Hot to trot: Are the Habs for real?

The 2015-16 season is still fairly new, but one team is already clearly the best in the NHL: The Montreal Canadiens. With Saturday’s 5-3 win over Toronto, the Habs are 9-0-0. They broke the ’75-’76 Sabres’ record for most regulation wins to start the season and a win Tuesday night in Vancouver would tie Montreal with the ’93-’94 Leafs, who began that season with 10 straight wins (including one OT win). A historic start, to be sure.

Montreal was supposed to be good, but this good? I’m guessing only diehard Habs fans expected them to start this hot out of the gate. Certainly, they’ve got the best goalie in hockey right now, Carey Price, who is coming off a dominant season in which he won both the Vezina and Hart trophies for best goalie and MVP, respectively. They’ve got a defense corps led by the spectacular PK Subban and Andrei Markov, and speedy forwards including Max Pacioretty, Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Plekanec and Alex Galchenyuk.

ozzy habs

The Canadiens have made great strides this season with their penalty kill and with puck possession, two factors that make them tough to beat when you take everything else into consideration. Even on Saturday, when the Leafs managed to pepper Price with 52 shots and score three goals, the Habs were able to generate enough offense to ice the victory.

Getting off to a fast start in the NHL is nice, but not essential. It’s a long season, and it’s more important that you finish strong in April. Indeed, the ’75-’76 Sabres ended up finishing second in the Adams Division with 105 points and were eliminated in the second round of the playoffs by the Islanders. The ’93-’94 Leafs finished second in the Central and made it to the third round of the postseason before Vancouver took them out in five games. So there’s no guarantee that winning 10 straight games to start the season will bring you anything other than a good jump on the competition.

Conversely, the Anaheim Ducks, who were the pick of many (including myself and Stephen Mapes of this very publication) to win the Cup, are off to an absolutely horrendous 1-5-1 start that has coach Bruce Boudreau rumored to be on the chopping block. Will a team that good miss the playoffs? It’s certainly possible, but I don’t expect it to happen.

As for Montreal, I expect them to be among the NHL’s best throughout the season, but certainly there will be a drop-off at some point, at least for a little while. Teams like Tampa Bay, the Rangers, Islanders, Capitals and Penguins will be tough opponents to get by to come out of the conference, but Montreal has to be considered the beast of the East right now.

A glimmer of hope…or an aberration?

Editor’s note: This guest post is by Phil Stacey, lifelong Bruins fan and sports editor of a daily newspaper north of Boston who has been covering this great sport for more years than he cares to admit. He’ll be contributing his insights to Cold As Ice throughout the season. Here, he takes a look at Boston’s rough start to the new season, as well as provides some other observations about the first week of NHL action.

So I guess the sky isn’t falling.

It took them four tries, but the Boston Bruins finally won their first game of the 2015-16 season Wednesday night in Denver, 6-2 over the Avalanche. They did it by jumping out to a two-goal lead after one period that stretched to five before the second stanza was over, forcing Avs bench boss Patrick Roy to reach for the Tums after pulling befuddled goaltender Semyon Varlamov.

bob-barker-adam-sandler-happy-gilmore

Many of the things missing during the team’s first three games—all home losses—suddenly sprung to life in the mountain air of Colorado: spry legs jumping up into the play offensively, battles won in the neutral zone, attacking the net with zeal for follow-up attempts and, perhaps most importantly, dropping the proverbial hammer when the opportunity arose.

The third line of Ryan Spooner, Jimmy Hayes and Chris Kelly—the first two of whom were dressing like Halloween ghosts in season opening defeats to Winnipeg and Montreal, respectively—played like a traditional Black-and-Gold, Claude Julien-coached team normally does. Every member of the trio had a goal while finishing with a combined eight points (Hayes’ 1-3-4 line was a career high) to guide a team desperate to taste a victory.

It was also the first start for backup netminder Jonas Gustavsson, who turned aside 20 shots. It was a much needed break for the team’s bell cow, Tuukka Rask, who had surrendered 14 goals on 91 shots over the first three games. Yikes.

I predicted in the days leading up to last week’s start to the season that the Bruins would indeed qualify for the playoffs in the spring, and while eight days into the campaign I’m already questioning that thinking, there is, after all, a l-o-n-g way to go. They can’t be as bad as they were in that trio of stinkers to begin the year (can they?), nor will the Bruins be as in sync as they were against Colorado.  There’s bound to be some sort of middle ground.

