Of Easter Eve and multiple overtimes

Watching last night’s epic Leafs-Caps double OT classic took me back 30 years to April 18-19, 1987, when the Capitals and Islanders engaged in what became known as the Easter Epic.

I was home from college for the weekend and preparing to make one of my semi-annual appearances in church the following morning. My dad, my brother and I settled in to watch game 7 of the Patrick Division semifinals (aka the first round of the playoffs) at the Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland. The Isles were a few years past their early ’80s run of Stanley Cup dominance, but they still had some of their stars from those teams, including Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy, who were the top two scorers that season. The Caps were a team on the rise after several years of bottom-dwelling, and they had taken a 3-1 lead in the series. The Isles bounced back to tie the series and send it to a decisive seventh game.

The game was broadcast on ESPN with Mike Emrick and Bill Clement handling the announcing duties; all the other series had already been decided. The Capitals were winning 2-1 until Trottier tied it up with five minutes left in regulation and it went to OT. Goalies Bob Mason for the Caps and Kelly Hrudey were outstanding throughout, but especially as the OT periods wore on. The Capitals had a sizable edge in shots, but weren’t able to dent the twine after regulation.

The game started at 7:30 p.m. and rolled on into Easter Sunday. I realized that I needed to get up at 6 a.m., but I wasn’t about to go to bed without seeing how the game ended. Pretty sure my brother bailed at some point, but my dad and I stuck it out. Things were getting loopy as the game moved into the 4th overtime period, as Emrick and Clement were letting their freak flag fly.

Finally at 1:58 a.m., about eight minutes into the 4th OT, Pat Lafontaine spun at the Caps blueline and fired a slapper at the net that somehow found its way past a bunch of players and Mason to win the game and series for the Islanders. I had been rooting for the Capitals, partly because they hadn’t won anything yet and also because a guy from my dorm at UNH, Steve Leach, was now on the team.  But I was also kind of relieved the game was over and I could go to bed. In the end, Hrudey had stopped 73 of 75 shots and Mason made 54 saves. The Islanders moved on to face the Philadelphia Flyers in the next round; the Flyers won the series in seven games and made it all the way to the finals, where they would lose to Wayne Gretzky and Edmonton. I don’t really remember much about going to church later that morning, but I’m sure there was plenty of yawning involved.

The Caps, meanwhile, still haven’t won a Cup, but they played in an even longer game in 1996 vs. the Penguins, when game 4 of the conference finals went to the final minute of the 4th OT before Pittsburgh’s Petr Nedved fired in the winner. I watched that one, too, but by that point, I was living by myself and was able to sleep in the next day.

Thirty years after the Easter Epic, the Leafs and Caps battled in game 2 of their opening round series. It was again a family-centered evening as we went out to dinner with my mother and my brother and his wife, who were in town from Northern Ireland for the holiday. We missed the first period, saw the second and then missed most of the third on the drive home. It was a white-knuckle ride through the OT periods, finally ending in the second OT when Kasperi Kapanen of the Leafs fired home his second of the game for the winner. The game was over not long after 11:30 p.m., so it wasn’t quite an Easter Epic, but it was pretty damn close.

Cold As Ice Playoff Preview: Here We Go!

We’re back on the cusp of the greatest postseason tournament in sports: the NHL playoffs. Everything takes on an air of desperation in the playoffs, making just about every game full of excitement and drama. And it’s a grueling death march to the Stanley Cup, with four best-of-seven rounds required to get to the top of the mountain. Rarely do things play out the way I think they will, but just for chuckles, here are my first-round picks.

Eastern Conference

Washington (1) vs. Toronto (WC2)

The Capitals are a team loaded with weapons that should have won a Cup by now but hasn’t, despite several years of regular season excellence. Led by the great Alex Ovechkin, the Caps boast a potent offense, a solid defense and one of the best goalies in the game in Braden Holtby. After years of early playoff exits, anything short of a Cup is failure for this crew. Meanwhile, you’ve got the upstart Leafs, who featured six rookies in prominent roles including the power trio of Auston Matthews, William Nylander and Mitch Marner. Already not the strongest club defensively, the Leafs saw two of their regular d-men (Nikita Zaitsev and Roman Polak) suffer injuries in the last game of the season and number 1 goalie Frederik Andersen fall victim to a head shot by Pens goon Tom Sestito in the game before. They’re going to need all three to make any headway against Washington, but more than likely, it won’t be enough.

Capitals in 5.

 

Pittsburgh (2) vs. Columbus (3)

These teams don’t like each other. The defending Cup champ Penguins got some bad news last week when their top defenseman Kris Letang was ruled out for the playoffs after undergoing neck surgery. But they’ve still got Crosby, Kessel and a deep selection of offensive weapons, not the least of which is Evgeni Malkin, who is expected to return to the lineup after almost a month. Trade deadline pickups Ron Hainsey and Mark Streit will pick up some of the slack for Letang, but it will take some strong goaltending from Matt Murray to help the Pens go deep into the playoffs. The Blue Jackets had their best season ever, finishing with 108 points, but they stumbled through to the end at a 1-6 clip. Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky has been a beast, but the Jackets will need big contributions from the likes of Cam Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Brandon Saad and Nick Foligno to stand a chance at knocking off the Penguins. Look for John Tortorella’s squad to play a gritty, hard-hitting series to throw the Pens off their game. Pittsburgh has too much weaponry to be stopped, though.

