Monday, December 27, 2010

DG's Hat Trick- December 28, 2010

The following is my assessment of hockey’s three most interesting stories of the week. This will be updated weekly every Sunday. Here’s this week’s edition.

SIDNEY’S SUPER STREAK: The talk of the hockey world in the past few weeks is Sidney Crosby’s run at Wayne Gretzky’s record 51-game point scoring streak. Down 3-0 with 3:22 left in the third period against the Ottawa Senators on Monday, Crosby broke Brian Elliott’s shutout bid and extended his point scoring streak to 24 games, the longest streak in the National Hockey League since Mats Sundin recorded a 30-game streak as a rookie in 1992-93. The point streak has seen Crosby net 24 goals and 46 points over that span, taking him to 30 goals and 61 points to move atop the NHL points leaderboard ahead of Tampa Bay Lightning forward Steven Stamkos.

It is true that Crosby still has a ways to go before he can seriously threaten Gretzky’s mark, set all the way back in 1983-84 when The Great One was at the height of his powers as an Edmonton Oiler. However, if there is a record of Gretzky’s that Crosby has a realistic shot of breaking, it’s the point streak, and here’s why:

1) Crosby has become more of a complete offensive player in the past two seasons. Last season was the first season where he broke both the 40-goal and 50-goal barriers, meaning teams now have to respect his shot as well as his playmaking ability. This makes him harder for defences to stop because now teams can’t easily figure out what he plans to do with the puck.

2) The point streak has coincided with a rise up the standings by Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins, who are 18-5-1 during Crosby’s run whereas they were just 6-6-1 beforehand, meaning Crosby has firmly put the Penguins on his back and is carrying them as they expected him to.

3) Most importantly, Crosby’s streak comes at a time when Evgeni Malkin- Crosby’s supposed “partner in crime” atop the NHL leaderboard- has looked invisible and largely disinterested (trade bait, perhaps). This means Crosby, who doesn’t have a lot of other offensive support, is doing it all largely on his own.

Considering those three points, it’s reason enough to assume that Gretzky’s mark is in serious danger. The Penguins need Crosby more than ever, and, unlike some undisputed team leaders, Crosby actually knows it and has performed accordingly. Add that to the fact that Crosby has become- indisputably- the game’s best offensive talent and it’s this confluence of events that make it reason enough to think that Crosby actually has a chance to break Gretzky’s record.

DEVILS FIRE JOHN MACLEAN: Undeniably the biggest disappointment this season are the New Jersey Devils. While no one was expecting the team to get to the Stanley Cup Finals, no one could have predicted the Devils would be flirting with the NHL’s worst mark at Christmas.
The solution? Devils General Manager Lou Lamoriello decided to fire head coach John MacLean and rehire Jacques Lemaire- the same coach who “retired” after the Devils were haplessly bounced by the Philadelphia Flyers in the playoffs last season- for a third go-around.

Will it work? Lamoriello is hoping he can catch lightning in a bottle and rocket the Devils- who now stand at 9-24-2 for 20 points, last in the NHL- to the playoffs. It would only require- at the very least- 36 wins in the team’s next 47 games (to get them to 92 points, the general playoff cutoff since “The Lockout”), or a winning percentage of 76%. Such a streak isn’t unfathomable- the Vancouver Canucks peeled off a similar streak in 2001-02 to rocket themselves to the playoffs- but that team still showed signs of life. This Devils team isn’t close.

To wit, New Jersey’s top goal scorer is Jason Arnott (yes, not 15-year man Ilya Kovalchuk) who leads the team with a paltry nine goals. Kovalchuk himself is a disappointment with an eight goal, 18-point effort so far in 34 games. Only one player- Patrik Elias- has topped the 20-point mark (Elias has 24 points). Worse, one of the Devils’ main offensive and defensive options- Zach Parise- is gone for most of the season, with reports suggesting he is sidelined until March. This puts a lot more pressure on a forward corps who must face teams continually taking away their offensive ice, as offence from the blueline- which opens up the attacking zone- is again nonexistent, with Andy Greene the pacemaker with a paltry two goals and 11 points in 35 games.

Still, the main issue with the Devils? How about the one area you’d never think they’d have an issue with, and that’s goaltending. Simply put, Martin Brodeur and his 3.08 GAA, .884 save percentage and five wins- all well below league average- are just not good enough. You have to wonder if, at age 38, Brodeur has played past his effectiveness at the NHL level. Last season there were signs that Brodeur was aging, being not as nimble as he used to be, but it was still no indication that he couldn’t again be a stellar NHL goaltender again this season. Now, it appears that his time is running out, and unless he sorts himself out soon, it just may be time for the Devils to do the unthinkable and look at other options in net.

TIME FOR CHANGE IN BUFFALO: This might be painful, Sabres fans, but I gotta go with it.

In Game 7 of the 2006 Eastern Conference Final against the Carolina Hurricanes, Jochen Hecht scored with 2.3 seconds to go in the second period to give the Buffalo Sabres a 2-1 lead heading into the third period. All Buffalo needed was to hold off the Hurricanes for 20 minutes and they would punch their ticket for a Cup Final they were sure to win against the Edmonton Oilers. The Sabres could even believably expect to hold out with Ryan Miller, then in his breakout season, in net.

Instead, we know what really happened- Carolina dominated the third, tied the score then scored the winning goal off the power play after defenceman Brian Campbell threw the puck over the glass. The Sabres would again reach the Conference Finals in 2007 after winning the President’s Trophy, but they were dominated by the Ottawa Senators and weren’t even close to getting to the Cup Final. Buffalo would miss the playoffs the next two seasons before getting trounced in the playoffs last season by the Boston Bruins.

Now, here the Sabres sit with 32 points- eight points out of the playoffs. It’s not a terrible gap to be saddled with- a good winning streak can bridge the gap- but the Sabres have to hit their stride now, because later in the season that gap will become insurmountable. Still, even if Buffalo bridges the gap and qualifies for the playoffs for only the fourth time since 2001, there is still that sense that this is a team in stagnation in desperate need for a change.

Let’s consider this: GM Darcy Regier and head coach Lindy Ruff have been the management tandem in Buffalo since 1998. What keeps the two around is the fact this team surprised everyone in reaching the Cup Final in 1999 despite being clearly overmatched by the Dallas Stars (forget “No Goal”- the Stars would have won the Cup anyway). Since being two games from the precipice, Buffalo has won a grand total of five playoff rounds and missed the same amount of playoff years. At best, the most Sabres fans can hope for is another whimper of a playoff exit. Lesser tandems have been fired for achieving much less.

So it’s time for Buffalo to make a change and take a stand against continued mediocrity. Yes, the team can blame injuries (like Derek Roy’s) or the salary cap that made them lose key cogs Daniel Briere and Chris Drury after 2007 but those are just excuses- the fact of the matter is after what will be 13 years of Regier and Ruff this is a Sabres team that is really no better than the mediocre teams that came before it. I mean, really, Buffalo’s history since 1981 has been one of marginal competiveness, never breaking through to the next level- isn’t it time the Sabres’ ownership makes a statement by bringing in new blood and stating this continued mediocrity is unacceptable? I think the fans- especially after the debacle against the Florida Panthers- deserve no less.


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