Shots on Goal: From Gretzky to Foppa
By Peter Maingot
Happy birthday to Wayne Gretzky, a.k.a. the great one, who turned 50 this week. Wayner is now 50 and the game and its legion of fans miss him dearly, especially those North of the 49th Parallel. After Wayne there was Mario Lemieux and before Wayne there was Bobby Orr. That's about as far back as I can go, as far as actually watching greatness on hockey skates.
The first and only time I would be fortunate enough to watch Bobby Orr play was in the summer of 1976. Against the wishes of both his doctors and his lawyer Orr played for Team Canada in the first ever Canada Cup. For those not familiar with the Canada Cup, it was the only hockey tournament between 1976 and 1991 where each country's best players were available. Whether a player was from a democratic country (USA, Canada, Sweden, Finland, West Germany) or a communist regime (Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia) he was made available for the tournament. Orr played in the in first-ever Canada Cup and he did it on one good knee. It was his swan song and he was named the tournament MVP as Canada beat the Czechs in overtime on a goal by Darryl Sittler. Gretzky was just 20 when he played in the 1981 Canada Cup. Wayne was put on the “Dream” line with Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault. Unfortunately Perreault broke his leg after scoring three goals and nine points in just four games. Canada got crushed 8-1 in the final by the USSR after handling them 7-3 in the round-robin portion of the tourney. Gretzky, who was the highest scorer in the tournament in 1981 yet not named to the all-tournament team, would never lose another Canada Cup as he led them to victory in 1984, 1987, and 1991. Wayne was the victim of a dirty cross check to the back from the USA's Gary Suter during the 1991 Canada Cup and had to miss the playoff round. His good friend and former teammate Mark Messier joined the team and helped Canada beat the USA 3-1 in the final. When the Canada Cup was changed to the World Cup in 1996 Wayne had scored 17 goals and 40 assists for 47 points in just 31 games. His nearest competitor, Russia's Sergei Makarov, had 21 points. Following the cheap shot by Suter in 91', Gretzky would suffer from back problems for the rest of his career.
Mario learned a lot from Gretzky about leadership and winning when he joined him on the 1987 squad. That knowledge helped Mario lead Pittsburgh to two Stanley Cups within the next five years. Mario would re-pay the debt to his country some 15 years later when he provided second-line depth for captain Joe Sakic when they won gold in Salt Lake City. Sakic was the tournament MVP, which leads me to Foppa – Peter Forsberg. A year after Sakic was Olympics MVP, Forsberg was the NHL's MVP. Together they won two Stanley Cups for Colorado, in 1996 and 2001. Forsberg has also won two Olympic gold medals for his country, in 1994 (where he scored the winner in the shootout) and in 2006.
Forsberg should be allowed to mount this latest comeback without scorn or ridicule, he's earned the right for what he's given to the game of hockey. Anybody who succumbs to 10 foot surgeries in order to play seriously loves hockey. He doesn't need the money. He was hockey's first $11 million man. What separates Foppa from so many great players, especially those who've come from Europe, is that he played the game with a real mean streak. No European star player had ever before played such a physically intimidating style of hockey. In his prime Forsberg took on all comers and never backed down. The reckless abandon in which he played put him in harm's way far more often than for those who simply played on the periphery. Hopefully we get one last glimpse of one of the game's greatest players of the last 20 years.
Jonas Hiller's play has been so ridiculously good that he's now being mentioned as a possible Hart Trophy candidate, given to the NHL's regular season MVP. The play of rookie Cam Fowler has been impressive, though playing catch with Lubomir Visnovsky on the Ducks' first-power play can't hurt. The Ducks may have played well minus No. 1 center Ryan Getzlaf but his return still bodes well for the second half.
