Monday, March 31, 2008

Survey says

I try to keep advertising to a pretty discreet level around here, but one system I'm using asks for a bit of basic demographic information and I frankly don't have a clue who's reading.

If you feel like filling this out, go right ahead. If not, no big deal.

Stanley Cup odds

Here's a quick look at some current odds on who will win the Stanley Cup this season, according to online oddsmakers:
  1. Detroit Red Wings 4 - 1
  2. San Jose Sharks 11 - 2
  3. Anaheim Ducks 6 - 1
  4. Pittsburgh Penguins 7 - 1
  5. Montreal Canadiens 7 - 1
  6. New Jersey Devils 10 - 1
  7. New York Rangers 10 - 1
  8. Ottawa Senators 12 - 1
  9. Calgary Flames 15 - 1
  10. Minnesota Wild 20 - 1
  11. Carolina Hurricanes 20 - 1
  12. Dallas Stars 20 - 1
  13. Vancouver Canucks 30 - 1
  14. Colorado Avalanche 30 - 1
  15. Boston Bruins 40 - 1

From Pixburgh to C-Bus
A hockey odyssey

Pittsburgh to Columbus, western Pennsylvania to central Ohio. That's the shortest distance you can drive from the NHL's Eastern Conference to the West, just 298 kilometres from the top of the standings to the bottom.

It was quite a contrast.

In Pittsburgh, getting seats was difficult, even with several weeks notice, as a Thursday game in late March against the already eliminated Islanders was apparently a big draw. (It ended up drawing a near-record audience on television.)

And I was willing to pay a lot, close to $250 U.S. for two decent seats in the lower bowl, but that wasn't doable. After having a ticket buy on StubHub fall through (and having it on good authority that scalpers would be selling for twice face value at the arena) the other two options were "obstructed view" or standing room tickets.

For $40, here's what our seats looked like from the very back of Section D at Mellon Arena:

Other than Mr. Pole in front of the one goal, not bad at all, and especially not for that price.

Mellon itself has a certain antiquated charm, especially when packed to the rafters with rabid fans. It seemed like every third back had either Lemieux or Crosby on it, with a few of Roberts, Talbot and Laraque thrown into the mix.

It's hard to believe that this is a city that the NHL even contemplated leaving, but as one fan said, Pittsburgh is home to a certain contingent of "bandwagon fans." And with a roster that any other franchise would trade for in a heartbeat, it's pretty full at the moment.

Four years ago, you could sit wherever you pleased.

I didn't get a great sense of Pittsburgh the city, given I was only there for less than 18 hours, but there was a lot of (a) rain and (b) offers to take us to Primati Bros. (even for breakfast). It strikes me as a pretty blue-collar place, a great destination for a sports-themed road trip.

Especially with the team on top of the world.

Three hours of roadkill-filled highway to the west, and suddenly, getting good tickets wasn't a problem.

Our seats in Columbus:

For under $80, you too can see the back of Barry Trotz's head for two hours.

That's the view from Row 2, right behind the opposition bench, and the result of a search on Ticketmaster for the 'best available' seats less than a week before we left.

In the shot above, Jan Hlavac has just scored, but it's J.P. Dumont getting a glove to the head at the right there. It was 1-0, four minutes into the second period, and you could hear crickets chirping in Nationwide Arena.

If Pittsburgh's at the top of the NHL food chain at the moment, the Blue Jackets are scraping by in the ecosystem basement.

There were 15,495 announced as in the building for this one, a number bolstered by all of the TFC minions in town, but it was a relatively indifferent crowd. There was a swath of people behind us who barely watched the action, commenting only on their Blue Jackets to offer insults, and those that qualified as super fans mostly sat on their hands in the front row.

Here's a good example of the mood in Columbus: Toward the end of the game, two hecklers started trying to give it to one end of the Preds bench where Jerred Smithson and Vernon Fiddler were sitting.

The conversation seemed relatively innocuous, and Fiddler was having a good time giving little behind the back fist pumps while he mouthed one word to the crowd: Playoffs.

Eventually, it turned a little ugly, as Smithson sprayed a water bottle through the crack in the glass at the fellow in the glasses there, who proceeded to dump half a beer over the glass.

