By Steve Silverman
At the start of the season, the Vegas Golden Knights shocked the NHL by not only surviving in their first foray around the league, but actually thriving. They have proved to be a legitimate threat for the President’s Trophy with their overwhelming first-year performance.
After a so-so start that saw them teetering on the brink of irrelevance, the Boston Bruins went on a 2 ½-month hot streak that has allowed them to become legitimate Stanley Cup contenders – at least before Patrice Bergeron suffered a fractured foot.
There’s another shocking story taking place in the current NHL season, and that story is being written in Philadelphia. In late November and early December, the Flyers suffered through a 10-game losing streak. They were losing both close games and decisively, and they looked as if they could be one of the two or three worst teams in the league.
But there was no head-hanging or going through the motions. The Flyers were playing 60 minutes every night, and there was legitimate talent led by Jakub Voracek, Sean Couturier, Claude Giroux, Shayne Gostisbehere and second-year winger Travis Konecny.
The once-laughable Flyers are 26-8-3 since December 4, and they actually moved into first place – at least temporarily — in the Atlantic Division. The Washington Capitals took it back Tuesday night, but there’s something special about head coach Dave Hakstol’s team. The Flyers went from last place to first, and they have the kind of talent that can take this team a long way during the postseason.
“Chemistry is a big part of this game,’’ Hakstol said. “I think that’s been a major factor in our group being able to dig out of a real big hole a couple of months back and continue battling together.”
The big question about the Flyers concerns their goaltending. Philadelphia general manager Ron Hextall acquired Petr Mrazek from the Detroit Red Wings after injuries to Brian Elliott and Michael Neuvirth, and Mrazek has made a strong first impression with a 3-0 record along with a 1.30 goals-against average and a .947 save percentage.
That’s a great start, but Mrazek has not shown that he can carry the load and dominate for a team – especially in the postseason. Goaltending has been an issue in Philadelphia for years, and Mrazek can’t suffer any downturn or the Flyers are likely to find themselves in trouble in the postseason.
However, if Mrazek can shock the world, this team is quite dangerous and as hungry as any team in the league.
Western Conference teams stumble at Trade Deadline
There were huge moves made by Eastern Conference teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Bruins at the trade deadline. There were solid moves made by the Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Western Conference teams were largely onlookers by comparison. The Winnipeg Jets made a great move in acquiring a potential game-changer in center Paul Stastny from the St. Louis Blues and the Chicago Blackhawks started retooling for the future, while the Anaheim Ducks, Nashville Predators and Golden Knights made a few supportive moves to bolster their late-season and playoff rosters.
But teams like the Minnesota Wild, Dallas Stars, Calgary Flames and Blues did very little, even though they are fighting for playoff spots.
The Wild and Stars are currently in the playoff structure, while the Flames and Blues are on the outside – but all four are in the mix.
The Wild, Stars and Blues did not bring in any new NHL players, while the Flames brought in Chris Stewart off the waiver wire and fourth-line center Nick Shore from the Los Angeles Kings.
As far as the current season is concerned, the Lightning appear to have made the top deadline acquisitions, as they brought in defenseman Ryan McDonagh and center J.T. Miller from the Rangers. McDonagh is an elite player who can get it done at both ends of the ice, while Miller is talented and versatile.
The Penguins strengthened themselves up the middle by bringing Derick Brassard from the Senators, and that fills a big need for head coach Mike Sullivan.
The Bruins made their big moves by adding left wing Rick Nash from the Rangers and Tommy Wingels from the Chicago Blackhawks, but the key to Boston’s potential success is a quick return of Bergeron, who out a minimum of two weeks.
All trade-deadline moves are gambles, and it seems like the Eastern Conference teams were more willing to step to the table and throw the dice. We will see if that leads to greater success in the playoffs or not.
Is pressure getting to Torts once again?
A year ago, the Columbus Blue Jackets authored one of the top stories in the league as they turned their team around and finished third in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference with 108 points, and they were virtually assured of a playoff spot early in the season.
Its’s quite a different story this year. The Blue Jackets are currently in the eighth and final spot –the No. 2 wild-card – with 69 points. They are trying to hold off the New York Islanders and Florida Panthers, with 65 and 64 points, respectively.
Head coach John Tortorella appeared to check his emotions a year ago when things were going well for the Blue Jackets, but that’s not the case this season.
In Monday night’s 5-1 victory over the Washington Capitals, Tortorella got into it with Washington superstar Alex Ovechkin. Ovie went down in the first period after getting hit in the face by Matt Calvert of the Blue Jackets, and that resulted in Calvert receiving a match penalty.
Tortorella mocked Ovechkin with a diving gesture prior to the start of the second period, and Ovechkin started arguing with the tempestuous coach. It was not a dignified scene.
After the game, Tortorella took on a regretful tone, saying he shouldn’t argue with an opposition player. However, recognizing a mistake is not Tortorella’s issue. It is his tendency to get involved in these situations, and it is not likely that that he will suddenly turn into a good citizen.
Expect more fireworks – and potential embarrassments — along the way from Tortorella.