By Stu Hackel
Quick: Name the three hottest teams in the NHL.
Hint: Two of them missed the playoffs last season and one has compiled its streak entirely on the road.
Answer: the Senators (six straight wins), the Sharks (five straight) and your Western Conference leaders, the worst-to-first Edmonton Oilers (five straight).
The Sharks will go for a franchise record six consecutive road wins tonight against the Rangers while wrapping up a trip that was dreamed up by some demonic schedule maker. It began in Newark, NJ, before going up to Boston, south to Nashville, up to Detroit, then to Long Island before ending at Madison Square Garden. But the results certainly have been an improvement over San Jose’s 1-3 start in which the Sharks lost three straight after an opening night win.
The first thing that jumps out at you about the Sharks’ run is that each of their five victories has been essentially a one-goal game, three of them finishing with empty-netters. They’ve allowed only 10 goals in the five wins and that’s as good a recipe for victory as you can have in the NHL. Brent Burns got the winner in overtime against the Islanders on this power play goal, brought on by a controversial delay of game penalty.
It was a good break for the Sharks but they made the most of it to get the bonus point and keep their streak alive.
It’s no coincidence that the Sharks’ streak began around the time goalie Antti Niemi and winger Martin Havlat made their season debuts. After recovering from surgery on a leg cyst, Niemi saw his first action in a 1-0 loss to the Ducks right before the trip began. He’s played four of the five games since (Thomas Greiss got the win on Long Island on Saturday) and provided his usual poise, which seems to have rubbed off on his teammates.
Havlat, coming off surgery as well, returned for the Devils game and has five assists. Equally important is that his presence on the line with Logan Couture and Ryane Clowe gives San Jose a second offensive threat besides the Joe Thornton-Joe Pavelski-Patrick Marleau trio. Those two lines have exploded on this trip, with Thornton’s scoring 11 goals — Pavelski has five of them — and Couture’s producing six.
None of the Sharks’ top four defenseman — Burns, Dan Boyle, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Douglas Murray — have registered a minus in any game on this trip. They are a combined plus-20.
For a Rangers team that blew a late 4-1 lead to the Senators on Saturday, those white and teal sweaters won’t be a pleasant sight tonight.
The white and red-garbed Sens weren’t a pleasant sight for the Broadway Blueshirts who, like the Blue Jackets and Panthers, were victimized by third period Ottawa comebacks during this streak. Against Columbus, Ottawa scored twice in the last 36 seconds…
…to tie and win the second game of their current streak on goals by Jason Spezza and Milan Michalek.
Nor were the Sens gracious hosts on Sunday night to their mortal enemies from Toronto, winning 3-2. Sitting tied for third in the East and just a point behind the Maple Leafs, Ottawa ranks as one of the early season’s biggest surprises. This was supposed to be another year of rebuilding and suffering for the Senators, as Wayne Scanlan writes in today’s Ottawa Citizen, “Who knew a rebuild could be this much fun?”
Credit Spezza, so long a whipping boy for Senators fans, with sparking his team on its streak. His five goals and five assists during the run have given him 15 points on the season, tied for second in league scoring. He’s on pace for 47 goals and 101 points. That would be quite something — and probably not anywhere near where he ends up — but his hot start could signal that he might once again exceed the point-per-game plateau, which has eluded him for three seasons.
Another vet rediscovering his best play is winger Michalek, who has four goals and four assists during the streak. His four power play goals tie for the NHL lead. Injuries have rendered him far less effective in the two years since he came over from San Jose in the trade for Dany Heatley, but a healthy Michalek certainly makes a big difference for the Sens.
One more veteran who has mattered is defenseman Sergei Gonchar, another Senator who disappointed last season. Seven of his nine assists have come in the last five games, and those nine assists tie him for fourth in that category among NHL defensemen. But who’s the league leader? The Sens’ second-year d-man Erik Karlsson, with 12, and his 13 total points lead all blueliners. Karlsson is one of the league’s best-kept secrets, but he won’t be for long if he can sustain his excellent play thus far.