There’s talent on the roster [David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand (currently out with a concussion), Rask, an aging but still effective Zdeno Chara]. There’s also a lot of either unproven or middling guys who will be asked to develop at a rate more rapidly than they might have figured; how those skaters progress in the weeks and months ahead will ultimately determine Boston’s fate.

Five other observations after one week of play:

* Who saw Arizona—which hosts the Bruins Saturday night—flying off to the start it has? Mike Smith looks rejuvenated in goal for the 3-0 ‘Yotes, Anthony Duclair looks like a star in the making and Max Domi may have more career goals than his tough-guy father by New Year’s.

* Must be some hair falling out in the management bathroom sinks of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Columbus Blue Jackets and Los Angeles Kings, three squads with big dreams for 2015-16 that have come out of the gates a combined 0-10.

* So far, Eichel > McDavid. This could change over time, but he already seems better adjusted for the pro game and has no fear.

* The fan in me hates to admit this, but Montreal is already playing like they’re hell-bent on ending the organization’s 23-year Stanley Cup drought. The (even slightly) expected drop off hasn’t happened early on for goaltender Carey Price; Max Pacioretty & co. are back to scoring timely goals; and P.K. Subban seems intent on ending his antics and focusing on becoming what he could be: the league’s top defenseman.

* Just so I can be held accountable at season’s end, my predictions for the season were as follows:

Atlantic champs: Lightning

Metropolitan champs: Capitals

Other Eastern Conference playoff teams: Blue Jackets, Islanders, Rangers, Canadiens, Bruins, Penguins

Central champs: Predators

Pacific champs: Ducks

Other Western Conference playoff teams: Kings, Blackhawks, Wild, Blues, Flames, Stars

Eastern Conference final: Capitals over Lightning in 7

Western Conference final: Kings over Blackhawks in 6

Stanley Cup champion: Kings in 5

Hart Trophy winner: Steven Stamkos, Lightning

Vezina Trophy winner: Pekka Rinne, Predators

Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Anze Kopitar, Kings

Settling in for a long season in Leafland

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice’s Jay Kumar writes about being a long-suffering Leafs fan and how that’s probably not going to change any time soon.

Life as a Maple Leafs fan in the post-expansion NHL has never been easy. I should know: The Leafs won their 11th, and last, Stanley Cup the year I was born. That year was 1967, which is also the year the NHL expanded beyond the “Original Six.” Since then, it’s been nothing but mediocrity, the occasional sniff of contention, and outright failure.

sad leaf fans

My first memories of being a Leafs fan date back to 1971, when I can remember watching games with my father, an Indian immigrant who had moved to Toronto and grew to love the national game and the Leafs. When my mother was in the hospital and about to give birth to my little brother, my dad and I nearly missed it because we were watching the Leafs-Bruins playoff game that night.

I grew up watching the Leafs teams of the mid- to late ’70s led by stars like Darryl Sittler, Borje Salming and Lanny McDonald. They were probably two players away from being a real Cup contender, but their real shortcoming was having to play during the era when the Montreal Canadiens were pretty much unbeatable; the Habs won four straight Cups from ’76 to ’79 and nobody could touch them. Then owner Harold Ballard–the George Steinbrenner of hockey minus the winning championships part–systematically dismantled the team, leading to a decade of futility in the ’80s. After he died in 1990, the team experienced a resurgence, going as far as a win away from the finals in 1993 before Wayne Gretzky and the Kings dispatched. There was another series of above average teams in the late ’90s through 2004 under Pat Quinn, but since the 2005-2006 season, they’ve only made the playoffs once, in 2013 (which saw the Leafs push the Bruins to seven games before a historic collapse).

Which brings us to today. After a disastrous second half last season, Toronto is in rebuilding mode. Team President Brendan Shanahan has assembled a braintrust that includes coach Mike Babcock, longtime New Jersey exec Lou Lamoriello, wunderkind assistant GM Kyle Dubas and director of player personnel Mark Hunter. The Leafs traded superstar winger Phil Kessel to the Penguins for some prospects and loaded up on draft picks in the last draft. The team signed low-cost veterans like P.A. Parenteau, Brad Boyes, Nick Spaling and Shawn Matthias, most of whom will likely be traded at the deadline for picks. Babcock, who signed a massive 8-year, $50 million deal, has said he expects the Leafs to contend in three years.

