Into the Boards: Dallas and Nashville are Underachieving, Rangers and Bruins are Rolling
Happy New Year to all you readers and ITB fans out there. We hope you guys enjoyed your holiday and are sticking to your resolutions. Our resolution was to watch more hockey, and you bet your ass we’ve been sticking to it.
Now that the holidays are officially over we can focus once again on our favorite pastime. 2017 kicked off with some aggressive and entertaining outdoor hockey games, and we watched the Leafs edge past the Red Wings in overtime and the Blues get gritty in St. Louis as they took out the Blackhawks at home. Now that we’re back indoors, let’s see what the past week had in store for us.
The theme of the week in the West is going to be “teams that were good last year but really aren’t this year.” That means we’re starting with Dallas, who finished the 2016-17 campaign second in the entire NHL with 109 points and are pretty damn far off that mark as of now.
It’s no particular mystery as to what Dallas’s problems are: goaltending and defense. The Stars’ lackluster goaltending duo of Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi seems to have left head coach Lindy Ruff scratching his head. Lehtonen is currently sporting a 2.74 GAA and a .902 save percentage through 24 games in his time split with Niemi, who himself is rocking a hot 3.00 GAA and a .908 save percentage through 20. With neither netminder getting the job done, there isn’t a whole lot of confidence for the defenders in front of them.
The Stars currently sit in fifth place in the Central Division, just two points out of the second wild card spot with a -17 goal differential. That differential is certainly more a product of allowing goals than not scoring them as Tyler Seguin is a point per game player with 39 points in 39 games, captain Jamie Benn isn’t far behind with 34 points of his own, and of course Jason Spezza is doing his part to contribute as well. Sniper Patrick Sharp has missed much of the season, only appearing in 13 games and notching just three points in those contests, so his contributions are surely missed. Jiri Hudler and Ales Hemsky have also missed extended time due to injury.
That being said, these Stars can’t score their way out of trouble in every game like they did last season. Perhaps the Stars are about to turn it around, though, as they allowed an average of 3.31 goals against in the month of November and improved to an average of 2.42 goals against in the month of December. Regardless, it’s time for the Stars to re-tool a bit and turn some assets into decent goaltending.
Adversity in Smashville
Speaking of teams that are underachieving, Nashville currently sits directly behind the Dallas Stars in sixth place in the Central Division, three points out of that final wild card spot. While Nashville isn’t too far off their 2015-16 mark right now, perhaps there’s still some cause for concern.
Nashville and Montreal made headlines this past offseason when they swapped their franchise defensemen in Shea Weber and P.K. Subban in the blockbuster deal of the decade. I’ve mentioned in past editions of this column that Nashville won that trade for sure, especially if you look at it from a long term perspective. However, early on in the season, Montreal was immediately successful and Nashville was not, so of course stuffy, traditionalist hockey writers and the ever-shortsighted internet deemed Montreal the winners and basically gave Shea Weber the Norris Trophy two weeks into the season. Since getting off to a slow start, though, P.K. has returned to form and improved to seven goals and 10 assists for 17 points through 29 games, but in perfect harmony with how things have been going for the Preds this year he’s been placed on Injured Reserve for two to three weeks with an upper body injury.
With a +1 goal differential and a 5-6-3 record through December, the numbers tell us that Nashville is involved in close games but are having trouble getting it done. Four of their 14 games during this span went to extra time and they were defeated in three of those contests. Fear not, though, for if you’re a glass half full type of fan, this means that Nashville is not far off. November treated the Preds much better so perhaps the return of Subban will be enough to push the boys into that final wild card spot.
First off, I would like to acknowledge and say Rest In Peace to Milt Schmidt. While I’ve always heard his name and knew he was Hall of Fame player, watching his memorial video has given me new knowledge and a great respect for him. Milt was a WWII veteran, won four Stanley cups with the Bruins as a player and GM, was a Hart trophy winner, and a four time All Star. It’s clear he meant the world to the Bruins organization and he will be missed.
Boston has continued to keep fighting hard this season despite some key injuries. Going 4-4-2 in their last 10 games, the boys in Beantown sit in third place in the Atlantic Division. Boston received some great news to start off the new year when it was announced that forward David Backes — who sustained a concussion last Thursday and was originally told it could be a while before he could return to the ice — took part in the morning skate and could be back sooner. The team is also starting off on the right foot by placing backup netminder Anton Khudobin on waivers so they can bring up Zane McIntyre to take the number two seat behind the great Tuukka Rask. Having Backes return to the lineup and a solid backup to give Tukka some rest can do wonders for the team down the stretch.
Rumor also has it that Boston is in the mix of teams showing interest in Colorado forward Gabriel Landeskog as they make a push for the post season. All in all, the Bruins are exactly where they need to be. As long as they stay healthy and Tuukka continues his stellar performance between the pipes, Boston will find their way into the first round. With the long term injuries that plague Tampa Bay and the Red Wings/Panthers continuing to struggle, the chances for Boston are decent.
The New York Rangers have been off to a great start this year. We’re now 13 weeks into the season and head coach Alain Vigneault and the Blueshirts have kept it together and continue to sit in third place in the absolutely stacked Metropolitan Division. With Columbus on a 16 game winning streak and the Penguins consistently putting wins together, the Rangers have their work cut out for them to keep pace. The Capitals and Flyers are in hot pursuit and are looking to leap into the division’s top three.
New York is currently missing some key goal scorers with Rick Nash, Mika Zibanejad, and Pavel Buchnevich on the disabled list, but we’re seeing how deep the talent runs as secondary players like Michael Grabner and J.T Miller are putting the puck in net. Even when King Henrik Lundqvist isn’t playing to his full potential, backup goaltender Antti Raanta has done his part and stayed consistently solid. With a 5-2 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday evening, the Rangers have put some extra space between them and Philly, who sit in the second wild card spot.
Coach Vigneault is doing wonders for the Rangers and I don’t see them slowing down anytime soon. The Rangers get a chance to play the red hot Jackets on Saturday, so if the Caps don’t do it first tonight, New York could rain on former coach John Tortorella’s parade.
Players of the Week
Scott: The golden boy from the desert, Auston Matthews. AM34 impressed on the big outdoor stage on New Year’s Day at the Centennial Classic, potting two goals, one of which was the game winner in OT. In total, he put up four goals and four assists for eight points in just four games. The future is bright in Toronto.
Vin: Nikita Kucherov of the Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa is dealing with a lot of players out with injuries, but Kucherov is picking up the slack and putting the team on his back. Even with the holiday, Kucherov has two goals, six assists and four power play points, and a whopping 18 SOG.
Plays of the Week
S: Sorry folks, Matthews again. Watch as #34 uses his 6’3” frame to lose Nick Backstrom on the wall, look off Brooks Orpik, fake like he’s taking the puck behind the net, and send an incredible spin-o-rama pass to Uncle Leo out front. Watching this kid never gets old.
V: T.J Oshie for this beautiful goal. Oshie ties it up against the Leafs while showing tremendous patience. Oshie holds it forever while Freddy, Bozak, and Kadri dive everywhere and look absolutely ridiculous, before wristing the puck home on the top shelf.
Hey ITB fans and readers, Vin here: I’ll be out on tour with Moon Tooth again in February. Take a look at the dates and come hang out with me at show. No one chats up the bass player, so I am always down for some hockey talk haha. See you guys on the road!