It's been another wild week in the NHL, from Martin St. Louis returning to Tampa Bay to the power going out in Detroit. Here are some things I've been thinking about.
SURVIVING THE CIRCUS
Each season, the Chicago Blackhawks "Circus Trip" is a litmus test for how that team is going to do, and this year, considering how Chicago was struggling amid big expectations, it might have been a bigger test than usual.
I think they passed.
The Blackhawks won five of six games on the trek, including sweeping the final two games on a back-to-back against the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks. Sometimes teams send a message to the entire League, and that was a message. I don't know that anyone doubted the Blackhawks would be in the mix this season, but after an inconsistent six weeks to start 2014-15, Chicago now looks like it will compete for the Stanley Cup this spring yet again.
If you ask me, while a six-game road trip is difficult to manage, this is one of those situations that is good for a team, and coaches like Joel Quenneville know it. When you're on the road you do a lot of team bonding. You're forced to eat together, to hang around together, to drive together. You're around your coaches and your teammates 24/7 on road trips like this, and it can really help pull your team together when it needs it. Now Kris Versteeg is scoring again. Patrick Kane is putting the puck in the net. Corey Crawford has been great in goal since returning from injury. We always knew the Blackhawks would be good this season, but this road trip showed us how good. Chicago is a force to be reckoned with.
TAKING THEIR SHOTS
It's amazing to me to watch how huge an emphasis there is on shot blocking in the NHL now. When I played the game there was no emphasis on blocking shots whatsoever. Goalies wanted to see the puck. My job as a defenseman was to clear people out so the goalie had a line of sight, and forwards were almost never in position to block shots. If you ever got in front to block a shot and accidentally deflected it past the goalie, he would point you out to the crowd and try to embarrass you. As Phil Esposito likes to say, "I wasn't paid to block shots. I was paid to score goals." The goalie was supposed to be the one blocking the shots.
The game is 1,000 percent different now than it was in the '60s or '70s. Shot blocking is a huge part of the NHL today, and as a result it's extremely hard to get a clean shot from the point, but the bigger concern to me is that players aren't properly trained to do it. You're supposed to slide with your feet first and take the puck from the waist down, not the waist up. Guys in my day didn't block shots as frequently, but they knew how to do it when they had to. Bobby Orr was a great shot blocker. If we're going to have players blocking shots like they do, they need to be taught how to do it properly because otherwise they'll get hurt, and you've seen that a few times. Guys have been taking shots on the upper body or in the back, and for their own safety the technique needs to be refined.
I commend these players on their guts. It's clear that if you want to play in the NHL now, you've got to be willing to block shots and get in shooting lanes. But we need players to know how to do it right. When I coached I didn't even want my forwards blocking shots because if Wayne Gretzky blocked a shot and got hurt, he might be out for six weeks. What if that happened with Rob Blake? What about Luc Robitaille? You definitely need guts to do all the things people do in today's NHL, but with how hard people shoot, you might see a 40-goal scorer get hurt and not return for two months because he blocked a shot. If that's the case, I think I'd rather let the shot through.
We had a pretty odd scene in Detroit on Sunday when the Detroit Red Wings and Vancouver Canucks had their game delayed because of lighting issues at Joe Louis Arena during the first period. Stoppages during games because of things out of anyone's control happen once in a while, and they're always a strange experience.
One of my favorite moments as a coach came when I was with the Kings and we were visiting the Philadelphia Flyers during a massive storm. A forward on the Flyers named Al Conroy, who played for the American Hockey League's Adirondack Red Wings a few years earlier when I coached there, had scored a goal to tie the game. Al didn't score very much. In fact, it was his first goal of the season. Later during the game one of the windows at the old Spectrum in Philadelphia blew in because of the weather. All of a sudden the fire department was there and the game had to be made up at a later date, which meant that after finally scoring, Conroy's goal ended up not counting because the game was canceled.
The wildest part of that weekend? Our bus to the airport got stuck the next day, but the NBA's Denver Nuggets, who were in town to play the Philadelphia 76ers, already had their bus at our hotel. Rather than wait for our bus to finally dig out of the snow, we just jumped on the bus with the Nuggets and rode with them to the airport.