So what does that mean for Leafs fans? It means the lowest of expectations, with some likely raising concerns if team actually starts winning. Because it’s all about the future, and if the Leafs finish near the bottom again, that means getting another shot at the top pick. The hashtag #TankNation has shown up quite a bit in the last few years and it likely will again this year. I don’t think there’s any chance the Leafs will miraculously find themselves in the upper echelon of the NHL, but if they somehow scrape their way into the playoffs, it’ll be seen as a massive blunder.

I’m interested to see how Babcock does with this collection of misfits and youngsters. After years in Detroit with ridiculously talented players like Datsyuk and Zetterberg, he’s going to be working with a lot less this season. Will he have the patience to rebuild the team slowly or will he push management to pick up a few players to try to build a contender quicker? As painful as it’s going to be, I’m hoping for the former. I’ve seen too many attempts under previous regimes run by David Nonis and Brian Burke to attempt shortcuts through stupid trades and ill-advised free agent signings. Almost every time, it’s blown up in their faces (although I would argue the trade with Boston to bring Kessel to the Leafs was a good one; the guy was one of the best snipers in the NHL during his Toronto tenure despite being surrounded by an inferior supporting cast).

We’re three games into the new season and it appears the Leafs are working hard under Babcock. In the season opener against Montreal, they put a bunch of shots on Montreal’s Carey Price, but as one of the best (if not THE best) goalies in the league, he shut them down. In Babcock’s heavily hyped return to Detroit, the Red Wings easily dispatched Toronto 4-0.

In Saturday night’s game, the Leafs played Ottawa and gave a glimpse of what a Babcock-run team can do, even with inferior talent. Toronto was all over the Sens in the first period but couldn’t score. They got into penalty trouble in the second and fell behind 3-0 but kept working and eventually tied the game at 3. After Ottawa scored in the third to make it 4-3, the Leafs poured on the pressure and after killing off a questionable penalty to Brad Boyes, went right down and scored to tie it up. The game went to 3-on-3 overtime, which was incredibly fun to watch. The Leafs carried the play, including a 4-on-3 power play, and had a ton of chances but couldn’t net the winner. In the shootout, the Leafs’ Parenteau got the first goal but the Wings got two to get the extra point and the victory.

It was an exciting game and even though it ended in a loss, the Leafs showed they could challenge a more skilled opponent. They may not come away with a win very often, but they looked a hell of a lot better tonight than they did for much of last season–even though they arguably had substantially less talent on the team. Yeah, it’s going to be a long season for the Leafs, but given the state of the team for the last decade, most reasonable Leafs fans will accept that if the team sticks to the rebuilding plan. It’s not going to be pretty, but it hasn’t been for a long time. That faint glimmer of hope on the distant horizon is all we have to go on right now.

Cold As Ice: Don’t call it a comeback

Editor’s note: Welcome to Cold As Ice, 2.0! This blog is new, but we originally started writing about the NHL a few years ago for Popblerd. We took a couple of seasons off, but we’re back for the 2015-16 NHL season. Stephen Mapes, a diehard Pittsburgh Penguins fan living in California, and Jay Kumar, a long-suffering Toronto Maple Leafs fan living in the Boston area, will be posting regularly throughout the season, providing insight and analysis on the ins and outs of the NHL. For our initial post, we got together to chat about what to expect once the regular season gets underway on Wednesday, Oct. 7.

Jay: Well, we’re back. I have to admit I’m a little distracted right now from the start of the NHL season by the amazing run the Blue Jays have had, but I’m still excited about hockey. What are you looking forward to this season?

Stephen: I feel like every offseason the Penguins front office pulls some voodoo magic to produce an even more amazing line-up then last year, and then we forget how to play hockey in the playoffs. But this year I’m feeling like we’ve got a good balance of forward guns with a workable blue line. Not just thanks to the Phil, but because we managed to keep our younger defense talent like Pouliot and Maata.

So I am looking forward to a Pens team that can score at will, but also can stop goals and not leaving Fleury out to dry and the target of many an angry Yinzer.

sudden death

Jay: I can’t say I feel the same sense of optimism about my Maple Leafs, at least not for the next season or two. The Leafs are in the midst of a major rebuilding effort, having cleaned house after last season’s disaster. They brought in Mike Babcock to coach on a historic 8-year, $50 million contract. They brought in Lou frickin’ Lamoriello as GM. And yeah, they traded Phil Kessel to your Penguins for prospects. This year’s going to be difficult. Babcock says it’s going to take three years to get back to contention through building up high draft picks and young talent. I guess we Leaf fans have to console ourselves with the belief that the reward is down the road. Hey, it’s been 48 years since their last Cup. What’s a few more?