That might have been the most excited a Blue Jackets fan got on Friday night.

To be fair, there hasn't been a ton for the fans in Columbus to get excited about so far, not with the team set to miss the postseason for a seventh consecutive season. Nationwide is a beautiful facility — built at the site of Ohio State Penitentiary, which was demolished in 1998 — and the city's Arena District is a hub of activity, with terrific restaurants and bars lining a strip in the area.

The only thing missing is a winning team.

Columbus is definitely NCAA territory, home to Ohio State University and the Buckeyes, and you see more paraphernalia for those teams than the NHL club. Even still, the support is there, in local spots like the R Bar, which is filled with hockey-related memorabilia and shows Center Ice and the NHL Network at all times.

I had the chance to chat with a few locals, including one hockey man, who said support for the Jackets had really been eroded over Doug MacLean's tenure. There's really not a lot of optimism in Columbus, even when I talked about some of the up-and-coming studs in the system, and I think we'll be seeing a "show-me" attitude from the fans there for the near future.

They want the playoffs.

In the end, the most cheering we saw in Columbus came from 3,000 rabid soccer fans from Toronto:

Trip highlights: Nationwide's prison-inspired tower, Mellon Arena nachos, $3 Jason Chimera hat, Laraque on a breakaway, Ted's Montana bison steaks, Clay Wilson, using BlackBerry to find Denny's in Mansfield, Ohio

Trip lowlights: roadkill, getting soaked in Pittsburgh, no food at Jerome Bettis's pub, ECHL hockey at R Bar, Miroslav Satan fighting, soccer, shampoo in ketchup packets

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

I'm back

Another eight hours in the car today and... well, Columbus is far away.

My pal and I racked up 1,500 kilometres total, saw two hockey games and ate bison at Ted's Montana Grill. My definition of a good time.

It's going to take me a while to catch up on the hockey news cycle — I feel like I've been out of the loop for a week. Caught the Sabres game on the radio on the way through Buffalo, and even with an overtime win, they're likely toast this season.

What a long fall from last year's Presidents' Trophy.

Will do my best to have some sort of a Pittsburgh/Columbus roundup by tomorrow. Thanks to Seth Rorabaugh and Truth Serum for the mini-tours of their respective cities.

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Saturday, March 29, 2008

Predators 2, Blue Jackets 0

Not a lot to like from the home side tonight.

You really get the sense of discontent in Columbus over the team this season, and I can't imagine another lost year will go over very well.  Scalpers were selling prime seats for $10 out front, and even then, Nationwide Arena was far from full.

Beautiful facility in any event.

There are actually a ton of Canadians down here this weekend, the majority of which are on hand for Saturday's MLS game (which I'll be at for some reason).

A good time so far, and I even picked up a Chimera hat for $3 from the giftshop, so who can complain? I do worry about the NHL's future in Columbus unless they can finally put together a winning season soon.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Nashville @ Columbus

I'm on the road in central Ohio at the moment, about a half hour outside Columbus and doing a little reading about tonight's game. Preds netminder Dan Ellis seems like the story, what with what's went on the past few games.

After two subpar starts, Ellis was supposed to get the hook in favour of another rookie, Pekka Rinne, last weekend, but when Rinne's equipment didn't make it in time for the game, Ellis got the start and shined. Since then, he's played well in two wins, keeping Nashville in the running for the playoffs and just two points back of Vancouver.

We've got seats four rows behind the Preds bench, close enough to smell what's going on, so I'll try and blog from that vantage point if anything of note happens. Maybe not.

This BlackBerry experience has been interesting, but it's certainly tough to get into much detail when you're hammering this stuff out on a keyboard that's about two inches wide.

I'll have a much better look at the trip once I can get my hands on a real computer.

Enjoy the games - and if anyone knows where we can catch HNIC tomorrow from downtown Columbus, I'm all ears.

Pens win

It's not every game you see Big Georges pot the insurance goal on a breakaway.

The three stars tonight were actually a pretty good indication of the sort of game it was, with Laraque named No. 2 and the suddenly hot Jarkko Ruutu the first star.

The Islanders were close on the shot count, but really didn't come to play. And I believe the win puts the Pens in top spot in the conference.