Penguins in 6.

 

Montreal (1) vs. New York Rangers (WC1)

This is going to be a fun series. A true battle of great goalies: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Carey Price. There’s no love lost between the clubs, especially since NY’s Chris Kreider took out Price in the Eastern Conference finals three years ago. Neither team has much of an offensive attack, so look for a lot of low-scoring games and stud d-men Ryan McDonagh and Shea Weber to play major roles in the outcome. Ultimately, Price will come out on top again.

Canadiens in 7.

 

Ottawa (2) vs. Boston (3)

After canning Claude Julien in February, the Bruins turned their season around under assistant Bruce Cassidy. The new coach freed up his offense and the club was re-energized, led by pest-turned-elite-scorer Brad Marchand. The B’s will be put to the test by the trap-happy Senators, who can effectively put both opponents and fans to sleep with their defense-first style. Breaking out of the Ottawa malaise will be crucial if Boston hopes to advance. It won’t be easy, but they’ll do it.

Bruins in 7.

 

Western Conference

Chicago (1) vs. Nashville (WC2)

The Blackhawks are stacked with talent as always and even though they stumbled down the stretch, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to win the Cup. Kane, Toews, Keith and co. will do battle with a dangerous Predators team that’s built to succeed in the postseason. PK Subban had an underwhelming regular season, but all that will be forgotten if he can lead the Preds past the Hawks. It will be tough, but the Hawks will move on.

Blackhawks in 6.

 

Minnesota (2) vs. St. Louis (3)

The focus in this series will be on the coaches as much as the players. First-year Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has famously had strong teams in Washington and Anaheim that flamed out early. Meanwhile, Mike Yeo of St. Louis, who took over midseason from Ken Hitchcock, will be facing his old team. The Wild have a strong all-around team that took a big leap forward this year; the Blues are solid as always, but they won’t have enough to advance.

Wild in 6.

Anaheim (1) vs. Calgary (WC1)

There’s some bad blood between these teams after Calgary captain Mark Giordano took out Ducks d-man Cam Fowler with a knee-on-knee hit last week. The Flames have some strong young talent led by Johnny Gaudreau, but even without Fowler, the Ducks are too much to handle.

Ducks in 5.

 

Edmonton (2) vs. San Jose (3)

This series will essentially be the Young Guns vs. the Old Farts. In his second year, Connor McDavid took his place as the most electrifying player in the NHL, leading the league in scoring and taking over games with his blazing speed and ability. Cam Talbot solidified the Oilers with a 42-win season in goal and veteran pickups like Milan Lucic provided the jam the team had lacked. Meanwhile, the Sharks are ailing, with Joe Thornton and Logan Couture both missing time at the end of the season with injuries. Brent Burns had a monster year and the team still has offensive support from Joe Pavelski and Patrick Marleau, but it’s time for Edmonton’s kids to shine.

Oilers in 6.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Washington over Montreal in 6.

WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL: Chicago over Anaheim in 6.

STANLEY CUP: Washington over Chicago in 7.

CONN SMYTHE WINNER: Ovechkin

 

And while we’re at it, here are Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey’s picks to click in the postseason:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Bruins over Senators in 7: Pastrnak and Marchand come up with key goals as B’s win three games in OT for series win.

Capitals over Maple Leafs in 5: It’s now or never for the best team Alexander Ovechkin has ever played with in the NHL.

Rangers over Canadiens in 5: Henrik Lundqvist outplays Carey Price; Rangers’ physicality is a difference maker, too.

Penguins over Blue Jackets in 5: Injuries aside, the Penguins are built for playoff hockey and will prove it in this round.

EAST FINALCapitals over Rangers in 6

 

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Blackhawks over Predators in 6: I can see Nashville splitting the first four games before the Hawks take charge for good.

Wild over Blues in 4: Minnesota heads into the posteason with a head full of steam…and St. Louis doesn’t have the teeth to respond.

Sharks over Oilers in 7: Jumbo Joe, Patty Marleau & Co. have one last run in them, enough to hold off these young whippersnappers.

Ducks over Flames in 6: Anaheim will not only be battling Calgary, but the stigma that they too often fall flat in the playoffs.

WEST FINALWild over Ducks in 6

STANLEY CUP CHAMPIONS: Wild over Capitals in 6

Conn Smythe Trophy winner: Zach Parise, Wild

The future is now: Leafs are back in the playoffs

When the Toronto Maple Leafs hired Mike Babcock as their high-priced, high-profile head coach in 2015, he warned that there was going to be some pain before the Leafs worked their way back to respectability.

