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It was an abbreviated week in the NHL and fittingly its first day featured an abbreviated schedule as a game ran into temperature troubles. But in the end things turned for the better with milestone moments and an Abu Dhabi infusion. The National's ice hockey writer, Rob McKenzie, recaps the week's highs and lows.
Who’s laughing now?
For Canadians, having hockey teams in the southern US has always seemed a bit silly. And last Monday night came a case in point. Detroit’s road game in Carolina was postponed because of problems with the equipment that is used to chill the “ice” at PNC Arena. The decision to postpone was made after a two-hour delay, which must have been super-annoying for the 12 remaining fans, most of whom were there to support the Red Wings anyhow. On the other hand the cross-Canada broadcast of Toronto’s home game against Anaheim on the same night included an advert for a motor oil that keeps on working even at minus-40.
Tortorella bounces back
The week did have a highlight for US hockey to offset the Carolina lowlight: John Tortorella became the first American head coach to surpass 500 career victories. Win No 501, a 3-2 shoot-out defeat of the LA Kings on Tuesday, tied Tortorella for 20th all-time with the late Pat Burns. The win was the 10th in a row for Tortorella’s Columbus Blue Jackets. They went on to beat Pittsburgh 7-1 on Thursday and Montreal 2-1 on Friday. The Jackets are the happiest surprise of the NHL season and their success offers quick vindication for Tortorella after the World Cup of Hockey in September. He coached the US team and designed it to stymie the Canadian team. But when the two teams collided, Canada won 4-2 to eliminate the Americans. Tortorella still has an impossibly long way to go to catch the all-time coaching wins leader, who of course is ...
This guy won 1,244 games in 30 seasons as a head coach. He won nine Stanley Cups, five with Montreal, one with Pittsburgh and lastly three with Detroit. Bowman began his NHL coaching career with the St Louis Blues. In the spring of 1968 he took them to the Cup final against the Boston Bruins, who featured the incredible Bobby Orr. Orr was a defenceman but his long, gear-shifting rushes up the ice powered the Boston offence. Bowman’s idea to blunt Orr flipped convention. Whereas teams would occasionally assign a defender to shadow a forward, Bowman assigned a forward to shadow the pivotal defender. “That was the first time I ever heard of such a thing,” Harry Sinden, the Boston coach, said later. “Nobody has ever shadowed a defenceman before.” It didn’t work — Boston had too much talent — but it marked Bowman as an innovator.
Chicago’s Joel Quenneville, 58, is second all-time with 823 wins and has an outside chance of catching Bowman. Coach Q would need to win about 40 a year for another decade or so to get there though.
Jagr backs into second
On his eighth team, in his 23rd season, in his 1,633rd game, Jaromir Jagr passed a player on the league’s all-time scoring list for the final time. His assist on an Aleksander Barkov goal on Thursday gave Jagr 1,888 points, moving him ahead of Mark Messier for second place all-time. It wasn’t the loveliest point Jagr ever scored. He was standing in front of the Boston net when a shot from the blue line bounced off him and went to Barkov, who fired past Tuukka Rask. In the on-ice ceremony that followed, Jagr laughed as he described his point as “a beautiful assist”. In first place on the all-time list is Wayne Gretzky, whose 2,857 career points might never be matched.
Regardless of Jagr’s milestone the Panthers rank as the season’s biggest disappointment (runners-up: Dallas and the Islanders). Florida’s owner is Vincent Viola, who went from US soldier to stock-market billionaire. Donald Trump has said he will nominate Viola to be his secretary of the army. OK, let’s recap: Viola had an able chief of staff named Dale Tallon working for him as general manager and a highly respected staff sergeant in head coach Gerard Gallant. So over the summer he sidelined Tallon — booted him upstairs — and in late November he kicked Gallant to the curb. Viola is doing this so that his own people can run the show. And they are running it, into the ground. Under their new coach Tom Rowe, the Panthers have a win a week (they lost Jagr’s big game 3-1 to the Bruins) and find themselves on course to finish the season with 84 points after compiling a franchise record 103 in 2015/16. I guess Trump doesn’t follow hockey much.