It's been a rainy night in Pittsburgh, but Seth Rorabaugh from the Post-Gazette did his best to play host and show us around the 'new' stadium district. The Pirates and Steelers have had their new homes for a while now, and you really get the sense hockey fans here are excited for the new building in 2010.

The city actually just demolished an old hospital where the new building will go, and we had a good look at the rubble across the street from Mellon Arena. (Where they also happened to be shooting scenes for a movie tonight.)

This is definitely a Penguins town at the moment, at least in the NFL's off-season, and it's been great to see. Thanks to the fans that stopped by to see us way up in the top of Section D.

Tomorrow: Ohio.

Thursday, March 27, 2008


Well, Jarkko Ruutu's popular in one NHL building.

The world-class agitator has put the Pens up by one after a wraparound shorthanded goal. And hey there's even a Ruutu sign in the lower bowl.

It has been a bit of a weird one, with a fight between Petr Sykora and Miro Satan of all people.

Sydor was also tagged pretty good in another bout.

As for highlights, Crosby has had a few near misses that could have been beauties.

Oh... More fights and Hossa's down on the ice.
You get the feeling they're ready for the playoffs here.

Tied after one

Well I'm certainly in Crosby country.

Malkin scored a decent goal to open the scoring but Fleury let in an ugly one and it's 1-1. Seats aren't as obstructed view as advertised, so no complaints.

Great fans, Okposo looks good, and there was almost a fight in front of me over a spilt beer.

I could get used to Pittsburgh.

Test from Pittsburgh

Fun via Blackberry

The road trip begins

About nine hours from now, I'll be sitting in the Igloo, enjoying a beverage and watching the Islanders play Sid the Kid and the Penguins.

Getting tickets in Pittsburgh proved a pain, so I'll be way up in the rafters with the superfans, section D26, row P. I'm a very tall lanky guy and will have on some Canadiens or Canucks apparel (to stand out), if you want to stop by and say hello. If you'd like to meet up with us before or after the game, contact Seth at empty netters, who will be arranging the festivities.

I believe The Pensblog will be there with Charlie and their chicken lawyer.

Friday in Columbus, getting tickets wasn't a problem, and we'll be in row four behind the visiting Predators bench for that one. Maybe I'll even make TV.

Feel free to stop by if you're going to be at that one.

Looking forward to it..

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An elite contribution: Drawing penalties

It's no secret that penalties can have a pretty big impact on a game.

Two years ago, stats man Gabe Desjardins put together some pretty nifty data on scoring rates at various situations, info that may have shifted slightly this season but that generally rings true:

5-on-5: 2.51 goals per 60 mins
4-on-4: 2.73 goals per 60 mins
3-on-3: 6.44 goals per 60 mins

5-on-4: 5.61 goals per 60 mins
5-on-3: 16.1 goals per 60 mins
4-on-3: 6.92 goals per 60 mins

In other words, if the average team played an entire game at 5-on-4 in 2005-06, they'd score roughly 2.25 times more goals than at 5-on-5.

It stands to reason, then, that teams that spend more time with the man advantage score more.

One great stat that Desjardins provides on Behind The Net is penalties drawn, both for individual players and for players' teams when individuals are on and off the ice. From that data, we can determine that the average forward draws 1.17 penalties per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, and the average defenceman draws just 0.43.

In general, blueliners take penalties, forwards draw them.

And especially so for the good ones.

Here's a look at which forwards have the highest rate of penalties drawn this season:

1 SIDNEY CROSBY PIT 49 14.55 3.1
2 ERIK COLE CAR 66 14.03 2.7
3 RYAN CALLAHAN NYR 44 10.52 2.7
4 DUSTIN BROWN L.A 72 14.25 2.5
5 MIKE RICHARDS PHI 67 12.64 2.4
6 DAVID PERRON STL 54 10.17 2.4
7 SEAN AVERY NYR 49 13.21 2.4
8 KEITH AUCOIN CAR 31 10.73 2.3
9 DANIEL CARCILLO PHX 51 10.64 2.3
10 CHAD LAROSE CAR 53 11.76 2.2
11 SCOTTIE UPSHALL PHI 56 11.3 2.2
13 ALEX KOVALEV MTL 76 13.32 2.2
14 ERIC STAAL CAR 75 15.27 2.1
15 RICK NASH CBJ 72 13.37 2.1
16 RYAN KESLER VAN 73 13.07 2.1
17 PETR PRUCHA NYR 56 10.02 2.0

Some of these fellows are a huge pain in the ass, and get marks for goading the opposition into taking penalties, but for the most part, this is a talented bunch. What do they have in common? Speed, stickhandling ability, and — in a lot of cases — they're really not all that big.

