saturday, the Coyotes' lost game was Game 2 of 82, not a playoff match.
Memo to Sharks
We all know the preseason means nothing. Well, don't we? Apparently the San Jose Sharks didn't get that memo.
After romping through the preseason with a 7-0 record, the Sharks dropped a 3-2 opener to Nashville, got smoked 6-3 by Chicago and then blew a 2-0 lead to woeful St. Louis on Saturday, allowing four straight goals before rallying for a late 7-6 win over what is certainly the worst team in the Western Conference.
For a team many picked to return to the top of the conference pack based on its sterling defensive play, it's not exactly the start most were expecting. The goaltending has been especially ordinary with former rookie of the year Evgeni Nabokov giving up an average of 4.25 goals per game with an .825 save percentage. Backup Vesa Toskala has the distinction of ranking dead-last in save percentage (.714) among 43 goalies who have seen action, after allowing four goals on 14 shots versus Chicago. Only the winless Blues have given up more than the 15 goals the normally stingy Sharks have allowed.
Method to Mike's madness
Many people questioned Florida GM Mike Keenan's strategy when he enraged starting netminder Roberto Luongo by taking him to arbitration before the start of training camp. Luongo subsequently turned down a long-term deal and the suggestion has been he'll play out his time in South Florida and then hit the free-agent highway as soon as possible.
Regardless, Luongo began the season with two straight shutouts and didn't give up a goal until 55 seconds into the second period of the Panthers' third game, a tough 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay. Luongo leads all starters with a 0.67 goals-against average and .979 save percentage. If Keenan can manage to enrage the rest of his team in a similar fashion, then the Panthers might actually be in line for a postseason berth. And if anyone's capable of inspiring widespread rancor among his own players, it's Keenan.
A couple of days prior to the opening of the regular season, Atlanta backup netminder Mike Dunham was discussing one of the by-products of raising the bar on calling obstruction -- an increase in goalie ramming. Because defensemen can't put their hands or stick on a rushing forward, forwards are going to be able to drive the net with more freedom. And when forwards drive the net, goalies get squashed.
"I've seen a lot of goalies get crashed during the preseason," said Dunham, who said he got knocked down "maybe eight or 10 times."
Before the end of the first period of the Thrashers' first game, Kari Lehtonen was rammed by Florida's Nathan Horton and sprained a groin, sidelining the mega-prospect indefinitely. He'll be further tested Monday to discover the severity of the injury. In Saturday's game against Washington, Atlanta forward Brad Larsen crashed into Caps' netminder Olaf Kolzig, touching off a near-brawl. No penalty was called on either play.
Stay tuned for more penalties called on forwards who don't make an effort to avoid goalies.
Speaking of the Thrashers, a sellout crowd responded with a standing ovation when GM Don Waddell appeared on the video scoreboard to announce the team had signed forward Ilya Kovalchuk to a five-year deal (it's worth $32 million). When told that Kovalchuk had signed but wouldn't play Saturday, Kolzig responded with a hearty "thank [goodness]."
There was some discussion that Kovalchuk would try and suit up for Saturday's game, but without a work visa, he ran the risk of being deported. Expect him in the lineup Wednesday against the Habs or Friday against Toronto at the latest.
Learn to skate, will ya?
Yes, the new standards in calls are taking some getting used to, by both officials and players. New Jersey coach Larry Robinson said he saw some calls made in his team's opener against Pittsburgh that weren't called in another, and visa versa. He recalled an incident in the opener in which 5-foot-7 Brian Gionta was called for a penalty after Penguins captain Mario Lemieux, 6-foot-4, brushed by the Devils forward and fell down.
"I mean, give me a break," Robinson said. Asked what his point was, Robinson grinned and answered, "Mario's got to work on his skating."
Goals and greatness
In the rush to remake the NHL as an offensive product, the most obvious benchmark is goal scoring. In 2003-04, the average per-game total was 5.1 goals, down from the halcyon days of the late 1980s, when goal-scoring topped the seven goals per game mark (7.4 goals in 1987).
Since opening night, when one might have assumed a drop-off in production, 12 of 22 games have featured at least seven goals. But the goals don't tell the whole story.
Around the NHL, there has been a dramatic shift in the flow of games, the up and down that many have longed for, is now back, interrupted not by clutching, grabbing and fighting, but only by the parade of the slow and out of position to the penalty box.
Take the Carolina-Pittsburgh game Friday evening, for example. Although the final score showed Carolina won 3-2 in a shootout, the contest featured wild end-to-end rushes and terrific chances on both ends. Backup goalies Sebastien Caron and Cam Ward turned in a clinic. The overtime was outstanding and the shootout featured rookie Ward denying, in order, Mario Lemieux, Ziggy Palffy and Sidney Crosby.
If the fans in Raleigh don't race back for that kind of entertainment, then pack up the moving trucks. For the record, the 'Canes drew a beyond capacity crowd of 18,787 at the RBC Center.
Early reports on special teams
It's early, but never too early to fix what's broken -- as in the 'Canes power play, which started the season 0-for-15, just slightly worse than the Flames' 1-for-16 output. At the other end of the spectrum, the Thrashers lead all teams with eight power-play goals on 29 chances.
If you can't score 'em, you'd better be able to kill 'em off.
The Predators lead the league, allowing no power-play goals in 11 attempts. Florida, Ottawa, Tampa and Minnesota, all teams you would associate with discipline, have each given up just one power-play goal.
As for the teams that just don't get it, how about San Jose, which has given up six goals on 18 attempts, and Boston, which has allowed five power-play markers on 21 chances. Of course, there's Washington, which has absorbed eight power-play goals on 32 chances, both league highs.
These categories will be a barometer for success throughout the season.
It's important to have a sense of self
In an interview with Atlanta broadcasters prior to Friday's game, Washington Capitals coach Glen Hanlon likened his raw, young team to a bunch of exuberant puppies in a park. They love to romp, they're very cute, but occasionally one runs into traffic and gets hit by a car. Ouch.
We think Hanlon was suggesting that his team has the right energy, but sometimes doesn't quite grasp the new NHL and runs afoul of the rules, which makes it difficult for them to compete. After surprising Columbus with an opening-night win, the Caps were thrashed (pardon the pun) by Atlanta, 15-4, in a home-and-home set this weekend. In the two losses, the undisciplined Caps gave up eight power-play goals. Call the Humane Society.
By our count, there were 15 lead changes across the NHL Saturday night (and that's not counting the first goal of each game). In Toronto, where the Leafs and Habs bounced back and forth before the Canadiens won their third straight game (all on the road), Montreal coach Claude Julien told The Toronto Star, "in other years, if we were leading 3-2 going into the third, we would have just shut 'er down and people would have said there's just another dull game. Now, you gotta keep going."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.