Leafs getting there
The Maple Leafs are no longer ridiculous. They entered last Monday’s match against Anaheim fresh off a 2-1 overtime defeat of the Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. The turnaround is finally happening. The Ducks are one of the few teams the Leafs have a good track record against in recent years. The previous 10 times the teams met, Toronto went 8-1-1, but Anaheim prevailed this time around 3-2 as Cam Fowler scored while Toronto’s second-year centreman Zach Hyman was in the penalty box for punching Josh Manson in the back of the head, which would have been OK had he not done it right beside a linesman. The Toronto coach Mike Babcock groused after the game that “we don’t have enough discipline ... The last two games, guys sat on the bench because we took too many penalties.” When Toronto next played, on Thursday at Colorado, Hyman was not confined to the bench, despite his pivotal penalty. Instead he had 19:03 of ice time — about two and a half minutes more than his average entering the evening — as the Leafs waxed the league’s worst team 6-0.
A time to give (1/2)
Peter Bondra, what a nice guy. So the Washington Capitals alumnus comes to Abu Dhabi for a hockey school in November and meets Fatima Al Ali, a 26-year-old centre on the UAE women's hockey team. She shows Bondra some fancy stick tricks, he is impressed and posts a video. Then on December 13 comes the second act, Bondra surprising Fatima on Skype with news that she will be flying to a Caps home game in February courtesy of Etihad, the team's airline sponsor. Fatima's story ran on the nhl.com home page on Thursday and Friday, with her headline right under the one for Jagr passing Messier. It was all over the internet too.
A time to give (2/2)
Ted Lindsay never backed down. In the late 1950s he was one of the first players to push back against the ripoff wages that NHL players received from their owners; that earned him a trade out of Detroit. He was a tough customer on the ice too. The late Hall of Fame referee Red Storey wrote in his autobiography that when he quit the NHL in 1959, he had only one enemy in the league — Lindsay. Storey wrote that once, as he walked to the officials’ room after a game, a stick-wielding Lindsay said: “I’m gonna cut your head off.” Saner heads prevailed. Decades later the men would make up. Ted Lindsay is 91 now. He still picks fights and his latest is against autism. For several years he has raised money alongside a friend whose son is autistic. This past Wednesday, Lindsay’s foundation donated $1 million (Dh3.67m) to a centre in the Detroit area that helps children with autism spectrum disorders.
Edge, San Jose
Friday’s games were the last before the Christmas break. The most interesting game was Edmonton at San Jose, with the teams starting the night tied for the Pacific Division lead on 41 points. The captains led the way. Joe Pavelski scored his team’s first and assisted on its second. Connor McDavid did the same for Edmonton. McDavid’s assist was a lovely thread-the-needle job to Patrick Maroon. In overtime the rising rookie Kevin Labanc scored his second of the game and sixth of the season to win it for the Sharks. Oilers versus Sharks is a horse race that could continue to the last games of the season in early April. The league is back in action on Tuesday.
In summation ...
Standings: With 50 points the Blue Jackets are the league's top team. Best in the west: the Blackhawks with 49. The other division leaders are Montreal (46) and the Sharks (43). The league-worst Colorado Avalanche have 25 points.
Standouts: McDavid leads the scoring race with 42 points (27 on the road) while Sidney Crosby's 24 goals are five more than anyone else. Minnesota's roster is home to the highest plus-minus (Ryan Suter, +24) and the lowest goals-against (Devan Dubnyk, 1.57). The Wild enter the break having won 10 in a row.
Standing tall: Braden Holtby got his third shutout of the season as Fatima Al Ali's favourite team beat Tampa 4-0. The Lightning are going to be The Andrei Vasilevskiy Show for a while. Their other goalie, Ben Bishop, is out for three to four weeks with a lower-body injury. Tampa had already lost Steven Stamkos to injury, in his case a knee problem that could sideline him until mid-March.
Standing small: In the second period of the San Jose game, Edmonton's Zack Kassian lost a scrap to Micheal Haley and later took a four-minute penalty for roughhousing. He spent the rest of the night sitting on the bench.
Standard bearer: Shane Doan, a league greybeard though four and a half years younger than Jagr, scored his 400th goal in his 1,500th game as Arizona lost 4-1 to the visiting Maple Leafs on Friday.