NHL highs and lows: Gretzky gets animated, Chicago take circus trip, Columbus hail a hero

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1. Choose your poison

The Tampa Bay Lighting have a good problem and the New York Islanders have a bad problem. Both were on display when the Bolts went to Brooklyn last Monday and won 4-0.

Tampa have two very good goalies, Ben Bishop, who turns 30 on Monday, and 22-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy. The youngster has been the better player lately. He got Monday’s shutout (and went on to add another Saturday in Philadelphia). If, towards the trading deadline, the Bolts need to bulk up for a Cup run, Bishop is now expendable. In the meantime the team can ride both goalies and thereby save wear and tear on Vasilevskiy.

The Isles’ problem is that they missed their shot. Last year and the year before they were up and coming. But now this chance has come and gone. Their new arena is poorly suited for hockey, they are prone to stretches of lethargy and as their star, John Tavares, approaches free agency in 2018, it is becoming harder to fathom why he would want to stick around.

2. Transition game

Tuesday’s New Jersey versus Dallas matchup was likewise about contrasts, but of a different kind. While the Devils have built their team from the defence out, the Stars are all about the offence. The difference is that Jersey is better making the transition to becoming a balanced team. They have enough blueliners that in the off season they traded Adam Larsson in order to obtain the star winger Taylor Hall. And as the Hall of Fame defenceman Denis Potvin has pointed out, their first five picks in the 2016 draft were all forwards.

Tuesday’s game went to three-on-three OT, which should have suited the free-wheeling Stars. They deployed Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and John Klingberg (220 combined points last season) to start the extra session. Jersey rolled out Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri and Andy Greene (120 combined points last season). Less than a minute in, Palmieri stole the puck from Seguin, dashed down the ice on a two-on-one with Henrique, waited for Klingberg to commit, then passed to Henrique for the tap-in and the win.

3. Goalie duel

The league leaders in goals-against average faced one another on Thursday and both were perfect until the final minute. Boston’s Tuukka Rask started the night with a 1.54 goals-against average while Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk was at 1.60. Those are stingy numbers, and both men tightened them on Thursday.

But the goalies did not make the best saves of the game for either team. In the first period, with Minnesota short-handed and Boston’s Torey Krug about to score because Dubnyk was out of position, the Wild forward Mikael Granlund, atop the crease, kicked out in desperation with his right leg and stick and caught a piece of the puck with his stick.

And then in the second period the reverse image occurred: Boston short-handed, Granlund with the puck on his stick and a yawning net, Boston’s big defenceman Zdeno Chara reaching out to his left in desperation and getting his stick in the way of what looked like a dead-certain goal. The game’s only score came with 45 seconds left when Granlund’s cross-crease pass deflected in off the skate of the Boston defender Dennis McQuaid.

The result lifted Dubnyk ahead of Rask for the league lead in goals-against average, 1.48 versus 1.49.

4. Shaking it up

The Calgary Flames needed a change and they got it. When they played in Minnesota on Tuesday, they started Chad Johnson in net – the first of what now stands at four straight starts for the nominal backup. And late in the game, their best forward, Johnny Gaudreau, broke a finger and will be out for six weeks.

The Flames won the Minnesota game 1-0 – Gaudreau got the only goal – then beat lowly Arizona 2-1 in overtime before falling 3-2 to Chicago in a game that was decided in the final minutes when Marian Hossa poked home the puck after a high shot bounced off Johnson’s shoulder. The Flames would end the week with a win over Detroit.

The Hawks are on their annual circus trip while the Ringling Bros are in Chicago. So far Chicago have a loss and two wins, the highlight being Saturday’s game in Vancouver in which they came from three goals down in the third period to triumph in overtime on a goal by – him again – Hossa. Their next stops are Edmonton and then the league’s three California clubs.

5. Give blood, play hockey

The guts of Friday’s 4-2 win by the Blue Jackets over the Rangers are in the first sentence of the Associated Press game report: “Matt Calvert returned from taking a slap shot to his forehead that required about 30 stitches and scored a short-handed, tiebreaking goal in the third period to lift Columbus to its franchise-record seventh straight home win.”