Ondrej Pavelec's 36-save shutout win over Washington on Wednesday was a very encouraging performance on several levels. For one, Pavelec had been struggling somewhat of late with just one win in his past seven starts heading into Wednesday's contest. Another reason for encouragement is that there had to be some concern over what the loss of top-pairing D-man Tobias Enstrom (out 2-to-4 weeks) would mean to the Thrashers' playoff prospects. Enstrom is tied for the team lead in scoring with 41 points and leads all Atlanta skaters with 22 power-play points. The Thrashers' top four now on defense – Dustin Byfuglien, Ron Hainsey, Johnny Oduya, and Zach Bogosian – will be playing heavy minutes now as the team tries to limit the exposure of Freddy Meyer and Brent Sopel. Meyer and Sopel only played 12:44 and 12:36, respectively, in Wednesday's win.
Tim Thomas continues to play at an MVP-type level for the Bruins, a team that has not been able to stay healthy for any length of time this season. Just as the defense returned to full health with Mark Stuart and Andrew Ference back in the lineup, the forward corps loses center Marc Savard again to a concussion. This time it could be his last, as the prospects for a return this season are doubtful and he may decide to retire after all the misery, self-doubt, and depression that he endured to overcome the last time he was felled by the same injury. For now Savard will convalesce at home. Meanwhile Nathan Horton has one goal and four points in his last 20 games after scoring eight goals and 18 points in his first 17 games.
The Flames have won four in a row since getting pasted 6-0 by the Wild on Jan. 19. They now sit just to points out of playoff spot. To err is human and perhaps this writer erred in writing off their playoff prospects in last week's column. Miikka Kiprusoff has won his last three starts in allowing just five goals in 185 minutes. For those who picked up Henrik Karlsson with the hope that he was playing himself into a time-share in nets it won't be happening any time soon.
Congrats to the Canes for icing three players when they host the All-Star Game. Jeff Skinner must feel pretty good right now. He goes from being a training camp surprise and making the team as an 18-year-old to becoming the youngest player to EVER play in an All-Star Game. The Canes are a point out of a playoff spot with two games in hand on Atlanta so we can expect Cam Ward to be busy from here on out.
Corey Crawford has hit a slight bump in the road just as the Hawks fight for their playoff lives. Crawford is 1-2-1 in his last four starts and he's lost hi last two starts with a 3.58 GAA. His GAA for the season still sits at a miniscule 2.19. Marty Turco has played once since Dec. 30.
Craig Anderson has lost his last two starts with 11 goals allowed in 100 minutes. Backup Peter Budaj's streak of allowing at least three goals per completed start continues with his last game, a 4-3 win over St. Louis Jan. 24. Budaj was pulled a mere 14 minutes into his next start after allowing two goals on nine shots. We wish Tomas Fleischmann a healthy return to hockey next season while eagerly awaiting a possible return by Peter the Great.
Steve Mason is showing signs of turning his season around. He's 3-1-1 in his last five starts and allowed three goals or less in four of them. The one ugly start was a 6-5 defeat at Detroit but one would be foolish to start a Columbus goalie at Detroit. In fact there are few goalies that this writer would start at Detroit (nor at Philadelphia nor Vancouver).
By now you know all too well about the Evgeni Nabokov saga. The Wings will not get him and will soldier on with Jimmy Howard. After getting pulled in successive starts Howard is 2-1 with a 2.65 GAA. Joey McDonald will be backing him up until Chris Osgood (sports hernia surgery) returns to the lineup some time in March.
Nikolai Khabibulin has now lost 11 starts in a row. His last win was Dec. 16 against Columbus. Backup Devan Dubnyk should be getting more starts going forward. He's 3-1-1 in his last five starts with a 2.39 GAA. The Oilers are still waiting for both Jordan Eberle (ankle, appendectomy) and Gilbert Brule (upper body) to return to the lineup. Both remain day-to-day. If they can those two back as well as Ales Hemsky (concussion) then Dubnyk might be worth spot starting.
Tomas Vokoun missed a week of action and he's 1-1-2 since but with a 2.23 GAA. Backup Scott Clemmensen went 2-1 with a 1.98 GAA in his first three starts while Vokoun was out of the lineup but he was subsequently pulled in his fourth start after after allowing two goals on eight shots in 20 minutes. Future No. 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom (drafted 31st overall in the 08') cam in and mopped up stopping 12 of 14 shots in 40 minutes of play.