And indeed, his first season behind the bench resulted in a last-place finish as the team unloaded veterans and contracts and loaded up on draft picks, ultimately landing the top pick in the draft courtesy of the lottery. The Leafs drafted much-touted Auston Matthews last June and while he was expected to make the team, not many expected the club to do much this season. Leaf fans were prepared for another year without a postseason appearance; after all, the team had missed the playoffs 10 out of the previous 11 seasons. The one playoff series was in 2013, a heartbreaking seven-game loss to the Bruins.

But Matthews and his merry gang of rookies (including William Nylander, Mitch Marner and Nikita Zaitsev) confounded all expectations and led the Leafs to the second wild card spot in the East. For his part, Matthews appears to have sealed up the Calder Trophy with his strong finish, ending up with 40 goals and 69 points. But he wasn’t the only weapon: Toronto had five players with at least 20 goals and five with 60 points or more. The special teams were strong and Frederik Andersen provided excellent goaltending.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing. The defense can be sloppy at times and the Leafs had a tendency to cough up leads, although that seemed to have been remedied in the last few weeks of the season (until game 82, anyway). That last blown lead was painful, because the Leafs were up 2-0 vs. Columbus in their final game of the season and one point would have secured a higher seed and a first-round playoff series with Ottawa instead of powerhouse Washington.

So now the Leafs head to DC Thursday night to take on Alex Ovechkin and the Caps, who rolled to a league-leading 118 points and are looking to finally get that Stanley Cup that keeps eluding them. The Leafs, who finished with 95 points, are considered major underdogs against one of the best defensive teams in the league. Babcock noted Sunday night that all the pressure is on Washington, and he’s right. Toronto’s expected to lose, but don’t tell the Leafs that. Matthews and the kids are just having a blast and the few veterans (James Van Riemsdyk, Nazem Kadri, Brian Boyle, Leo Komarov, Tyler Bozak) are gearing up for a battle. They’re young, but it would be foolish to look past the Leafs. Because someday soon, it’ll be their time.

Rendez-vous ’87 was hockey at its highest level

International hockey is the focus of some interesting hockey discussions right now. The NHL is still mulling over whether to send players to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, while last fall’s World Cup of Hockey tournament is having a major impact on the current NHL season because of the resulting compressed schedule. But 30 years ago this month, the two-game all-star series known as Rendez-vous ’87 was all anyone was talking about.

At a time when amateurs still played in the Olympics, Rendez-vous was the successor to 1979’s Challenge Cup series, in which a team of NHL all-stars played a squad from the Soviet Union. This time around, there were games on Feb. 11 and 13 in Quebec City, replacing the 1986-87 NHL All-Star Game. To top it off, the games were held in the middle of Quebec’s annual Winter Carnival celebration, which organizer (and Quebec Nordiques president) Marcel Aubut hoped would turn the series into hockey’s version of the Super Bowl. TV coverage on CBC and ESPN brought the games into homes worldwide.

The NHL All-Stars were led by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, while the Soviet National Team featured plenty of future NHLers (we were still two years away from the first Russian player signing with an NHL squad, Sergei Priakhin) including Slava Fetisov, Igor Larionov and Valeri Kamensky.

A fan vote determined the Team NHL starters, which was somewhat controversial because Lemieux got the starting center over Gretzky, despite the Great One having a better statistical season to that point. The team was led by a slew of Edmonton Oilers, who were in the midst of their dynastic ’80s run of five Cups in seven years. In addition to Gretzky and Lemieux in their primes, the team had Mark Messier, Ray Bourque, Jari Kurri, Dale Hawerchuk,  Grant Fuhr and Michel Goulet. The team was coached by Jean Perron, who coached the Montreal Canadiens to the 1985-86 Cup, with assistants Michel Bergeron of Quebec and Bob Johnson of Calgary. The Soviet squad was helmed by the legendary Viktor Tikhonov.

Game 1 went to the NHL All-Stars by a 4-3 score, with Dave Poulin scoring the game-winner late in the third. The Soviets took the second game 5-3, led by Kamensky’s two goals and an assist. Gretzky and Kamensky were named their team’s respective MVPs. But this was no exhibition series. There was hard hitting, spectacular offensive playmaking and stellar goaltending. The series also set the stage for the next Canada Cup tournament, which was held in the fall of 1987 before the NHL season started. The round-robin saw Canada play the Soviet Union in the three-game final series. Each game finished with a 6-5 score: The Soviets won Game 1 in OT, Canada won the second game in double OT (with Lemieux netting a hat trick and Gretzky finishing with five assists) and the clincher was won by Canada thanks to a Gretzky-to-Lemieux play with 1:26 left in regulation.

There have been memorable international series before (1972 Summit Series, 1980 Winter Olympics, 1976 Canada Cup) and after (1987 Canada  Cup, 1996 World Cup, 2002 and 2010 Winter Olympics), but Rendez-vous definitely upped the ante.

