Welcome to the first Weekly Warmup of the new decade!
We all know what that means: NHL Seattle starts playing next calendar year. OK, maybe not next regular season (2020-21) but "next year" is accurate (2021-22). Feels closer now, right?
Now, let's the drop the puck on 2020:
That's the Half of It
Nashville marked its 41-game halfway point of season Sunday night, losing 5-4 in a shootout at Anaheim. The Predators have one win in their last five games. Both teams are next to last in their divisions. While Anaheim is rebuilding with new coach Dallas Eakins and a number of young skaters who played for him at the AHL San Diego Gulls affiliate (a pending rival for the new Palm Springs AHL franchise), the Predators can ill afford to go the wrong way in the standings. As Nashville bobbles out of the top three automatic qualifiers from the Central division, it will have to start checking the Wild Card standings to surmise their postseason hopes. One positive for the Preds: Most teams they are chasing have played one to three games more, providing an opportunity to pick up ground with some wins. Only the New York Islanders have played fewer games, hosting Colorado Monday night for the official NYI halfway point.
That's a Wrap-or Not?
When a hockey team is trailing by a goal late in games, coaches often choose to "pull the goalie" to put an extra skater (usually a high-scoring forward) on the ice. It typically creates a 6-to-5 advantage for the trailing team. It also gives the leading team a chance to score an "empty net goal" that is significantly easier without a goaltender on duty. When a team scores the empty-net goal, the two-goal lead is almost always enough to win the game. Almost. Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., proved a deflating exception for San Jose. The Sharks' captain Logan Couture scored an empty-net goal with exactly one minute remaining in the third period, putting SJS up 4-2. Washington coach Todd Reirden chose kept his net empty to leverage the extra skater. Jakub Vrana scored with 47 seconds left to cut the lead to one. With 15 seconds remaining, Capitals star and Mt. Vernon area native T.J. Oshie tied the game. Then and only then Washington goalie Braden Holtby returned to the net, where he watched and celebrated Lars Eller scoring in overtime for a 5-4 Caps win.
Jarry-Rigging the Penguins
Strange as it might sound for a franchise that won two straight Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins are quietly putting up strong numbers. They rank second in the Metropolitan division and third overall in the Eastern Conference. Their +29 goal differential going into Monday's games is better than Metro leader Washington (+26) and equal to Atlantic division leader Boston. First time All-Star Jake Guentzel (20g, 23a) is one reason, along with stalwarts Evgeni Malkin (39pts, 29 games), Bryan Rust (17g, 17a) Kris Letang (26 points and logging 25-plus minutes per game as a defenseman) and, of course, Sidney Crosby (he and Guentzel lead the team in minutes played per game by forwards). But make no mistake: The rise of unheralded goalie Tristan Jarry is a major piece of Pittsburgh's humming first half. Jarry started 14 of 16 games in December, stop-gapping a unsteady season-to-date by Matt Murray. Jarry has 13 wins and leads the league in save percentage (.935) and goals-against-average (1.94) while Murray has notched 12 wins despite a below-average .896 save percentage and a 2.92 GAA (one full goal higher). Jarry lost a 4-1 game to Florida Sunday while Murray notched an overtime win against Montreal Saturday. Coach Mike Sullivan insists he has two top goalies. It will be intriguing to watch the net rotation in the coming weeks.
Kovalchuk's Last Chance?
Back in 2001, Ilya Kovalchuk was the first Russia-born player to be drafted No. 1 overall. Monday, he might well be playing in his third decade in the NHL as Montreal hosts Winnipeg.
The former three-time all-star has notched 50-plus goal seasons in the NHL for the Atlanta Thrashers (now moved to Winnipeg). He then moved on to New Jersey signing a monster contract ($100 million, 15 years) before choosing to leave three seasons later to play his homeland's Kontinental Hockey League for five seasons. He returned to North America for the 2018-19 with the Los Angeles Kings. It didn't go as both Kovalchuk and the team expected: 16 goals and 18 assists in 64 games last season and only three goals and six assists in 17 games this NHL year. Kovalchuk was a healthy scratch in LA for the last six weeks. He has 859 points in 897 NHL games. He signed a modest contract in Montreal, which is facing an uphill climb to make the playoffs in the rugged Atlantic division and Eastern Conference. The Canadiens are winless in their last five games.
Streaks at Stake
As the second half of the NHL season unfurls this month, both Tampa Bay and Vancouver are riding seven-game win streaks. Tampa's run was expected; no one has considered the Lightning's 128 points in 2018-19 to be a fluke, even if TBL was swept by Columbus in last year's playoffs and outscored in the four games 19 to 8. Vancouver's streak is a bit more surprising. Fueled by young stars such as Elias Pettersson (21 years old, Van-best 17 goals), Brock Boeser (turns 23 in February, team-high 26 assists) and 24-year-old captain Bo Horvat, the instant NHL Seattle rival Canucks have climbed to third in the Pacific division and have games in hand and possible points to gain compared to No. 1 Vegas and No. 2 Arizona. Vancouver visits
Canada Wins Junior Worlds
If you see any Canada-born friends or co-workers this week, they will likely be smiling long past Monday. That's because Canada's juniors national team won the International Ice Hockey Federation's World Championship Sunday in Ostrava, Czech Republic, with a 4-3 win over Russia. The Canadians not only avenged a 6-0 drubbing by Russia in preliminary play, they battled from behind to win Sunday. Trailing 3-1 with nine minutes left in regulation, Canada regrouped to tie the game 3-3 before LA Kings prospect Akil Thomas picked an ideal time to score his first goal of the tourney, backhanding and lifting a loose puck into Russia's net with four minutes left. The final minutes included Russia not capitalizing on a 6-on-4 advantage. There was lots of star power for Canada, including forward Alex Lefreniere, consensus No. 1 overall pick in this summer's 2020 NHL Draft. But goalie Joel Hofer (drafted 4th round, St. Louis, 2018) won the most hearts as a backup-turned-starter with all five of his Worlds starts with a stellar 1.60 goals against average. Seattle fans can get an up-close look at Hofer, who tends goal for the Western Hockey League's Portland Winterhawks. Portland visits the Seattle Thunderbirds Jan. 25 and the Everett Silvertips Jan. 31.
While Russia's kids are no doubt disappointed by letting the gold medal slip away Sunday, they advanced Saturday with a dramatic 5-4 overtime win against Sweden. The Swedes ousted rival Finland (5-0 losers to Canada on Saturday), in a tight 3-2 contest. The USA team qualified for the quarterfinals with an impressive preliminary round but lost 1-0 to Finland earlier in the week despite praiseworthy goaltending from Florida Panthers prospect and first-round 2019 choice Spencer Knight. Canada, which beat the U.S. in the prelims, got hot at the right time and when the games mattered most, outscoring opponents 22-5 in its last four games.
San Jose forward Evander Kane recorded his second hat trick of the season in aforementioned mind-bending loss to Washington Sunday. It was the 37th three-goal game of the hockey year, which puts this regular behind pace of the 97 in 2018-19. Others with two hat tricks so far: Edmonton's James Neal and Connor McDavid, Boston's David Pastrnak and Florida's Noel Acciari.
First on Sunday afternoon, Mt. Vernon-native T.J. Oshie scored the game-tying goal to help his Washington Capitals squad to overcome a two-goal deficit with a minute remaining in regulation. Teammate Lars Eller scored in overtime for a historic win. Next, Oshie went Beast Mode on Twitter, wearing a Seahawks No. 24 jersey and holding a bag of skittles in honor of you-know-who.