And Sidney Crosby, an ace in a lot of ways, leads the pack by a considerable margin this season.

Just for interest's sake, here's a look at the defencemen leaders:

1 DION PHANEUF CGY 76 17.57 1.3
2 KYLE CUMISKEY COL 38 10.5 1.2
3 VILLE KOISTINEN NSH 44 12.68 1.2
4 MATT WALKER STL 35 13.54 1
5 JORDAN HENDRY CHI 33 14.32 1
6 JOE CORVO CAR 67 13.69 0.9
7 MIKE COMMODORE OTT 60 14.33 0.9
9 MIKE GREEN WSH 75 17.79 0.9
10 MICHAL ROZSIVAL NYR 73 16.85 0.9
12 O-K TOLLEFSEN CBJ 50 10.25 0.9

More speed. Phaneuf obviously brings both grit and finesse, but a water bug like Cumiskey shows up here because he's hard to stop any other way.

Pretty interesting stuff.

Now, Crosby's not the norm, obviously. He draws penalties at a rate almost triple of the average, and way, way higher than the fellows on the low end.

By way of comparison, a few other "elite" forwards who play similar 5-on-5 minutes are Henrik Zetterberg, Ilya Kovalchuk, Daniel Alfredsson and Nathan Horton. Compare how they draw penalties, and how their teams draw penalties with them on the ice:
  1. Crosby 3.1/60 and 8.1/60
  2. Zetterberg 1.5 and 6.4
  3. Kovalchuk 1.3 and 6.2
  4. Alfredsson 0.9 and 4.7
  5. Horton 0.7 and 4.5
They all play about 15 minutes at 5-on-5 a game, or a quarter of a 60 minute contest, so over a full season, the difference add up.

Let's say, for argument's sake, all five will play 82 games at these rates this season. That would then mean that Crosby was responsible for drawing about 64 penalties over the course of a season. If the Penguins' power play fires at about 20 per cent, that's potentially 13 goals scored.

Zetterberg, meanwhile, would draw about 31 penalties over the course of a season, good for about half that. And Horton, way down the ranks at just 0.7 penalties drawn per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 ice time, well he'd only offer up a paltry 14 over the course of a full season.

Or a little less than three goals.

The range in the stat is actually quite striking, with some players drawing as little as one penalty so far this season. Horton is far from the lowest in terms of penalties drawn, with forwards like Petr Sykora and Alex Frolov sitting at just 0.4 per 60 minutes.

The thing I wonder is if it's possible for players to become better at drawing penalties, other than diving more often.

It's certainly one way to create more goals for your team.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Just in time

Sidney Crosby is back again.

The Penguins captain will return to the lineup Thursday night when the New York Islanders visit Mellon Arena.

“I am playing,” he said. “My ankle feels great and my conditioning is as good as it can get, really, without playing. It always takes a few games, but I feel good.”
Crosby knows I'm coming. I'll be sending him hand signals from the obstructed views.

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Hey Andy!

A committee studying whether to build a new arena in downtown Edmonton has concluded that the project would be both feasible and desirable.

The committee said Tuesday a new sports and entertainment facility in the Alberta capital would help revitalize its downtown core.

As for who would pay for the $450-million, 18,000 seat arena, the committee suggests a "mix of public and private participation."
I expect The Battle of Alberta to be on this one shortly.

UPDATE Or you can just read the other guys. But you already knew that.

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Lightning continue goalie shuffle

The Tampa Bay Lightning have recalled goaltender Marc Denis from the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League on an emergency basis, Executive Vice President and General Manager Jay Feaster announced. Goaltender Jonathan Boutin has been re-assigned to Norfolk.