Ouch. What happened is New York’s Nick Holden let one rip from the point and it hit Calvert in the cranium. He went down as if shot, understandably, and started oozing enough blood to put a second coat on the red line.

But Matt Calvert is a hockey player and Matt Calvert is a Canadian and after a wee break for repairs he was back out on the ice, a massive white bandage under his helmet, and then he rifled home the winner. He went wild, his teammates went wild, the fans went wild, too.

His teammate Sam Gagner said afterwards: “You can’t script it any better.” Well, from Calvert’s point of view, you might skip the scene where he takes a hockey puck to the head and begins gushing epic torrents of blood.

6. Gretzky’s Nightmare

Wayne Gretzky will be on The Simpsons. Both are well past their prime, but no matter. Gretzky will appear in the December 11 episode, "The Nightmare After Krustmas". The show's executive producer, Al Jean, is from Michigan and calls himself a Detroit Red Wings fan. So it was odd that in announcing the Gretzky cameo he said, "People argue about a lot of things, but they never argue about who's the greatest hockey player. It's always him." What a load of hooey! People debate all the time about who is the greatest hockey player, with the ultra-long-time Red Wing Gordie Howe and Number Four Bobby Orr also having solid claims to the crown.

Hopefully these days Gretzky is a better actor now than he was in his famously cheesy ads for GWG jeans, 7Up, Domino’s Pizza and, saddest of all, Wayne Gretzky’s Rocket Hockey from Mattel, a tabletop “hockey” game.

7. Right place, right time

Entering Saturday’s visit to Dallas, the Edmonton captain Connor McDavid had not scored a goal in his past 10 games, though he had racked up seven assists. So it was fitting that when he ended his goal-scoring slump he was really aiming for another assist. But, as shown in the picture at left, his pass to teammate Milan Lucic at the far side of the crease hit Klingberg’s stick and bounced into the Stars’ net. McDavid scored twice more – an easy tap-in of a rebound, and a wrister from the slot after a shot deflected off the Dallas defender Stephen Johns – for his first NHL hat-trick. The hat-trick was lucky more than spectacular but on the last two goals McDavid showed a knack for knowing where the puck is going to be, and getting there first. Indeed on the last goal, the deflection landed right on the tape of his stick.

Edmonton won 5-2 to break a five-game losing skid.

8. Injury compensation

Just as Calgary is doing well without Gaudreau, and the Bolts have won two straight since Steve Stamkos tore up his knee on Tuesday – he will be out four months – so have the Los Angeles Kings raised their game in the absence of Anze Kopitar, who is sidelined with a lower-body injury.

After losing the first two games without their captain the Kings have rallied to win three straight, including 3-2 over Anaheim on Sunday. Neither team is as good as a few years ago but LA still enjoy the services of the world’s best defenceman, Drew Doughty. In the second period he scored a goal and assisted on Jeff Carter’s game-winner. In the third period with LA up 3-1 and Anaheim pressing on the power play, he made a kick save just outside the crease to stop a shot that was headed for an open net. In the end he played 26:22, easily the most of any guy on either team.

9. In summation:

(All stats through Sunday)

Standings: Montreal remain tops in the East with 30 points and Chicago are best in the West with 28. The Rangers are first in their division with 27 points. In the Pacific, Anaheim, Edmonton and LA are all on 21.

Standouts: The scoring pace-setters are Winnipeg's Mark Scheifele in points with 23, his teammate Patrik Laine and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby in goals with 12, and in plus-minus, the Rangers' Michael Grabner at plus-17, he having nudged ahead of Montreal's Shea Weber. Vasilevskiy has pulled into the goals-against lead with a 1.43 average.

Standing tall: It was not just that the Washington avenged a play-off defeat by trolling Pittsburgh 7-1 on Wednesday night. It was that the Caps were every bit as fast as the Pens and thereby neutralised the crucial advantage that Pittsburgh enjoyed when the teams met in the second round of the play-offs back in May.

Standing small: Laine, the Jets' dazzling rookie sniper, went minus-4 in the Jets' 5-2 loss in Philadelphia on Thursday night. Still, he remained in positive territory for the season at plus-4 overall.

Standard-bearer: Carter's three points against Anaheim gave him 601 for his career. Another 2,256 and he will be tied with that noted thespian Gretzky.