Karlsson is not the lone youngster worth watching in Ottawa: Rookie winger Colin Greening, who is playing on a line with Spezza and Michalek, has six points during the streak. Proficient at planting his 6-foot-3, 210-pound frame in front of goalies, Greening joins Chris Neil in that role and both had power play goals on Sunday against the Leafs.
Together they’ve all combined to ignite an Ottawa power play that is tops in the league, clicking at a blazing 31 percent rate (13-for-42). Listening to Ottawa radio’s Three Guys in the Morning show with Pierre McGuire on Monday morning (audio), the cast all gave big props to first year coach Paul MacLean for teaching his team some of the Red Wings’ better tactics, like using backside pressure to blunt enemy attacks, plus brightening the workplace environment and managing expectations. As MacLean told Scanlan before the Leafs game, “Let’s see where we are after 20 games, after 25 games. We’ve played well for five in a row, but it’s a long season.”
The Sens will try to keep it going against the struggling Bruins on Tuesday. They host the Canadiens on Friday and Sabres on Saturday, a big week against divisional rivals. With captain Daniel Alfredsson going down with a concussion in the Rangers game Saturday, Ottawa will plug in the enigmatic Nikita Filatov, just recalled from AHL Binghamton. That should be interesting.
The Oilers’ performance is probably a bigger surprise than Ottawa’s. Over the summer, I recall telling an Oilers fan that a 15-point improvement would be ideal. After 11 games last season, Edmonton had only eight points; this season, 18.
How are they doing it? None of TSN’s Sunday panelists on The Reporters — four pretty smart guys (Dave Hodge, Steve Simmons, Bruce Arthur and SI’s Michael Farber) — could offer an explanation on their weekly post-program podcast (video). But the secret, to these eyes, starts with coach Tom Renney, who means to the Oilers what MacLean has meant to the Senators.
Renney didn’t get enough credit in New York for how well he got the Rangers to play team defense, masking their thin blueline corps by getting forwards to play responsibly. He’s facing the same challenge in Edmonton and getting excellent results with a group of defensemen that no one will mistake for the 1977 Canadiens, or even the 1987 Oilers.
He’s also getting a good offensive attack, and that can be attributed to two additions to his team this season: the repatriated Ryan Smyth and rookie sensation Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Inserted between Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle, Nugent-Hopkins gives the Oilers the legitimate first line center they’ve lacked.
Nugent-Hopkins’ play so far, including six points during the hot streak, allowed Renney to move Shawn Horcoff to the second line between Smyth and Ryan Jones. David Staples of The Edmonton Journal makes a compelling case that they are the Oilers’ top trio, based on ice time, Renney’s use of them, and their two-way play. Smyth also has six points during the streak — five in the last two games alone, including two goals against St. Louis on Sunday — and he couldn’t be happier being back in Edmonton after ferrying around to the Islanders, Avalanche and Kings during the past few seasons.
The defense corps will be challenged with the loss of Ryan Whitney to injury and, most likely, Andy Sutton to suspension, but as long as 38-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin remains strong in goal, the Oilers will have a chance to win on most nights, like this save during Edmonton’s 3-2 win last Tuesday over the Canucks, one of 35 he made on the night.
Khabi’s numbers are insane (1.12 GAA, .960 save pct.) and he’s won four of the games during the streak, while stopping 116 of 121 shots. Backup Devan Dubnyk, who stopped the Blues Sunday night, isn’t doing shabbily either. He’s only given up eight goals in 129 shots in his four starts (2-2), with a 1.98 GAA and a .938 save pct.
We expected the Sharks to be good during the regular season, but learning how to win tight games regularly is a bonus come playoff time. We expect to see the Oilers and Senators at the bottom of the standings, but they’re not there now. Paul MacLean is right, it’s still early. But these October surprises might also mean that times are changing in the NHL.