Open Mike Night - 4/13/09
With the NHL season complete, the playoff matchups are known but let’s look at what went unnoticed over the excitement of the 2,460 games. There were some surprise teams and surprise players that made the 91st National Hockey League season unique.
First of all, the Montreal Canadiens unfortunate 100th anniversary season. So much pressure on a very talented team and they only managed to grab the eighth spot by the slightest of margins. Though, with second seasons brings second chances. The Habs will have a chance to take down their hated rivals, the Boston Bruins, in what, I predict to be, one of the best series of the decade (despite their differences in the standings).
The St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets, Western teams that were deemed to be “a couple years away” are now a couple series away from a Stanley Cup. The Jackets led by Ken Hitchcock, who has been able to bring the best out of goalies in all of his stops, turned Steve Mason from mid-tier third rounder to Vezina candidate and Hart candidate. Meanwhile, the Blues pushed all the right buttons, including a trade to get oft-injured defenseman Carlo Colaiacovo and propelled themselves out of the basement to sixth place. Lead by the “other” Mason, the Blues posted an identical record to their color companions of the Central.
Staying in the West, Colorado’s goaltending question marks predictably ended up being their downfall. Not to mention a league-low 199 goals for this year due, in part, to injuries to major offensive components. The Nashville Predators also put up a good fight despite their roster being depleted; rookie sensation Pekka Rinne took the Preds to just three points shy of eighth.
In the East, Toronto, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and the Islanders predictably found themselves on the outside looking in. Tampa Bay went down in a blaze of sour grapes, as they may have overtaken the Islanders for league’s biggest laughing stock – a pathetic display of player management in the Sunshine State. Carolina seemed to be dead in the water at one point, but a late season surge propelled them – Erik Cole was part of the solution there for sure. When talking about late season surges, look no further than the Penguins of Pittsburgh – Dan Bylsma deserves a fruit basket to be sure. Despite a late-season slump, who would have thought a Martin Brodeur-less Devils team would climb to 51 wins (only San Jose and Boston have more).
Let’s give a hand to Todd White, the “who really cares?” free agent signing by Atlanta two years ago posted 73 points, including a team-high 51 assists. Not to be forgotten, Slava Kozlov posted 76 points. Bryan Little’s 31 goals are a sign of things to come. Not to mention Rich Peverley’s relevance after getting claimed off waivers from Nashville.
The Dallas Stars had a couple of breakout players (including a rookie). The top two goal scorers on the team? Modano? No. Lehtinen? No. Richards? Nope. Loui Eriksson at 36 and James Neal at 24! Fabian Brunnstrom wasn’t too far behind with 17 in 55.
Who leads the Carolina Hurricanes in scoring? Obviously, Eric Staal…right? Nope, consistently unsung hero Ray Whitney leads the club with 77 points. And from the “It’s about time” file, a player that I’ve been waiting to emerge for half-a-decade now: Anton Babchuk tallied 16 goals and 35 points from the blueline this season. In fact, look at Carolina’s 30-plus point-getters on the blueline: Corvo (38), Babchuk (35), Pitkanen (33) and Dennis Seidenberg (30).
For those that didn’t already know, take a look at the group of players below Malkin, Crosby and Ovechkin. Placing fifth in scoring is hard-working winger Zach Parise (45+49=94) and sixth in scoring is disher Ryan Getzlaf (25+66=91).
Both Henrik and Daniel Sedin potted 82 points in 82 games, but “only” combined for 53 goals – who was converting the Swedish Twins efforts into goals? Alex Burrows, who garnered 28 goals and 51 points this season to go along with two and a half hours in the penalty box.
With all that depth on the Red Wings, the mule is second on the team in goals – Johan Franzen’s 34 in 70 games was just a handful short of Marian Hossa. Despite an awful year for Tampa Bay, Ryan Malone chipped in 26 goals and 45 points (had he played all 82: 30 goals and 53 points).
The Edmonton Oilers offense was surprising as well, but in a bad way. Shawn Horcoff had just 53 points, Sam Gagner just 41 points, Andrew Cogliano disappointed with just 38 points, Robert Nilsson accumulated just nine goals and acquired forward Patrick O’Sullivan finished the year with a combined total of 43 points. The only pleasant surprises came from the back end, where Tom Gilbert’s 40 assists and 45 points and Denis Grebeshkov’s 7+32=39 helped the Oilers avoid a lottery pick.
Check out some point-per-game averages of players that were injured: Marian Gaborik at 1.35 through 17 games (Crosby was 1.34, Malkin 1.38, by comparison). Speaking of injury prone players, Tim Connolly went point per game through 48 games and Martin Havlat appeared in 81 games this year (77 points). Alex Semin posted a 1.27 ppg. And we all knew Mike Green had amazing offensive gifts, but 1.07 ppg is borderline excessive, he could make a case for top ten in the league in scoring!
Perhaps the surprises will continue into the playoffs or new ones will come to be, maybe there should be a John Druce award for the “who are you and why are you scoring in the playoffs” player of the year. Just a thought, enjoy the playoffs everyone, it’s the greatest spectacle in sports. I’m already starting to feel the butterflies.