Denis, a 6-foot-1, 193-pound native of Montreal, Quebec, was assigned to Norfolk on December 29. He has played in 28 games with the Admirals this season and posted a 9-15-2 record with a 3.02 goals-against average and a .905 save percentage.
>> team release


Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Roys suspended

Quebec Remparts goalie Jonathan Roy was suspended for seven games, and Remparts coach Patrick Roy — Jonathan's father — was suspended for five games following Saturday's melee between their team and the Chicoutimi Sagueneens in a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League playoff.
The suspension for Jonathan Roy is about what I'd expected, especially given he's the team's backup goaltender and banning him really won't affect the series. Suspending Patrick Roy, however, surprises me a bit.

Let's face it, this story wouldn't have made national news three days in a row if not for the names involved. Junior hockey's not often even on the radar here in Toronto, and certainly not the QMJHL, and the fact this is a story that's drawn so much attention really speaks to Roy's star power.

And that attention, in my opinion, also led to larger suspensions than we would have seen otherwise.

The other thing to keep in mind here, something I haven't seen mentioned anywhere, is that Jonathan Roy's far from a goon. He has six career penalty minutes and has never been involved in anything like this before.

In any event, my guess is there'll be a lot more attention paid to tonight's Remparts-Sagueneens matchup than there was the past two.

Colby Cosh has more at the National Post:
An attack on an unwilling bystander, however, is ordinary assault, no different in nature than it would be on the street. Being jumped and pummelled when you are threatening no aggression is absent from the list of risks that one voluntarily accepts as a hockey goaltender.

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How to pass a rule

Hi James,
Sig here. Have you ever thought about doing a post on process for how rules are proposed and possibly changed? There appears to be a number of parties involved… Competition Committee, NHLPA, Board of Governors, Bettman, etc.

I really think Paul Kelly will try to make a splash at the summer meeting with some proposed rule changes, of particular interest to me a modification to the instigator penalty.

Thank you James. Keep up the great work!
— Sig
Here's what I know, off the top of my head.

This process starts with the general managers at their meetings before the trade dealine, which is when we hear all about potential rule changes for the following season. Last month in Naples, Florida, they discussed one-minute penalties in overtime, retaining salary in trades, highsticking penalties, suspensions, the four-minute penalty for drawing blood and, yes, the instigator rule.

Also on the table were talks of an 84-game season (put forward by the NHLPA), changing the date of free agency from July 1, and halting the process of "rental players" returning to their former teams in the off-season.

The majority of the GMs, 16 of 30 or more, need to agree on a rule change before it goes to the competition committee, who (to the chagrin of executives) can veto certain changes.

Those that survive go to the board of governors, and if there's a two-thirds majority in favour of the change, that's when rules get approved.

Others can help fill in the blanks here: Did I miss part of the process?

Lightning do the goalie shuffle

The Tampa Bay Lightning have recalled goaltender Jonathan Boutin from the Norfolk Admirals of the American Hockey League on an emergency basis, Executive Vice President and General Manager Jay Feaster announced.

Boutin, 6-foot-2, 192 pounds, has played in 34 games with Norfolk this season and posted a 12-15-3 record with a .902 save percentage and a 3.25 goals-against average. He has also recorded two of the team’s three shutouts.
>> team release
I believe I read somewhere that Mike Smith suffered some sort of injury in practice recently, although I can't find the link again.

In any event, this might be good news in the battle for that top spot in the lottery. Tampa Bay's 4-11-2 in its last 17 games, and is tied with the Kings for the fewest points in the NHL with just 66.

The Lightning has one fewer win than Los Angeles at this point.

I'll update when I know who's starting tonight's game against Florida.

UPDATE Smith's hurt, although no word on how badly. Damian Cristodero has the info and will be following this one, I'm sure.

Keep in mind that Tampa's lack of a legitimate starter may have an impact on the standings, given the fact they face Washington and Carolina twice more.


Cleary's sacrifice

Thanks to Nick in Texas for the pointer to a great roundup of stories on Dan Cleary's amazing jaw surgery:
Red Wings forward Dan Cleary chose to risk nerve damage to have three plates and over a dozen screws inserted into his jaw so that he could return to Detroit's line-up as soon as possible, and he's suffered adverse effects from his procedure.
It was originally believed he would miss considerable time with the injury, but Cleary's expected to suit up tonight against St. Louis.