Stephen: If you’re going to put your futures in the hands of anyone, Babcock and Lamoriello are a hell of a team to believe in.

Jay: Big changes ahead this season. The introduction of 3-on-3 overtime for one. What do you think about it?

Stephen: As a hockey fan, I love it. OT hockey is thrilling and hockey lives on the thrill of seeing a puck surge from one end and back. The three man rosters are going to leave room for some exciting set-ups and shots, but also allow goalies to shine. The shootout can be fun too, sure, but it always felt like a cop-out. As a Pens fan, I’ll miss it because we seemed to win so many extra points in the shootout thanks to Crosby and Malkin and Fleury, who is probably good because he practices against Crosby and Malkin. But a three-man force chosen from Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Bonino, Hornqvist, et al is still going to be formidable.

I know you’ve never been a fan of the shootout. So I take it you’re excited?

Jay: Yeah, I like it. I’ve always felt the shootout, while exciting, is the wrong way to resolve a team game. Sure, the 3-on-3 is gimmicky, too, but it should be fun to watch and hopefully will reduce the number of shootouts.

Another change is the coach’s challenge. I know challenges in other sports have had mixed results. What do you think about the NHL adopting it?

Stephen: I think like baseball we’re going to have to wait and see how it goes in the wild. Hockey is such a fast-paced game and as a purist, I love the idea of the hockey gods going against you, be it an iffy goal or an offside that should have been called. But on the other hand, you hate to see games decided by stuff like that, especially in neck-and-neck battles. My hope is it’s going to iron out some of those borderline issues but not break down the flow of the game. I don’t expect to see coaches abusing it, but if they do, it’s going to be a cause of consternation for a lot of long-time fans.

Jay: The manager’s challenge in MLB has been iffy so far. It’s definitely slowed down the game, which is something baseball definitely doesn’t need. It looks like there’s a limited amount of situations NHL coaches can challenge, so hopefully it doesn’t get overused.

Before we get to our look at the teams, any thoughts on the World Cup of Hockey, which will be held next September before the 2016-2017 season? Some interesting teams they’ve added this time around.

Stephen: Yeah, some of the groups are a touch confusing, such as Team North America, which is exclusively the under 23 year olds from Team USA and Team Canada, but I do think the grouping are going to add some much more exciting competition. I think if every tournament boils down to the U.S., Canada, and whichever European countries happen to be on, it’s going to get boring. And unlike the World Cup, hockey seems a little less ideal for producing those Cinderella wild cards. I think it’s going to be a compelling showdown.

Jay: I’ve always enjoyed the international competitions like the World Cup (and its previous incarnation, the Canada Cup) and the Olympics. Players definitely seem to take pride in playing for their countries, moreso than in the other sports. And the talent is so spread out now that pretty much every team is competitive. Not sure about the under-23 and rest of Europe teams, but it should be fun. The last World Cup was in ’04, right before the lockout that wiped out that season.

Stephen: Speaking of under-23s, this season has a LOT of exciting young talent. Thoughts on who to keep an eye on?

Jay: Obviously Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel in Edmonton and Buffalo, respectively, will be interesting to watch as the stud #1 and #2 picks in last summer’s draft. But I’m a big fan of Vladimir Tarasenko of the Blues, who had a breakout season last year. Victor Hedman emerged as a dominant d-man in the Lightning’s run to the finals last year. He could win the Norris this year. Johnny Gaudreau in Calgary had an excellent rookie year and will only get better. And Morgan Rielly on the Leafs could be ready to emerge as a star under Babcock’s tutelage.

Stephen: Agree with you there, and while he’s a bit outside the under-23 group, I’m excited to see how Kadri continues to develop, especially as Kessel’s absence makes him that much more integral to the team. For the Pens, Maata and Pouliot have had exciting starts, and I’m hoping they can continue to develop into rounded defenseman.

Jay: Yeah, this is Kadri’s do or die year. He had a setback last year and was suspended for being late for practice last season; hopefully he comes in with a good attitude. Okay, let’s move on to our conference/division previews and start with the Eastern Conference. Who are your picks to click in the East?

Stephen: I’d be remiss if I didn’t give my Penguins some props, and bias aside, I think they’re poised to do damage. They’ve added depth and the only missing weapons are Martin and Sutter. Last year it was injuries (and some Malkin yips) that sank us, so I think we’ve got a shot. As always Rangers and Bruins are going to be stalwarts, I imagine. But after that, it opens up. Buffalo was a turd of record-setting proportions but with Eichel onboard and Bylsma at the helm, we could be in for some surprises. Philly has made some decent off season moves and could make up for their futility of last season. Then of course there are the Islanders, who always seem so damn close to hitting that elite level thanks to Tavares. Florida has Jagr. Ottawa has the chance to surprise again if the Hamburglar repeats his last season magic. In fact the only teams I don’t like are the Devils, who seem to be mandating AARP memberships to be on the roster, and the Leafs, if only because they are by their own admission rebuilding (sorry, Jay).

