NHL Returns – Puck drops on a new season
Y esterday, the 2013-14 NHL season began with an almighty bang, a distinct lack of defence from the teams involved and most importantly, the chants of faithful fans, emerging from their summer stupor in legions and bathing in the chance to see their teams on the ice again.
This post reflects on the thrilling match-ups from opening night. At the Bell Centre, historic foes Toronto and Montreal clashed in a feast of goals. Meanwhile in Chicago, the Blackhawks raised their Stanley Cup banner before battling the Washington Capitals and last but not least, two Canadian teams looking to improve on disappointing campaigns last year faced-off in Edmonton; new Oil head coach Dallas Eakins’ first regular season game in charge was the visit of the Winnipeg Jets.
Toronto Maple Leafs @ Montreal Canadiens
Heading into this opening-night contest, the question marks hovering over the Canadiens concerned whether they had enough physical edge to complement their diminutive offensive stars. Despite having a wealth of quality in terms of Pacioretty, Desharnais, Eller, Subban and players coming off impressive rookie years including Gallagher and Galchenyuk, many thought they would add a degree of toughness to their roster. Disappointingly, acquiring George Parros from Florida was the only move in this department.
The Maple Leafs’ off-season manifested itself in overpaying for free agents, nevertheless the additions of David Clarkson and the trade for Dave Bolland makes them stronger as a unit (though the former served the first of his 10-game ban yesterday, handed out for joining a fight from the bench against the Sabres in preseason). Tying up stars Phil Kessel and Nazem Kadri to contracts also creates a base for a good campaign, even if their depth lines look a little weak in terms of skill. Toronto have had a great record at the Bell Centre in recent times and looked to continue that form kicking off the new season.
James Reimer, starting ahead of Jonathan Bernier, outlined his credentials early in the first period, making several smart saves to keep a free-flowing Montreal at bay. The Maple Leafs then took the lead after eight minutes, making the most of a 5-on-3 opportunity. James Van Reimsdyk poking the puck home following nice rotation in the zone from Phil Kessel. With just over ten minutes gone, the Canadiens levelled the score, Lars Eller tucking away the puck after a nice pass from Raphael Diaz. Eller then turned provider, switching the puck to Brendan Gallagher, who fired a shot short-side to give Montreal a 2-1 lead.
The second period belonged to Toronto. First Nazem Kadri burst through the neutral zone and found Dion Phaneuf in space, who blasted a wrist-shot past Carey Price. Then Tyler Bozak stole the puck from Markov and raced away before placing an effort high stick-side to make the score 3-2.
Mason Raymond put the game away in the third period. With play developing into a 2-on-1, the former Canuck attempted to feed Dave Bolland but had the puck blocked back into his path, making no mistake he neatly tucked it past Price. Although the Canadiens fought until the end, Lars Eller adding their third after a blistering move past defencemen Jake Gardiner, the Leafs held on for the 4-3 victory. On a rather sombre note, George Parros crashed sickeningly to the ice during a fight with Colton Orr in the third, landing face-first and suffering a concussion; an event which marred both the atmosphere and result.
Although James Reimer, who made 37 saves for Toronto and Lars Eller, who was simply terrific for Montreal, scoring two goals and adding an assist are both worthy, the star performer for me was Mason Raymond. The player acquired from free-agency may seem like a curious choice, having always been accused of flittering around the edges of a game in Vancouver. I thought he was exceptional last night, his wonderful skating ability, energy and pass selection causing match-up problems whenever he was on the ice. The icing (no pun intended) on the cake was his goal of course, the eventual game-winner.
Washington Capitals @ Chicago Blackhawks
For the Chicago Blackhawks, the summer was filled with using the Stanley Cup to photo-bomb as many pictures as possible, showing off their rings and generally joying in the acclaim of their victory in June. Despite losing solid depth members from their roster including Dave Bolland, Viktor Stalberg and Michael Frolik, all of the usual suspects remain (Toews, Sharp, Hossa, Keith, Seabrook) and with regard to forward Patrick Kane, they have a player hitting his superstar prime. They also have an array of youngsters forming an excellent transition for the franchise, with Brandon Saad the foremost pretender. Before puck-drop against the Capitals, fans at the United Centre were treated to the raising of the ‘Stanley Cup Champions’ banner and the Hawks knew they would have to defy the stats, with only one of the previous five cup winners winning their first game of the next season.
For Washington, the off-season was a fairly quiet affair, though a change in style may be occurring in D.C. Some of their smaller skilful playmakers have been allowed to depart across recent years, and on Sunday, Mathieu Perreault was traded to the Ducks, in favour of a more physical approach. This may be a response to their horrific postseason record, following impressive regular stats, and Adam Oates’ desire to establish a ‘hard to beat’ mentality within the team. One excellent free-agency acquisition was that of former-Maple Leaf Mikhail Grabovski, who was sinfully underrated in Toronto and played out of his preferred position in his final year. With Alex Ovechkin still providing that extra level of talent, they headed to Chicago with plenty of confidence.