Cleary's had a terrific season, despite the injury, with 20 goals and 40 points in 57 games until this point, and he earned a nice long-term deal with Detroit. Keep your eye on him.


The battle to get into the race

Four teams, all well out of the playoff race at the trade deadline, and all four go on big runs. Combined, they've been 36-11-3 since that point.

Since the trade deadline
Florida: 8-1-2 (.818)
Edmonton: 11-3-0 (.786)
Toronto: 8-3-1 (.708)
Washington: 9-4-0 (.692)


Yet, of the four, Edmonton has the best chance to make the postseason, followed by Washington, Florida and Toronto. All four remain longshots, but when wasn't that the case?

A full look at FanHouse.

On the air

Just a quick note that I'll be appearing on 940Montreal at noon EST today to discuss the Jonathan Roy incident from Saturday. Joining me on The Joe Cannon Show will be Farrel Miller, the owner of the new QMJHL franchise in Montreal.

Feel free to tune in.


Monday, March 24, 2008

In good company

Alex Ovechkin scored his 59th and 60th goals of the season in Washington’s win at Atlanta on Friday night. Ovechkin, who was 22 years, 186 days old when he did it, is the fifth-youngest player in NHL history to reach the 60-goal mark in a season. The four players younger than Ovechkin at the time of their 60th goal were Wayne Gretzky in 1981-82 (20 years, 359 days) and 1982-83 (22-41), Pavel Bure in 1992-93 (22-11), Mike Bossy in 1978-79 (22-62) and Mario Lemieux in 1987-88 (22-167).

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Measuring division strength

Here's a look at how well the six divisions do in play outside of their division. Every team outside of New Jersey and Boston, who face each other next week, has played exactly 50 non-division games this season:

Division GP W L T Pts Pt% /82
1 Atlantic 249 131 87 31 293 58.8% 96.5
2 Northeast 249 126 88 35 287 57.6% 94.5
3 Northwest 250 130 95 25 285 57.0% 93.5
4 Pacific 250 131 100 19 281 56.2% 92.2
5 Central 250 122 95 33 277 55.4% 90.9
6 Southeast 250 109 113 28 246 49.2% 80.7

Since we're into a stretch of purely divisional games, there's an obvious benefit to playing in a weaker division. Points are going to be harder to come by in the Atlantic and Northeast Division battles, as those teams have made up a lot of points against the Southeast, while the Northwest rates slightly better than the other two Western Conference divisions.

Keep in mind that Anaheim's 94 points as part of the Pacific Division isn't necessarily better than Calgary's 88 in the Northwest. Strength of schedule has played a part in shaping the standings, and that'll play a big role in the final two weeks.

A look at divisional play

Since the NHL's now started a string of exclusively divisional play, it makes sense to look at just how well teams have fared within their divisions so far this season.

And, despite playing in the Atlantic, the Rangers are on top:

RK Team GP W L T Pt%
1 NYR 25 17 6 2 72.00%
2 CAR 26 17 8 1 67.31%
3 OTT 25 16 9 0 64.00%
4 MTL 26 15 10 1 59.62%
5 FLA 26 14 10 2 57.69%
6 TOR 26 13 9 4 57.69%
7 PHI 26 13 11 2 53.85%
8 WSH 26 12 11 3 51.92%
9 BUF 25 11 11 3 50.00%
10 NYI 26 13 13 0 50.00%
11 ATL 27 12 13 2 48.15%
12 PIT 25 11 12 2 48.00%
13 NJD 26 10 12 4 46.15%
14 BOS 26 9 12 5 44.23%
15 TBL 25 10 13 2 44.00%

RK Team GP W L T Pt%
1 PHX 26 17 8 1 67.31%
2 VAN 25 13 7 5 62.00%
3 NSH 26 14 8 4 61.54%
4 CHI 26 15 9 2 61.54%
5 CGY 25 13 8 4 60.00%
6 COL 26 15 10 1 59.62%
7 SJS 25 12 8 5 58.00%
8 ANA 27 13 9 5 57.41%
9 DAL 26 13 10 3 55.77%
10 MIN 26 13 10 3 55.77%
11 DET 26 13 11 2 53.85%
12 STL 25 12 11 2 52.00%
13 CBJ 25 10 13 2 44.00%
14 EDM 26 10 14 2 42.31%
15 LAK 26 10 15 1 40.38%

This final stretch is probably going to be a tough go for Edmonton.

