Into the Boards: Blackhawks Back on Top, Jets Add to Their Fleet
The world is imploding as the unthinkable has happened. As I drink my glass of Camarena Tequila to ease the burn (or sadly, the lack thereof in this election season) I can only turn my attention to one of the beautiful things in life that never lets me down: hockey. The season’s fourth week has been epic so far to say the least, with plenty of sick match-ups coming over the weekend.
This week’s column brings focus to the red hot Chicago Blackhawks and young talent on the rise in Winnipeg in the West. We’ll take a look at the surging Rangers and the fighting Devils in the East and of course run down our players of the week. Let’s go!
Eastern Conference Highlights
After being bounced in five games last spring by the almighty Pittsburgh Penguins, it seemed as though it was finally time for the Rangers to do some serious re-tooling and think about a rebuild. A few aging defensemen and a slew of salary cap issues led the Rangers to the bargain bin during the offseason, but the noticeable lack of large scale moves seemed to suggest that Jeff Gorton and company are not giving up on this group yet. In the early going, their stubbornness seems to be paying off handsomely. The Rangers are scoring in buckets, having netted at least five goals in five straight games dating back to October 30th, before finally losing Tuesday night at home to the Vancouver Canucks. The boys in blue are boasting out of control shooting percentages (Hayes: 28.6%, Vesey: 25.0%, Grabner: 23.3%) which should be somewhat concerning for Rangers fans because it’s simply unsustainable, but their decent possession numbers seem to suggest that they will be okay after all. While I would expect things to calm down a bit in Manhattan, the Rangers have made it very clear that they are still a well-oiled machine and have as good a shot as any team in the East to make some noise.
Speak of the Devil
Off the bat, it may seem a bit strange to be giving particular praise to a team with a decent 6-3-3 record, but given the expectations for the 2016-17 New Jersey Devils, I must give credit where credit is due. The Taylor Hall/Adam Larsson one-for-one trade was a winner for the Devils (not to say that the Oilers didn’t receive a hell of a player themselves), and Hall’s immediate impact is being felt in New Jersey. It’s been an up and down ride for the Devils through the first few weeks, and their 2-1-1 record on the week is indicative of that. The Devils beat the Hurricanes on Sunday in Raleigh on the strength of a Michael Cammalleri hat trick, only to come home and beat them yet again in New Jersey on the back end of the home-and-home. While the Newark boys missed the playoffs last season, they currently sit in the first wild card spot ahead of Detroit, Florida, and the Islanders, all of whom made the playoffs in the 2015-16 campaign. Obviously it’s too early to use this as any real indication, but it’s impressive to see New Jersey keeping pace with a roster that boasts very little offensive flair. If the Devils can keep scoring by committee, they have a shot at sneaking into the postseason, especially if the Islanders continue to murder my spirit and suck as badly as they have.
Western Conference Highlights
The Jets have been sitting at the bottom of the pack for most of the season so far, but believe it when I say things are going to turn around. Winnipeg fans should be very optimistic as their team had a great week on and off the ice. This week the Jets ended their holdout and signed a deal with Defenseman Jacob Trouba who can now be entirely dedicated to helping the team continue to win games. Winnipeg is also about to get another defenseman back in mountain-of-a-man Tyler Myers, who was previously on the IR due to a serious lower-body injury. Having these two back on the ice will give the team some much needed depth on the blue line. On the ice, the Jets had a huge win over the Dallas Stars, beating them 8-2. Rookie sensation Patrik Laine scored three goals and recorded his second hat trick of his extremely young career. Laine also leads the NHL with 11 goals here in the early going. Centerman Mike Scheifele, now in his second season, sits right behind Laine with nine goals on the season. I believe the rest of season will go well for the Jets. If the Predators and Stars continue to struggle, Winnipeg might find themselves as a contender for a wild card spot.
(Black) Bird Up!
Yes, the Blackhawks are on fire and back at it again. We all knew it was coming. We all knew they couldn’t NOT be in first place for long. After a six game win streak and going 8-1-1 in their last 10 games the Chicago Blackhawks are now on top of the Central Division. Of coarse superstars and core players Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are contributing and helping the team win. And of course Netminder Corey Crawford is killing it between the pipes, going 3-0 in his last three starts and shutting out the Colorado Avalanche. If you’re a hockey fan, none of this should surprise you. The Blackhawks are one of the best teams in hockey and will continue to be for quite some time. What is surprising is the contribution and success of Artem Anisimov and winger Artemi Panarin. Anisimov has always been solid, but no one would’ve expected him to be ranked second in the NHL with eight goals, nine assists, and a plus 11 on the season. Trust me, ask a Rangers fan, and I doubt any of them saw this coming. Panarin is a rising star in Chicago and has been playing on the second line with Anisimov and veteran Marian Hossa, and he is looking to add onto his four-game point streak. The Blackhawks are amazing, I am not evening fan-boying here. There is just no other way to put it.
Player of the Week
Vin: Mark Scheifele on the Winnipeg Jets. I’ve been following Mark since last year and had him as one of my fantasy keepers coming into this season. This week Scheifele has four goals, five assists, and a plus seven rating. He is a great young talent who is going to continue to grow and improve; he’s definitely a big star of tomorrow.
Scott: Michael Cammalleri. After going the first 11 games of the season without a goal, Cammalleri exploded for a natural hat trick against Carolina and showed flashes of his former self. If he can build on that and rediscover his scoring touch, there may be hope in New Jersey.