Happy New Year! A post in three parts

In Hockey on January 1, 2010 at 11:09 pm

1) Special Teams through the 1st Half

1)  Chi -372.527
2)  SJ -352.009
3)  Mon -254.302
4)  Bos -253.956
5)  NYR -211.334
6)  StL -111.640
7)  Was -97.273
8)  NJ -87.917
9)  Cal -81.400
10) Clm -71.173
11) Van -57.047
12) Buf -47.693
13) Pho -33.160
14) Atl -30.834
15) LA -11.149
16) Ana -8.171
17) Phi 13.168
18) Dal 22.806
19) Pit 24.692
20) Det 42.237
21) Min 43.825
22) Col 44.320
23) TB 72.605
24) Ott 111.145
25) Fla 115.528
26) Edm 141.274
27) Car 207.239
28) Tor 207.726
29) NYI 252.646
30) Nas 284.978

The Blackhawks and Sharks, who were both in the top three through the end of November, consolidate their positions with another month of efficient work on the power play as well as the penalty kill. You want impressive? The Blackhawks were down a man for over 81 minutes over 15 games last month – they allowed a meager three goals! Two of them were in the same game, when they lost in Dallas on the 29th. That ended a streak of 8 full games with perfect penalty killing. A combined 44:18 in those games.

Atlanta, the other team previously in the top three tumbled primarily due to a new-found inability to kill penalties. Over the month, they allowed 15 goals in just over 80 minutes for a penalty kill GAA of 10.53. Remember, the NHL average GAA when down 4-5 is 6.71, according to Puck Prospectus’ Philip Myrland. Their power play efficiency also dwindled, but not by much (441.143 down to 489.833).

The biggest change comes out of Montreal. Predictably, the return to health of #1 defenseman, Andrei Markov, gave the Habs a power play worth writing about. Through November, the Habs’ power play was just 23rd in the NHL, at 1 PP goal every 592.214 (nearly 10 minutes on the man advantage between power play goals. December started off well enough, with 7 power play markers in 2089 advantageous seconds, essentially halving their previous average. And on the 19th, on Long Island, Markov returned.

The Canadiens beat the Islanders, by a score of 3-0, with all three goals coming on the power play. Two were scored by the fresh stick of Markov. By New Years’ Eve, the Markov-led Habs scored 11 more power play goals in a mere 1829 seconds, 2:44 per power play goal. This titanic run has bumped the Habs all the way to the 1st half ranking as the most efficient power play in the NHL at 1 goal per 6:21.5. The runner-up Capitals were more than a half-minute behind, hitting the twine once every 6:58 in the power play.

Compare them to the eight bottom feeders, all requiring over 10 minutes with the man advantage to score (with the last three topping 11 minutes): Buffalo Sabres (10:18), Minnesota Wild (10:31), Pittsburgh Penguins (10:38 – a full minute improvement over their through-November numbers), Carolina Hurricanes (10:39), St. Louis Blues (10:41), New York Islanders (11:02), Ottawa Senators (11:07), and finally, the Nashville Predators (11:27).

We’ve already mentioned the stellar penalty killing of the Blackhawks, and we would be remiss to neglect the Bruins, currently second in the NHL in penalty kill efficiency. Look back on the league average 4-on-5 GAA. The Boston Bruins, led by the dual #1 goalies (Thomas and Rask), allowed on two opposition power play goals last month in nearly 72 minutes, for a 4-on-5 GAA of 1.67. If their scoring wakes up, they are well positioned for a big second half.

Meanwhile, holding on to last place (it may be all they have), is the Toronto Maple Leafs. They allow power play goals every 5:30. Combined with a slumping power play of their own, and their combined score dropped from 92.01 to 207.726 (remember – negative numbers are good here). Watching the Leafs, as I am wont to do, constantly reiterates the fact that Vesa Toskala is the biggest culprit of this downfall. He is a small goaltender (5-10″, 195), who plays smaller, deep in his crease and low to the ground. Earlier this year, Leafs’ GM Brian Burke had mentioned his willingness and intention to demote poorly performing salaries to the AHL. The line starts with Toskala. James Reimer, in his first AHL season, is performing admirably, albeit in a small sample size of 9 games. If he is healthy, and as he has not played in December, I am assuming he is currently injured, he might represent the best option the Leafs have to backup Gustavsson, the Polar Bear from Central Park.

