Into the Boards: McDavid vs. Eichel, The Red Hot Flames, and the Ever-Surprising Blue Jackets
Ah, yes, the holiday season is upon us. Chilly weather, hot beverages, and the coolest sport on earth. This week we’ll take a look at the incredible Connor McDavid vs. Jack Eichel matchup, the red hot Flames, the Flyers keeping pace, and the ever-surprising Columbus Blue Jackets. It was an action-packed seven days full of everything we love about the game, so let’s get to it!
(Special shout out to Vin for still writing his half of this column through the hecticness of being on tour!)
Philly Flying High
This week I (Vin) have been on the road with Moon Tooth playing shows up and down the East Coast. We hit up Philadelphia, which, though one of the greatest cities in the country, is home to some of the most hated sports franchises. Needless to say, the shit-talking from my Flyers fan friends was real (shout out to Adam and Mason). And you know what, I had to just sit there and take it. They have plenty to be stoked on, as the Flyers are certainly soaring this past week and put up their sixth straight win.
Goaltender Steve Mason has been on a roll, stopping 162 out of 171 shots while sporting a .944 save percentage in his last five starts, ultimately helping his team earn a “W” against the Bruins, Senators, Blackhawks, Predators, and Panthers. Mason hasn’t been the only one showing up lately; Philly is also getting help from its big boys at the blue line. Defenders Michael Del Zotto and young stud Ivan Provorov have also been stepping up and putting the puck in net, along with their core scorers in Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and Jakub Voracek. Simmonds in particular has wowed us by sitting pretty at fourth in the league with 15 goals. Many Flyers fans were bummed when goaltender Michal Neuvirth went to the IR with a lower body injury back in November, but Mason has held strong and the boys in black and orange are continuing to keep pace in the wild card race. Philadelphia is seeking redemption for last year after being knocked out in the first round of the playoffs by the Washington Capitals, and with a third of the season in the books, there is still plenty of hockey left to make it happen.
Columbus currently sits in third place of the Metro Division behind the Pens and Rangers. Tortorella and the Blue Jackets are on a four game win streak beating out the Lightning, Avalanche, and Coyotes. They’re finding a way to piece together wins and, more importantly, stay healthy. Netminder Sergei Bobrovski is a former Vezina Trophy winner and has always been solid, but this year the team is finding a way to be offensively more consistent. Twenty-two-year old rookie defenseman Zach Werenski leads the team with 16 assists and seems to be breathing new life into the Jackets as he’s shouldering gigantic minutes and boasting incredible possession numbers. He’ll certainly give Laine and Matthews a run for the Calder Trophy if he stays as solid as he’s been. Most people underestimated Columbus and wrote them off early in the season (myself included), but they are staying consistent and holding up amongst the leaders in the East. Realistically, I think the Blue Jackets lack the depth and experience to go anywhere substantial, but they’ve come this far, so let’s see how long they can keep it up.
Future Stars Collide
I’m sort of breaking the rules here as this is really an East AND West story, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to cover two of the league’s brightest young stars going head to head for the first time this season.
Connor McDavid has been the talk of the hockey world this year and rightfully so, seeing as how he currently sits as the league leader in scoring at the ripe old age of 19 with 36 points (11g, 25a). Jack Eichel, on the other hand, has almost been replaced in the eyes of hockey fans by the likes of Auston Matthews and Patrik Laine because of a high ankle sprain that caused him to miss the first quarter of the season. Make no mistake, though: Eichel is back and not wasting any time. His impact has been felt immediately as he’s tallied five points in as many games back on the ice, including an assist on Rasmus Ristolainen’s game-winning goal against McDavid’s Oilers on Tuesday night. While neither youngin’ lit the lamp, Connor put up two assists of his own in the 4-3 loss in Buffalo.
The top guns from the 2015 draft are a few of the most exciting I’ve ever seen in my life and I have no problem saying that Connor McDavid is already a top-tier NHL superstar up there with Sid and Ovi. Eichel needs a few more healthy games back to get into a groove and fully dazzle us, but it’s only a matter of time before the snipe show he put on last year gets back on the road. The combination of skating ability, speed, puck control, and hockey sense displayed by these two players is like nothing I’ve ever seen in my entire hockey watching life, and Connor McDavid is already proving to be the king of making something out of nothing. To the readers of this column- do yourself a favor and grab tickets when the Oilers or Sabres are playing your local team. Seeing either one of these players alone is worth the ticket price.
First of all, murder me for the title of this paragraph. Second, the pretty-bad Calgary Flames had a hell of a week, so it’s time to give credit where credit is due. The Alberta boys had a perfect seven days, going 4-0-0 against Toronto, Minnesota, Anaheim, and Dallas. While this isn’t exactly a stellar list of opponents, they went head to head with some pretty decent offensive squads in the Leafs and Stars, so I’m rather impressed that they held those two teams to a total of one goal (which came in the Dallas game), especially considering the tire fire that is Calgary’s defense. Strong play by backup (but not really backup anymore) goaltender Chad Johnson has certainly helped, but the Flames offense has been the story of this streak. Sunday night, Gaudreau and friends laid an absolute ass-beating on the Anaheim Ducks, coming up with a convincing 8-3 victory at home. All 8 Calgary goals were scored by different players, so the balance of scoring is certainly a good sign for Flames fans that perhaps Gaudreau, Monahan, and Bennett won’t have to shoulder the entire load by themselves. It’s obvious that Calgary has plenty of holes to fill, but the Pacific Division is pretty damn ugly, so while I still expect Los Angeles or *maybe* Anaheim (or both) to push the Flames back out of the playoff picture, it certainly is possible for them to squeak into a Wild Card spot in a very weak division if one of the California teams slips at the right time. That’s a big ol’ maybe, though.
Player of the Week
Scott: The freakishly talented Finn, Patrik Laine. The second overall pick of the 2016 NHL draft has done nothing but dazzle me since game one, and this week was no exception as he put up four goals and two assists for six points in his last four games. Laine is the best pure goal scorer I’ve seen since Alex Ovechkin was drafted, and he’s only 18 years old. The 6’5” sniper has a refreshing enthusiasm for scoring goals and is exactly what the NHL needed.
Vin: OG defenseman Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators. Homeboy went off this week recording two goals, five assists and four PPP, including a game-winning goal against the Florida Panthers.
Play of the Week
S: Tyler Bozak intercepts a pass in the offensive zone, pulls a quick inside move on Mathew Dumba, and finishes with a slick backhander past Devan Dubnyk all in one motion. Big shout out to the ever-talented Mitch Marner for starting the play with a heavy forecheck on Brodin to force the turnover.
V: My favorite Russian, the great Evgeni Malkin, the only player who can pull off this kind of goal. Watch his greatness weave between two defenders and float a beautiful backhander right under the arm of Craig Anderson.