Never a dull moment in Bruins-Habs rivalry

There are plenty of great things about hockey, but one of the greatest is the rivalry between the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens. Which is why it was so entertaining this week when the Habs suddenly announced that head coach Michel Therrien was fired and being replaced by Claude Julien, who had been fired by the Bruins last week.

At first, it might seem strange that the first-place Canadiens fired their coach with less than two months left in the regular season, but on closer inspection, it makes sense. For the second straight year, Montreal started the season strong, but has struggled mightily. Last year after reeling off nine straight wins to begin the season, goalie Carey Price strained a knee ligament and the team went off the rails, missing the playoffs. This season, Price is healthy, but Montreal has the worst record in the NHL since January, so GM Marc Bergevin undoubtedly decided not to wait for disaster to strike twice.

Meanwhile, the Bruins were also in the midst of a disappointing season when team brass announced that Julien, the winningest coach in team history, was fired and assistant Bruce Cassidy was taking over. Of course, GM Don Sweeney chose to make the announcement when the Boston area was sky high after the New England Patriots’ amazing Super Bowl win, scheduling the press conference right smack dab in the middle of the Pats’ victory parade. If Sweeney was hoping nobody would notice, he was sorely mistaken; Bruins fans already bummed out by the team’s performance the last few years (the Bruins were blown out in their final game of last season to miss the playoffs) lashed out against the move to depose the well-liked Julien.

If this all sounds like history repeating itself, it is: Julien’s first NHL coaching gig came in 2003, when he was hired to coach Montreal, replacing the fired Therrien. He spent parts of three seasons with Montreal, coached most of the 2006-07 season in New Jersey (where, ironically, he was presiding over another first-place team before being unceremoniously jettisoned with a week left in the season) and then was Boston’s bench boss for the past nine-plus seasons. In addition to winning the most games in Bruins history, Julien also led the team to the Stanley Cup in 2011, breaking a 39-year drought.

It’s a bold move: Montreal management definitely chose to go with a known entity in Julien, but he was the best coach available and will undoubtedly be hungry to turn an underachieving Habs team around. His defense-first style could rankle fans at times, but you can’t argue with the results. And mid-season coaching changes can have big benefits, as we saw with Pittsburgh last season and more recently with the Bruins, who have won three straight since Cassidy stepped in, including an emphatic 4-0 trouncing of Montreal that sealed Therrien’s fate. Still, Bruins fans can’t be thrilled to see their longtime coach get hired by their hated nemesis.

Sadly, the Bruins and Canadiens don’t have any regular season games left against each other, but wouldn’t it be great if they met in the playoffs? Revenge can be quite the motivator.

Which NHLers will ultimately hear the Hall’s call?

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice contributor Phil Stacey takes a hard look at which current NHL players should make the Hockey Hall of Fame someday, and which ones won’t quite make the final cut.

In the NHL right now, there are seven no-doubt-about-it Hall of Famers: Sidney Crosby, Jaromir Jagr, Jarome Iginla, Joe Thornton, Zdeno Chara, Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist. Their credentials are impeccable and can’t be questioned.

But what about all of other terrific talents in the league? How do we separate the wheat from the chaff and decide who ultimately gets a call from the Hall?

It’s a precarious proposition trying to sift through a number of variables. How do you properly measure star players still in the embryonic stages of their careers? Can we count on guys in their playing peak right now to stay at a similar level of excellence? How much of a factor should longevity play into making potential Hall selections?

So the best way to do it is probably break it down by age. Let’s break it down into four sections—35 and Over, plus players ages 30-to-34, 25-to-29 and 24-and-under—and see who deserves to have a weekend where they’re honored on Yonge Street in Toronto.

SHOULD GET IN: 35 AND OVER

Daniel Sedin: Just became the newest member of the league’s 1,000 Point Club and can still dish the biscuit with the very best. Hart Trophy and Art Ross winner as well as Vancouver’s all-time leading scorer.

Henrik Sedin: The lethal scorer/beneficiary of his twin brother’s passing proclivities, he’ll soon be joining his sibling in the 1K Club and also has an Art Ross Trophy on his mantle at home.

Marian Hossa: Has reinvented himself several times with various organizations, but has always brought the goods when comes to getting on the scoresheet (500+ goals, 1,100+ points).

 

NOT GOING TO CUT IT: 35 AND OVER

Roberto Luongo: Quirky and self deprecating while fantastic between the pipes for the bulk of his career. But he never brought home a Cup, so … sorry, Bobby Lou.

Patrick Marleau: He’s been nothing if not consistently … solid. That works well over a span of almost 20 years, but the Hall? Not in this instance.

Shane Doan: Tip o’ the bucket for his legacy in Winnipeg/Arizona, but simply not worthy of being in this conversation.

Henrik Zetterberg: Has never been the best forward on his own team.

Ryan Miller: Having 340+ career wins is nice, but not enough to earn him a spot.

 

SHOULD GET IN: 30-TO-34 YEARS OLD

Duncan Keith: Still a minute munching machine at age 33; those three Cups in Chicago only help his argument.