Your picks?

Jay: I like the Lightning, who took their game to another level in the playoffs last spring. If Ben Bishop can bounce back from his injury and the young forward corps can keep progressing, they’re going to be dangerous. The Penguins and Rangers have veteran squads—one focused on offense, one on defense, but both want and need to win now. I think the Islanders are ready to finally break through. John Tavares is a special player and he’s going to lead a strong collection of forwards and a solid defense in front of Jaro Halak. I was less impressed with the moves made by the Bruins and I’m not sold on Don Sweeney as GM. Montreal and Washington are also above average teams that could make some noise. Detroit is always dangerous, even without Babcock, and Columbus may contend for playoff spot. I don’t expect any of the other teams in the East, especially the Leafs, to do much this year.

How about the West?

Stephen: God, I still forget Detroit is in the East now. It feels so wrong.

The West is going to be interesting. We have the Hawks coming fresh off the championship, with a few pieces gone but a lot of their major weapons still intact. There’s Dallas, who is looking dangerous coming into the season. The Ducks are always a silent threat, and I do not expect the Kings to be underwhelming two years in a row. There are the Blues too, who look so damn good on paper but seem to have a Sharks-level knack for collapsing in the post-season. Then of course, there are the Sharks, who seems to be reaching the twilight years of the Thornton/Marleau era. Colorado has a developing crop of young guys too that might be surprising. And then there is Connor McDavid on Edmonton, who is the closest thing to a ringer we’ve seen in many a class of rookies. I think it’s going to be a rough year for Vancouver after their recent roster moves, and I’m not sure Calgary is deep enough to repeat last season’s magic. It will be interesting to see where the dust settles after the first few weeks and see if any clear contenders rise.

Jay: The West is a beast. So many good teams. The Ducks and Hawks are probably the two best teams in the league, so you know they’re going to be right up near the top all season. The Patrick Kane alleged rape case has been such a strange distraction; it’ll be interesting to see how he plays with that hanging over his head. The Blues tried to shake things up by trading American Hero T.J. Oshie, but they’ve got a lot to prove that they’re not just perennial playoff chokers. The Kings had to be one of the best teams to ever miss the playoffs; that won’t happen again. Adding Lucic into the mix was smart; he’ll give them some more beef in those battles with Anaheim and Chicago. Dallas should step things up with the addition of Patrick Sharp and Johnny Oduya from your Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks; they’re already got ridiculous offensive upside with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin. Calgary added a big piece in Dougie Hamilton from the Bruins; still can’t believe Boston traded him away. Minnesota’s got a fast and defensively strong team. Nashville has an excellent defensive squad by could use some help up the middle. Winnipeg made some strides last year. And that still leaves teams like San Jose, Edmonton and Colorado fighting for a spot. Always interesting in the West.

Any big predictions? Who’s going to be in the finals?

Stephen: It’s so hard to tell thanks to the depth of both conferences, but I like the Penguins for the East, just because I really think Crosby and Kessel are going to gel into a Jagr/Lemieux-esque nightmare. I give that with the caveat that injuries and shoddy defense don’t become the norm down the stretch. For the West, I think this is the year Anaheim finally gets that deep push they need to challenge in the finals. From there? I think Ducks have the edge, but I really want to see the Pens finally meet expectations for a season. And you best believe if my predictions come true, I will sell any vital organs necessary to get tickets to a Stanley Cup game in Anaheim.

How about you?

Jay: I think this is the year Anaheim finally breaks through to that elite level. I too am excited to watch the Penguins, especially with my boy Kessel playing with Sid and/or Geno and possibly netting 50, but I believe the Lightning are a more complete team than any other in the East. I say Ducks-‘Ning in the finals, with the Ducks prevailing.

Stephen: Fair enough. The Lightning do seem to have a balance that’s missing from a lot of their Eastern compatriots.

Jay: Indeed. Although my predictions are often wrong. Whatever the case, I’m looking forward to seeing how this season plays out and contributing to this very blog with you.

Stephen: Same here! It should be a great season, and hopefully a fun ride for us and whoever comes along via the blog!