Next up, records against other divisions.

The search for Hart
The perils of picking the NHL's MVP

Two months ago, I ran a poll on the Hart Trophy which had close to 1,000 votes, the bulk of which (43%) were cast for Alex Ovechkin.

Even with 15 candidates on the ballot, the players I figured were most likely to contend for the award at season's end, there was no Evgeni Malkin. Martin Brodeur received just six votes, and Jarome Iginla was a distant fourth with only 8 per cent support.

Two months later, in my mind anyway, there are five legitimate candidates who have a chance at the hardware: Ovechkin, Malkin, Brodeur, Iginla and Nicklas Lidstrom.

And it's a very close race.

In a piece that's been getting a lot of attention on the interweb, Damien Cox backs Lidstrom. Ross McKeon says it should be Iginla. And Steve Simmons picks Ovechkin.

These three, as members of the hockey writers' association, will all have votes, and I imagine this will be one of the most hotly contested MVP votes in NHL history. It's hard to say there's a wrong answer, but in my mind the closest thing to that would be to dismiss Ovechkin simply because his team misses the postseason.

Cox points to the fact that fans and pundits love the heroic star on a lesser team, but the fact is, there's no advantage to being the lone wolf on an otherwise dismal hockey team. A goaltender may face more shots and be able to shine brighter on a bottom feeder, but the odds are stacked against Oveckin every night, from the fact he has a rookie finding his way as his linemate to facing the most difficult opposition each and every night.

Ovechkin leads the league with 31 goals on the road, where the matchups go against him every shift, despite the fact only three others have managed even 20 away from home this season.

With 60 goals in 76 games, he's on pace for nearly 65 goals, which would tie for the 23rd-best single-season goal total in NHL history despite the fact he plays in the lowest-scoring era of any player who has ever hit the 60-goal mark.

How can you write off one of the greatest goal-scoring seasons of all time because the Capitals miss the playoffs due to poor goaltending? And injuries to key personnel? And poor coaching early on, bad management decisions, an inexperienced blueline, lack of secondary scoring...

You get the idea.

Ovechkin has had more help this season than in the past, but he's still very much a man on an island. Which makes his accomplishments all the more impressive — not less.

That's not to say he's my pick with no questions asked. At this point, I'd be satisfied with either Ovechkin, Iginla or Lidstrom as MVP, with the last two weeks of the season playing a big part in determining who wins of the three.

But let's pick a player for the right reasons.

Which brings me to Cox's comments on Lidstrom:
Lidstrom's worth to the Wings was amply demonstrated by the way in which the team nearly fell apart during his recent injury absence.

After years of watching Lidstrom's quiet brilliance all but ignored despite the success of the Wings, this was indisputable evidence that he is a difference-maker on a team that still sports the NHL's best record.
It sounds good, it really does. It's persuasive, and it makes sense given the Red Wings' little bump in the road this season.

But it's wrong.

Detroit was 0-6-1 in its last seven games before Lidstrom got hurt, but without him in the lineup, including the game he was injured and played just three minutes, the Red Wings went 3-3-1.

That's the basis for the Hart Trophy? That's the "indisputable evidence?"

Lidstrom's a fine candidate, and he's who I picked at the midway point, but if you want to make that argument, start with the quality of competition he faces and his plus-minus rating. Only four players face more difficult 5-on-5 opposition according to Behind The Net, yet Lidstrom's numbers at even strength are incredible: 3.73 goals for average and 1.66 goals against average when on the ice, compared to 2.11 and 1.79 when he's off it.

There's not another defenceman in the league that sees well under two goals against per 60 minutes facing that kind of opposition. It's absurd.

Detroit scores on stingy opposition when he's out there. Then he and his defence partner prevent goals against from the top-scoring players in the league. And both the offence and defence improve significantly when Lidstrom's on the ice.

Combine that with the number of points he produces, nearly a point a game at age 37, and he's in the class with the best blueliners of any era.

That's an MVP argument.

Just don't ask me for my final answer quite yet.




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