Patrice Bergeron: Beloved in Boston but also universally recognized for skill, savvy and ability to come through in the clutch.

Brent Burns: Third in the league in scoring at the All-Star break, what he’s doing on the back line as a converted forward has been nothing short of remarkable.

Evgeni Malkin: Repeated time on the sidelines could hurt his candidacy, but there’s no denying his ability or what he’s done with a Hart Trophy, a Conn Smythe and two Cups to his name.

 

SKILLED, BUT ULTIMATELY NOT HALL-WORTHY: 30-TO-34 YEARS OLD

Jonathan Quick: Toughest choice for me was to leave him off. Two otherworldly Cup winning performances, but will injuries ultimately take their toll on the 31-year-old?

Ryan Getzlaf: He makes the Hall of Really, Really Good Players, not the Hall of Fame.

Corey Perry: Like his Anaheim running mate, see above.

Ryan Suter: Great stamina and leadership both in NHL and international hockey, but a tick or two below what it means to reside in the Hall.

Shea Weber: Besides Al MacInnis, what other HOF defender is best known for his booming shot? That alone won’t cut it for Weber.

Joe Pavelski: Captain America moniker fits him perfectly, but resume is lacking for Hall induction.

Rick Nash: Never quite pushed through to the ultra greatness threshold that he should have reached by now.

Thomas Vanek: Could look like the league’s best 1-on-1 player in certain games, but also has disappeared for stretches of his career.

 

LOOKING GOOD TO GET IN: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Patrick Kane: May very well retire as the greatest American-born player of all time.

Jonathan Toews: Outstanding three-zone player and immense leader who captained three Cup winners in six seasons.

Erik Karlsson: Generational talent buried on a bad Ottawa team, but anyone who follows the league knows he’s the best all-around defenseman and offensive pioneer.

 

UPWARD TRAJECTORY GIVES THEM A CHANCE: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Steven Stamkos: Only injury can prevent him from continuing his run of scoring greatness.

Carey Price: He’s not Ken Dryden (who is?), but he’s Montreal’s most important player the best thing between the pipes there since Patrick Roy.

Jamie Benn: Talented playmaker and scorer, effective leader and grittier than you’d expect.

Anze Kopitar: In the Bergeron/Toews mold in that his stats might not jump off the page, but his valuable exceeds mere numbers.

Victor Hedman: Has matured into a beast of a blueliner with size, strength and skill.

John Tavares: Great player in a terrible organization needs a chance to flourish elsewhere while he’s still young.

Vladimir Tarasenko: Might be a reach, but early indications are promising for this rocket-shot scoring star in the Midwest.

 

SKILLED, BUT PROBABLY NOT HALL-WORTHY: 25-TO-29 YEARS OLD

Phil Kessel: Too streaky, and his days as an elite scorer are nearing the end.

P.K. Subban: Fun, flashy and owner of a cannon shot—but will he ever fulfill his true potential?

Claude Giroux: Better version of a former Flyers captain (Mike Richards) with resolve for days on end, but often a healthy scratch for Team Canada in big games.

Nicklas Backstrom: Skilled passer has obviously benefited from playing with Ovechkin, but are his accomplishments on their own Hall-worthy? No.

 

EARLY FAVORITES FROM THE 24-AND-UNDER CROWD

Connor McDavid: Runs neck-and-neck with Ovechkin for title of NHL’s Most Exciting Player. Talent up the wazoo.

Tyler Seguin: More than living up to the expectations of a No. 2 overall pick; talented marksman will continue to get better.

Jack Eichel: Sky is the limit for this 20-year-old wunderkind; if he can ever bring a Cup to Buffalo, he’ll be a shoo-in.

Johnny Gaudreau: A human shot of adrenaline who can fly and fire the puck in a blur of amazement.

Auston Matthews: How many other Hall of Famers began their NHL careers with a 4-goal game? He’s just scratching at the surface of his immense potential.

 

Halfway there: A look at the NHL’s first half

The NHL has a few days to go until the four-day All-Star break. With the league a little more than halfway through the regular season, it’s a good time to check in with a roundup of some of the biggest stories in the game so far.

Midyear leaders: In the East, Washington, Columbus (!), Pittsburgh and Montreal are solidly in playoff position, with the Rangers fairly locked into the first Wild Card spot. But the rest of the East is in the hunt for the postseason right now. Ottawa and Toronto are currently sitting in the second and third Atlantic Division spots, but Boston, Florida, Detroit, Buffalo and Tampa Bay are all within six points of the Leafs. The Flyers are sitting in the second Wild Card, but again, only five points separate them from last place in the conference. The West, as usual, has a lot of powerful teams, but they’re not the ones you expect: Sure, Chicago and San Jose are in the mix, but Minnesota, Anaheim and Edmonton are all having strong seasons so far. Nashville, St. Louis and Calgary are all in playoff spots at this writing, but Vancouver, Los Angeles, Winnipeg and Dallas are all in contention. Arizona and Colorado, however, are way out of the picture.