The Kings horrid month of January – they went 5-8 -- ended on a positive note with victories over Phoenix, Boston, and San Jose. Jonathan Quick won all three of those games with an overall GAA of 1.65 after winning just once in his first seven starts of 2011 with a 2.74 GAA. Quick owners have to be cautiously optimistic that the worst is over.
Niklas Backstrom is 2-1 since returning from injury and the Wild are 4-1 in their last five games. Their playoff hopes have been buoyed by Backstrom's strong play. They are getting balanced scoring and anticipate getting back their No. 2 power-play QB in defenseman Marek Zidlicky in February. In March forward Guillaume Latendresse is expected to join the forward ranks.
Just when all the pundits were ready to write off Martin Brodeur, he proves them all wrong. Brodeur's 5-1-1 in his past seven starts with a 2.14 GAA and a shutout.
After a four-game winning streak that spawned a month (Dec. 16 – Jan. 15) Rick DiPietro has lost his last three starts with a 3.35 GAA with a .870 SV %. The 20-year-old rookie Kevin Poulin is 2-2-1 in five starts. Including two relief appearances he boasts a 2.59 GAA and .925 SV % for the season. The Isles have suspended Evgeni Nabokov, whom they claimed off waivers. At this juncture it is highly unlikely that Nabokov plays hockey this season.
The Blue Shirts continue to struggle offensively, as they've only score more than two goals in 12 of their last 14 games. The return of a trio of forwards – Brandon Dubinsky (17 goals/38 pts in 47 games), Ryan Callahan (10 goals/23 points in 33 games), and Vinny Prospal (20 goals/58 pts in 75 games last season) should definitely help but a power-play QB wouldn't hurt either. Last year's top offensive D-man Michael Del Zotto is in the minors and won't be replicating his 38-point rookie season of a year ago. He's learning to play a two-way game down there and they're reluctant to mess with his development in order to possibly shore up their power play. The Rangers will probably address that need via a trade between now and Feb. 28.
Brian Elliott has lost his last 11 starts and the team is imploding. Pascal Leclaire (lower-body injury) has missed the past 16 games. While both Leclaire and Jason Spezza could be back by some time next week, don't get too excited. This team is terrible with very few proven scorers.
Sergei “Bob” Bobrovsky is 6-0 in 2011 with a 1.83 GAA. Bob's challenge is to keep playing great hockey over the next 30 days and convince the Flyers brass that they do not need to acquire a goalie by the Feb. 28 trade deadline. Remember this - Bob's career high for games played in a season is 45 games and that was junior hockey. The 22-year-old Russian rookie only played 35 games last year for the KHL's Novokuznetsk, a doormat of a team that didn't make the playoffs. He played 32 games the year before for the same KHL cellar dweller. There's no doubt that getting thrown into the KHL as a 20-year-old and surviving showed his steely resolve and persevering on a terrible team and competing hard every night demonstrates how tough this kid is. The Flyers will need to keep him fresh for the stretch run and the playoffs. As such, Backup Brian Boucher should see at least 10-12 starts in the second half. Boucher has done his part when called upon, as the journeyman has gone 10-3-1 since Nov. 20. Moreover, he's only allowed more than two goals in just two of his last 13 starts.
This team should be playing in Southern Ontario. There, we said it. The latest ownership issue isn't relevant to this column so we'll move on. Based on the fact that the team is being financed by league dollars currently one would be unrealistic to expect them to make any expensive acquisition for the stretch run. Even a rental might be dicey. Still, Ilya Bryzgalov is an excellent goalie and this team is full of scrappy vets like Shane Doan, Adrian Aucoin, Ed Jovanovski, Scottie Upshall and Eric Belanger. Add All-Star and team leading scorer defenseman Keith Yandle, the subtle wizardry of Ray Whitney, a couple of streaky scorers in Lee Stempniak and Radim Vrbata along with that big kid Hanzal and there's some good talent here.