It took just over four minutes for the Hawks to get up and running this season, Brandon Bollig pouncing on a rebound off Holtby in net and flashing the puck home. In a game where neither team could ever exert control, the Capitals were level on the power-play, Grabovski sliding the puck through the crease to Ovechkin, who slammed a vicious wrist-shot past Corey Crawford. Chicago had soon retaken the lead, Patrick Kane controlling a falling puck after a good rush from Nick Leddy and hitting the net to make it 2-1.
Moving into the second period the chaos continued, the Capitals with great pressure in their defensive zone and Grabovski advancing into a 2-on-1. He froze Crawford with a bullet of a shot stick-side and levelled the score once again. The Hawks re-established their lead on the power-play, Brent Seabrook closing down the offensive zone and burying a loose puck.
In a replica of the previous period, the Capitals made it 3-3 on a power-play at the start of the third, Mikhail Grabovski beating an unsighted Crawford for his second, before doing it again four minutes later for the first Washington lead and a hat-trick. A lovely goal from Brandon Saad tied the game at 4 apiece, bursting into the offensive zone, finding veteran Michael Handzus who found the perfect pass back to the youngster to tip home.
The Hawks won the game on a goal Holtby would love to have back, defenceman Johnny Oduya jumping into the rush, firing a off-target shot that slithered through Caps goaltender’s glove and into the net. With 40 seconds left, Marian Hossa added an empty net goal via a penalty and Corey Crawford made some outstanding saves to seal a 6-4 victory.
This was a simple decision, despite Brandon Saad’s three-point night and general performance. My star performer was Mikhail Grabovski, a player who looks as though he has a point to prove, and yesterday had four points which included a hat-trick. His overall play was great against the defending champions, though he was a little too lax defensively on occasion.
Winnipeg Jets @ Edmonton Oilers
For the Oilers, the off-season was dominated by the ‘Ales Hemsky story’, would the franchise trade him away or not (he stayed in case you don’t know), and the introduction of new coach Dallas Eakins, for whom this job is his first at the NHL level following his time in charge of the Toronto Marlies and most recently, the controversy over offering tough but ‘limited’ winger Luke Gazdic a regular fourth-line spot. Edmonton have also moved to the Pacific Division this year, bringing a fresh wave of optimism (though I use that phrase sparingly having spoken to several Oilers fans). The Oilers also picked up Andrew Ference and David Perron across the summer, who each offer NHL quality.
The Jets had an atrocious preseason, winning once in eight games but picked up useful free-agent Michael Frolik from the Blackhawks and as with their opponents yesterday, the future is looking bright with the emergence of rookies Mark Scheifele and Jacob Trouba, the 12th pick overall in the 2012 draft. In terms of history, these two teams had last met in February 2012 and the
Jets first game as a reborn franchise was against Edmonton.
In a rather ironic twist, a player lauded as simply a pair of fists on skates Luke Gazdic opened the scoring for the Oilers at Rexall Place, somehow back-handing the puck past Ondrej Pavelec from an impossibly tight angle after two minutes. The Jets were soon level however, youngster Mark Scheifele rifling a shot past a rooted Devan Dubnyk to score. With just over three minutes remaining in the first period, Winnipeg took the lead. Bryan Little carrying the puck into the offensive zone, past a disorganised defence and fired top-shelf for a 2-1 advantage. Edmonton tied up the game before the break, great net-front presence from Boyd Gordon, tipping home Justin Schultz’s effort from the point.
The Oilers retook the lead in the second period through a stunning Ales Hemsky goal; twirling and undressing the Jets’ defence before a cannon of a wrist-shot into the top corner. The score was 4-2 soon after, free-agent acquisition Jesse Joensuu scrapping in front of the net to score after a nice shot from David Perron caused problems for Pavelec. The Jets made it 4-3 before the close of the period, new-boy Michael Frolik firing through a crowd to beat Dubnyk short-side.
The third period arrived to provide a snapshot moment in the game and Jacob Trouba’s career. A horrendous pass from Taylor Hall stolen by the NHL debutant, who burst through the neutral zone and unleashed a venomous shot which beat a motionless Dubnyk. The equaliser and killing off a penalty galvanised Winnipeg, who got the game-winner with five minutes left. A lovely reverse pass from Eric Tangradi, poked home by an unmarked Michael Frolik. Jets had the away 5-4 win.
Who am I to take away from the best night of Jacob Trouba’s life to date, his first NHL goal and assist, together with a plus-2 rating are enough to secure star performer. What impressed me most about the youngster’s play was his reading of the situation and sharp anticipation under pressure; great debut. Michael Frolik also deserves a mention for his nice production first time out for the Jets and Jesse Joensuu was a big surprise, bringing both good composure and physicality to the Oilers.
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