Scoring: Connor McDavid is living up to the hype that made him the consensus #1 pick in 2015. After an injury-shortened rookie year, McDavid currently leads the league in scoring, albeit narrowly over the Penguins’ dynamic duo of Sid Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. San Jose’s Brent Burns is having a huge year by scoring at a point-a-game pace as a defenseman, which is unheard of these days. In the goals race, Crosby leads with 28, followed by Jeff Carter with 24, Cam Atkinson with 23 and Malkin, Alex Ovechkin and Leafs super-rookie Auston Matthews with 22.  McDavid leads the league with 40 assists, followed by Nicklas Backstrom with 34 and Patrick Kane with 33. For the netminders, Devan Dubnyk of the Wild leads in GAA with 1.91 and save percentage with .935, while Sergei Bobrovsky of Columbus has 28 wins and Braden Holtby of the Caps has the most shutouts with 6.

Freaky streaky: There has been some serious streaking going on so far this year. Philadelphia reeled off 10 straight into mid-December. After a tough start to the season, the Blue Jackets caught fire and won 16 straight between Nov. 29 and Jan. 3, riding the hot goaltending of Bobrovsky and receiving timely offense from Atkinson, Alexander Wennberg, Nick Foligno, Brandon Saad and Sam Gagner. Along the way, the Jackets ended Minnesota’s 12-game streak. In the end, the Jackets fell a game short of the record of 17 set by Pittsburgh in 1992-93; they lost to Washington, which has been the hottest team in the league since.

Bye bye week: The New Year brought a new concept to the NHL: the bye week. Because of the compressed schedule this season due to the World Cup of Hockey last fall, every team will take a league-mandated five-day break: no games, no practices, no nothing. The bye weeks were negotiated by the NHL Players Association to give players a break before the playoff stretch run. How the week will affect teams in the hunt remains to be seen, although it hasn’t seemed to hurt the teams that have already taken the mini-vacation (Pittsburgh, Rangers, Islanders, Toronto, Ottawa, Philly, Arizona, Colorado…okay, the last two are continuing their awful play).

Golden child: Well, it became official in November: The newest NHL franchise will be called the Vegas Golden Knights. The team starts play next fall, but the NHL.com shop already has an assortment of Golden Knights merch for sale (although no jerseys yet). Not exactly sure what a golden knight is, but the logo’s decent. The other 30 teams are already casting an eye towards the expansion draft in June in terms of which players they’ll protect and who they’ll expose to possibly become members of the inaugural major pro team in Las Vegas.

Sidney Crosby: No longer the Kid, but still the best

There’s been a lot of talk about the wealth of young talent in the NHL this season, as the likes of Patrik Laine, Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner light up the scoresheet with regularity. But lest we get too excited about the youngsters, best to remember that the top player in the game has been around for over a decade. Yep, Sid the Kid is now Sid the Man.

It’s not like Sidney Crosby has spent the last several years in a cave, but he’s been overshadowed by the likes of Patrick Kane and Alex Ovechkin. But leading his Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup last spring seemed to restore Crosby to his former glory. And he’s off to an explosive start this season, with 21 goals in 26 games; he’s on pace to score 61.

Expectations have been high for Crosby since he was a teenager. He led the Penguins to the Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, winning in the latter to mark the team’s first championship since the early ’90s with Lemieux and Jagr. He racked up plenty of awards and accolades along the way, including scoring the gold-medal winning goal for Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics. His fiery style isn’t without its detractors; some say he’s whiny, and he definitely has a way of getting under the skin of opponents.

It’s easy to forget that Crosby was on a similar tear in 2010-11 with 66 points in 41 games when he sustained a serious concussion in the Winter Classic and was forced to take the rest of the season off. He only played 22 games the following season and then 36 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season before he took a slapshot to the mouth and broke his jaw; he missed over a month before returning in the playoffs. The following season, he led the league in scoring with 104 points, proving he was back after a few years of uncertainty.

Last season, the Penguins were in disarray at midseason. Coach Mike Johnston was fired in early December and some (including this NY Post columnist) were calling Crosby a coach-killer and malcontent. Mike Sullivan took over and the Pens turned their season around, defeating the Rangers, regular season champs Washington, Tampa Bay and the San Jose Sharks to win the Cup. Crosby was named playoff MVP, although Phil Kessel might have had a better postseason. Still, Crosby was vindicated after years of disappointment following the 2009 Cup win. Nothing answers back at your critics like winning.

Now Sid is back at it, seemingly scoring at will and leading a Penguins team that has the second-best record in the league. And while he’s no longer the Kid, he’s only 28. There could be a lot of years left for Crosby to continue making his mark.

The kids are alright: NHL’s youth movement is paying off

If there’s one thing we’ve learned so far in this NHL season, it’s that Whitney Houston was right: The children are our future.

Whereas once upon a time, NHL teams relied on face-punchers and journeyman grinders to populate their third and fourth lines, now they’re increasingly turning to the prospects they once used as trade bait and minor league fodder. And clubs that once thought spending big bucks on veteran free agents was the path to victory are stockpiling draft picks and going with young talent instead.