Marc-Andre Fleury is playing big these days, as the Pens continue to somehow endure the losses of both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin - two of the best four forwards in hockey. Fleury has a 1.88 GAA in nine January starts while never allowing more than three goals in any game. More importantly for a Pens offense minus its best two players is the fact that he's won five straight with a scintillating 1.40 GAA. The offseason's big UFA investment on defense, namely Zbynek Michalak and Paul Martin, is paying off nicely and the team has seen Kris Letang (40 pts in 50 games) become their new Sergei Gonchar. Alex Goligoski has already potted nine goals and we haven't even talked about the soul of the defense – Brooks Orpik. Get well Sid and Geno.
Antti Niemi was already running away with the goalie reigns in San Jose before Antero Niitymaki tweaked his groin during the morning skate on Jan. 20 in Vancouver. Niemi is 4-1 in his last five starts while allowing less than three goals in four of the five contests. The Sharks, in a desperate fight for the postseason, will ride the hot hand as much as possible after the All-Star break so it will take either a Niemi injury or back-to-back games for Niitymaki to draw back into the lineup.
Dwayne Roloson, who already has three shutouts and a 7-3 record in 10 starts for the Lightning, is 4-0 over his past four starts with a 1.24 GAA. Those who snatched him up when he was traded from Long Island have been handsomely rewarded. With Simon Gagne waking after a season-long slumber the second line looks potent now. Toss in a third line with Dominic Moore and Sean Bergenheim and there's excellent depth.
The Leafs are considering sending down Jonas Gustavsson on a two-week conditioning stint. That's the only way that they can send him down without having to put him through waivers. That would allow them to bring back up James Reimer to see if he's more than just a tease. Reimer is 4-3 in seven starts with Toronto this season posting a 2.24 GAA and .933 SV%. Jean-Sebastien Giguere will get some playing time either way just in case they can move him by the trade deadline. Giguere is 1-2-1 in four starts in 2011 with a 2.77 GAA.
Roberto Luongo, whose 3-game streak of OT/shootout losses came to an end with back-to-back wins entering the All-Star break, has allowed more than two goals only three times in 10 starts in 2011. In only one of his 10 starts did he allow more than three goals and in only one of those starts did he post a save percentage below .909. While the defense continues to see its share of injuries, Luongo continues to produce elite numbers. Louie's not over-rated he's really good but like any human he can have a bad day or two. He tends to start the season slowly and the panic can set in for those who invested a first or second round pick on him. He always rights himself and the end of season umbers are always compelling.
The loss of Alexander Edler for the next 8-to-10 weeks will be felt, despite the abilities of Kevin Bieksa, Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, and Christian Ehrhoff. Edler is fourth in team scoring and a key component of their power play. He led the team in ice time at 24:24 and led all D-men in power-play minutes at 3:53. The largest boost in minutes goes to Ballard, who played 23:53 the game after Edler went out of the lineup. Ballard had played 17:40 in Edler's last game. This is why they picked up a veteran like Ballard and the fact that he's only averaged 15:54 on the season means he's relatively fresh and ready for his larger role. Edler's power-play time is being split between Bieksa and Hamhuis, who should both be rostered and serviceable in 12+ team leagues. The big question is how will the third pairing hold up without a veteran to lean on? Chris Tanev and lee Sweatt only played 11:26 and 8:49 respectively in Wednesday's 2-1 win over Nashville. Both Andrew Alberts, out since Jan. 6 with a slight separation of his right shoulder, and Aaron Rome, out since January 14 with a sprained MCL, should be back by mid-February. An interesting side effect to Edler's injury is that the team may have enough cap space to deploy long-time Canuck Sami Salo, an oft-injured defender blessed with a blistering shot who tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason and has yet to play a game this season. Salo's cap hit is $3.5 million while Edler's number is $3.25 million.
With both Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth day-to-day with lower-body injuries Braden Holtby was called up and played admirably. Holtby went 2-1 and allowed just three goals in 185 minutes of play. Vartlamov was back in goal for the Wednesday game's against Atlanta and was the hard-luck loser in the Thrashers' 1-0 victory. Varly still boasts a 2.16 GAA for the season and should see the lion's share of starts after the break. Of course that will require him to remain healthy, something that he's struggled to do so far in his brief NHL career. Neuvirth will likely get a chance to recapture a greater share of the goalie load, if he can stay healthy.