Another team worth watching in the special teams standings is the Jimmy Howard Detroit Red Wings. It looks like the patience of GM Holland and coach Babcock has paid off. After allowing 15 goals in his first 5 appearances (one as a mid-game replacement), Howard seems to have taken over from Chris Osgood, ranking in the top ten in the league in both GAA (2.25, 8th) and save percentage (.921, 9th). His play has helped the Wings add 2 full minutes to their penalty kill efficiency, going from 6:59 (27th) at the end of November, to 8:59 (14th). If they can get more forwards (Zetterberg, Franzen, etc.) back from injuries, look for their power play efficiency to improve, and ultimately, their position in the standings, as well.

Finally, as proof that great special teams play does not guarantee greatness, look at St. Louis Blues. Their 5th-ranked efficiency score of -111.640 is held up by great penalty killing, but prevented from really taking off by a correspondingly poor power play. Playing down to the score (is it possible?), they are currently 9 points out of 8th place in the West. Their reverse image is supplied by the Nashville Predators, with an NHL-worst special teams score of 284.978. With the least efficient power play in the game, and ahead of only the woeful Toronto penalty kill, Nashville seems to be winning its games at full strength. Eyeballing the numbers, they seem to be among the least penalized teams in the game (mitigating their struggles on the penalty kill). From Gabriel Desjardins’ Behind the Net, the Predators are 4th in the league in average time spent playing 5-on-5, at 47.8/60 minutes.

2) The US Olympic Team

I nailed 22 out of their 23 selections, missing out only on David Backes (I had Burke selecting young Islander Kyle Okposo in his stead. I might not have said it before, but I’ll say it now: Mike Komisarek is only on the team to justify the outlay Burke made in signing him last offseason. For 5 years and $22.5 million, he must be one of the 7 best defensemen with a US passport, right? Not quite. According to the Puck Prospectus Goals-versus-threshold stat, measuring a player’s overall on-ice contributions, Komisarek is by far the worst among the 23 proud Americans, at -0.7. He has been playing error-prone hockey. I suppose he does block a mean shot. Rob Scuderi may have been a better pick. And, as already predicted, if Paul Martin is not able to play, Scuderi (or Ryan Whitney) may yet get a chance to wear the Red, White and Blue.

3) Fenway Park

Watching the game from the comfort of the new couches in my living room, the visuals were great. Ice hockey with shadows is a treat. The game itself was not the most exciting game of the year (or the week – did any of you watch the Canada-US World Juniors game on New Years’ Eve?), but it ended with a flourish. The Flyers, while they put up a good fight (and I’m not referring to Daniel Carcillo’s KO of Shawn Thornton), did not particularly impress. Michael Leighton may yet steal the #2 job from the generally disappointing Brian Boucher once Ray Emery returns from his abdominal surgery. James van Riemsdyk was pretty much invisible on the ice. Jeff Carter seemed involved in almost each one of the Flyers’ threatening moments. With 6 more shots on goal giving him 180, Carter takes over the league lead from American Olympian Zach Parise.

From the Bruins, I was particularly impressed by the play of Tim Thomas. Yes, he was at fault for the Flyers’ goal, but he also prevented several others with his ballsy and acrobatic play. Not much bigger than Vesa Toskala, he plays much bigger. When he puts his pads down, his back stays straight and tall, giving Thomas more net coverage. When Toskala puts his shin pads down, he also hunches over slightly, opening up valuable inches at the top of the net. Also impressing were the creators of the two Bruins goals, Derek Morris, whose shot from the point began many Bruins flurries, and surprise Canadian Olympian, Patrice Bergeron – great hesitation to get in position to put the puck on Marco Sturm’s stick in the goal crease to win the game.

The only real blight on the game, was the fans’ booing some of the Olympic announcements. I hope the kids representing each player didn’t feel that they were being booed.

Happy New Years, everyone!


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