Of course, you can’t just call up a bunch of teenagers and expect immediate success. See the Edmonton Oilers of the last several years. Without good management and the ability to mix good young talent with veterans, youngster-laden teams can be fairly ineffective.

But this season, it seems there is a glut of young talent making an impression. It started in September during the World Cup of Hockey when Team North America’s collection of 23-and-unders took the tournament by storm with their up-tempo and exuberant play. The last two #1 draft picks, Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Toronto’s Auston Matthews, played on a line together and formed a potent one-two combination.

McDavid has continued his strong play into the regular season and is currently the NHL’s leading scorer with 29 points. The Oilers got off to a strong start and still lead the Pacific Division, although things have tightened up considerably in the last few weeks. Despite unloading the likes of Taylor Hall to the Devils in the offseason, Edmonton is still loaded with young guns like Jordan Eberle, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Darnell Nurse.

Another organization looking to turn around its fortunes is the Toronto Maple Leafs. With its Stanley Cup drought closing in on 50 years, the Leafs have given up the ill-advised free agent signings of years past and turned to a youth movement. Part of that meant shedding high-priced veterans and free agents and loading up on draft picks. The plan has been in the works for a few years now after Brendan Shanahan took over the reins. Last year, the Leafs essentially tanked the season and won the top pick in the draft: Matthews. But Auston of Arizona isn’t the only weapon the Leafs have. There’s the electrifying Mitch Marner, William Nylander, Morgan Rielly, Nikita Zaitsev, Connor Brown, Zach Hyman and more on the farm (Jeremy Bracco, Kerby Rychel, Kasperi Kapanen). The Leafs are young and impetuous and are still erratic and defensively challenged, but they’ve been exciting to watch on most nights and they’re on the periphery of a playoff spot.

But that’s just scratching the surface of the potentially great NHL youth. There’s forwards like Jack Eichel of the Sabres, Dylan Larkin of the Wings, Patrik Laine and Mark Scheifele of Winnipeg, Aleksander Barkov of Florida, Nathan MacKinnon of the Avs, Tampa’s Jonathan Drouin and Nikita Kucherov, Alex Galchenyuk of Montreal, Filip Forsberg of Nashville, David Pastrnak of the Bruins, Max Domi of Phoenix and Johnny Gaudreau of Calgary. On the defensive end, you have d-men Aaron Ekblad of the Panthers, Shane Gostisbehere of Philly, Colton Parayko of the Blues, Seth Jones of Columbus, Jacob Trouba of Winnipeg and Noah Hanifin of Carolina and goalies John Gibson of the Ducks, Matt Murray of Pittsburgh and Connor Hellebuyck of the Jets.

The future is bright for the NHL, now that young stars are allowed to shine with more regularity.

NHL 2016-17 Season Preview, Part Deux: Here we go!

Editor’s note: Cold As Ice head honcho Jay Kumar previews the new NHL season.

Two weeks ago, Canada won the 2016 World Cup of Hockey by sweeping the two-game final series over Europe in dramatic fashion, with two goals in the last three minutes of game 2. And with that, the Canadians celebrated and then went to join their respective NHL team training camps. The tournament of stars is over. It’s time for the 82-game grind to begin. On to the 2016-17 season!

Four months after the Pittsburgh Penguins hoisted the Stanley Cup, a new season means a clean slate and new opportunities for the NHL’s 30 clubs. There was a lot of player movement in the offseason, some huge trades and plenty of free agent signings. Subban for Weber. Lucic to the Oilers, Okposo to the Sabres, Backes to the Bruins. Some teams made big moves by holding onto their assets; Tampa was able to re-sign Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevsky and just this week, last season’s leading scorer Nikita Kucherov.

There are also injuries to major players to start the season. None more major than Sidney Crosby, who just came off a huge year in which he re-established himself as the league’s premier forward with MVP performances in the playoffs and then the World Cup. This week, it came out that Crosby sustained a concussion in practice last Friday and will be out indefinitely. Definitely a tough blow for a guy who had serious concussion issues several seasons ago. Yesterday, Sabres wunderkind Jack Eichel had to be helped off the ice after he went down in practice with a high ankle sprain. In addition, the Panthers lost key forward Jonathan Huberdeau to a leg laceration and Nick Bjugstad to a broken hand. Kings forward Marian Gaborik suffered a broken foot in the World Cup. Islanders forward Mikhail Grabovski is out with a concussion and Jaden Schwartz of the Blues is out with an elbow injury.

Hope springs eternal, but only 16 teams will make the postseason. Let’s break it down a bit.

Eastern Conference

The elite

Washington

For all their postseason failings, the Caps are stacked with talent. Between Ovechkin, Backstrom and Holtby, the feeling has to be the time is now.

Pittsburgh

The Crosby injury has to hurt, especially given how unpredictable concussions can be. Still, the Pens are loaded with the likes of Kessel, Malkin, Letang, et al. They’ve got more than enough to be a force until Sid the Kid returns.

Tampa Bay

As mentioned earlier, the Lightning were able to keep a deep, contending and still young team intact. Steve Yzerman has built a club that could be around when all is said and done next spring.

Above average

Florida

While the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr keeps chugging along, he distracts everyone from the terrific young team in Florida. Tons of talent and yeah, a few major injuries, but a team that has a great future and possibly a great present.

New York Rangers

Time is running out for King Henrik and his quest for the Cup. The Rangers got a little younger by adding former Sens top pick Mika Zibanejad and landing coveted college free agent Jimmy Vesey, but there are still plenty of holes to fill.

 

Squeaking in

Philadelphia

The Flyers have some nice pieces in captain Claude Giroux, scorers Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds and sophomore defense sensation Shane Gostisbehere, but GM Ron Hextall still hasn’t addressed the team’s glaring weakness (one that has been the problem in Philly since Hextall was between the pipes): goaltending. There have been flashes over the years, but Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth don’t exactly strike fear in opposing shooters.

New York Islanders

The Isles have one of the league’s great young leaders in John Tavares, but they lost some depth when Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen departed as free agents. P.A. Parenteau was signed as a free agent but surprisingly released on waivers this week and claimed by the Devils; the team is hoping youngsters Mathew Barzal and Anthony Beauviller can step in. Netminder Jaroslav Halak had a strong World Cup, but the Isles D is looking a tad thin.

Detroit

The post-Datsyuk era has begun, as the Wings mainstay decided to go home to Russia. The team still has its usual quota of speedy forwards, but there are concerns about an older D corps and the dependability of keepers Jimmy Howard and Petr Mrazek.

Not this year

Boston, Buffalo, Carolina, Columbus, Montreal, New Jersey, Ottawa, Toronto

 

Western Conference

The elite

Nashville

The perennially disappointed Preds pulled off a shocking blockbuster trade in the offseason, dealing mainstay d-man Shea Weber to Montreal for P.K.  Subban. The flamboyant Subban gives Nashville a younger, electrifying leader with a more reasonable contract. The Preds are hoping he’s the last piece of the puzzle. The likes of forwards Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and James Neal, stud defenseman Roman Josi and goalie Pekka Rinne should be tough to beat.

Dallas

The Stars are an exciting team, with offense to spare from guys like Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, Jason Spezza and Patrick Sharp. If they can play a modicum of defense and get some good goaltending from Antti Niemi, Dallas may just survive the brutal Western Conference playoff gauntlet.

Chicago

What can you say about the Hawks? Simply the best team in the league over the last seven years, with three Cups in that span, Chicago is looking to rebound after a disappointing first-round loss to St. Louis last spring. Still loaded to the brim with sick talent (Kane, Toews, Panarin, Hossa) and replenished with six rookies on the opening night roster, it’d be foolish to disregard this always-dangerous team.

Above average

San Jose

The Sharks finally broke through to the Cup finals after years of early playoff exits, but it wasn’t enough to beat the speedy Penguins. They’ve got lots of talent, but they’re also a pretty old team. Will Jumbo Joe Thornton and crew have enough to make another Cup run?

Los Angeles

Like the Blackhawks, LA has been another consistently excellent team for the last several years. They’ll make the playoffs and make another run, although goalie Jonathan Quick’s recent decline could be of concern.

St. Louis

The Blues are yet another deep West squad that has yet to break through into a true Cup contender. Goaltending has been an annual problem that hasn’t really been addressed, but the club is hoping Jake Allen can take the next step (especially after dealing former #1 Brian Elliott to the Flames).

Squeaking in

Minnesota

After some playoff bumps in the road, the Wild are hoping new coach Bruce Boudreau can ignite the team’s offense and do some damage. The team has plenty of quality players—Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Eric Staal, Devan Dubnyk, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund and Teemu Pulkkinen (just plucked off the waiver wire from the Red Wings)—but the West is full of challenges.

Anaheim

The Ducks are yet another Western club that has felt playoff disappointment regularly in the last several seasons (after winning the Cup in 2007). In the offseason, coach Bruce Boudreau was canned and curiously replaced by former coach Randy Carlyle, most recently experiencing abject failure in Toronto. The team also opted to dish goalie Fredrik Andersen to the Leafs for Jonathan Bernier, who will back up John Gibson. Plenty of weapons in Getzlaf, Perry, Silfverberg et al., but don’t expect Anaheim to get much further than they did last season.

 

Not this year

Arizona, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton, Vancouver, Winnipeg

 

Predictions:

East: Lightning over Capitals

West: Predators over Stars

Stanley Cup: Tampa Bay

Hart (MVP): Alex Ovechkin

Art Ross (leading scorer): Patrick Kane

Norris (best defenseman): Victor Hedman

Vezina (best goalie): Cory Schneider

Calder (best rookie): Auston Matthews

Selke (best defensive forward): Patrice Bergeron

Adams (best coach): Jon Cooper