A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. Fun time of year for us hockey writers. We have between now and puck drop on the playoffs Wednesday to fill out our awards ballot.
What a difference two weeks of a condensed schedule make. A couple of the trophy races we imagined would burn down to the wick are now forgone conclusions. Give Connor McDavid the Art Ross and Hart. Wrap a bow on Sidney Crosby‘s Rocket Richard.
A couple of the others have gotten tougher. Braden Holtby surpassed Sergei Bobrovsky in wins, increasing his chances of the Vezina (writers don’t vote on that one, but still). Erik Karlsson’s bad-angle goals on one leg and Victor Hedman’s 70-point campaign could well have pulled a few Norris votes out of Brent Burns’ pocket.
That Auston Matthews now leads Patrik Laine in both goals (will he hit ’em with the 40 this weekend?) and points should suck some drama out of the Calder reveal.
But today we pencilled Matthews’ name on our ballot (we order five candidates for each award) for another trophy, too: The Lady Byng.
Consider this questionable knee-on-knee interference from Lightning defenceman Jake Dotchkin Thursday:
The teen sensation was targeted hard in that game — 226-pound Braydon Coburn also launched the rookie into the Lightning net — and yet he never retaliated.
Moreover, he told reporters Friday of the Dotchin play: “That kind of stuff happens. I feel fine… not really that big of a deal.”
Matthews isn’t a wimp. He doesn’t shy from contact or those glorified dirty areas. And, true, the Maple Leafs hired Matt Martin — who challenged Coburn for his 13th fight of the season Thursday — to give the No. 1 pick some protection. (Fun fact: Matthews now uses a shot of him and Martin as his Twitter profile pic.)
No one with more goals than Matthews has fewer penalty minutes than his 14. Only two players with more points have fewer penalty minutes (Vladimir Tarasenko and Mikael Granlund have 12 PIMs each), and they’re both on my ballot, too.
Add Matthews’ turn-the-other-cheek discipline and deflect-the-praise demeanour, and you have an excellent candidate for a trophy that honours sportsmanship mixed with a high level of play.
At least twice we’ve seen him score and thrust a teammate ahead of him in the celebratory glove-tap bench pass. After his four-goal debut he owned up to a defensive mistake. And there was the time he pleaded teammate Josh Leivo be named first star instead of him.
2. If Matthews does exhibit a flash of cockiness publicly (not a bad thing, by the way) it may be in his little wrist-flick goal celebration as he makes his way to the bench and daps his teammates.
We sought out the origins of the dap, which is certainly being mimicked by kids in driveways as you read this.
Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner sit directly across from Matthews on the defencemen’s bank of stalls in the Leafs dressing room. They started doing it with each other as an inside joke a couple seasons ago as a personal joke, and the rookie picked up on it.
“It’s a little bit of an inside thing that me and Jake started doing, then Auston saw us doing it. He likes it,” Rielly explained. “He’d be crying laughing. And now he’s started doing it.”
“Actually saw Gards do it a couple times,” Matthews says. “He’s sneaky with it. So I mimicked him a couple times. Then it became a thing where most of the time we do that.”
Wondering what in the blazes I’m talking about? Watch Matthews’ wrist as he approaches the bench after he scores this goal:
3. Great chat with a rejuvenated Cory Conacher Thursday. The 5-foot-8 (maybe) undrafted forward drew in for the injured Tyler Johnson. After four rocky years, he’s back with the Lightning. In between? Stops in Ottawa, Buffalo, New York, Bridgeport, Utica, Syracuse and Bern.
“Before I went to Switzerland last year I was doubting whether I could play in the NHL. That last year or so leading up to Switzerland was up and down. I wasn’t putting up points in the AHL. That was tough for me. I’ve matured a lot,” Conacher says.
Despite sneaking into the playoffs as an eight seed, Bern upset Matthews’ top-seeded Zurich in Round 1 and went on to capture the Swiss league championship. Conacher scored five playoff goals.
“It solidified that I’m still young. I still have a chance to play in this league. I wanted no regrets. I wanted one more shot,” he says.
So he busted his rear end last summer and earned a gig with Tampa’s farm team. Playing in the AHL this season was frustrating, but with Vegas expanding the league, Conacher, 27, is the type of player who could benefit from the larger job pool. He already has pro offers overseas, but wants to max out his NHL dream.
“It’s important for me to find out what type of player I can be,” Conacher says. “I believe I’m good enough to play in this league.”
Conacher made the most of his downtime in Bern, which routinely draws 17,000 devoted fans for home games. There are no road trips in the Swiss league, but he and his wife travelled to Germany, France, and Italy during breaks in play.
4. One of the go-to arguments when discrediting Olympic participation is that there is no tangible evidence that it converts new fans.
T.J. Sochi vehemently disagrees.
“I’ve met dozens… probably hundreds of people since the Olympics that have told me they didn’t watch hockey until the Olympics. Or they didn’t play hockey until then. Or now they’re playing in a men’s league. Or their kid’s playing now because they watched that [2014 U.S.-Russia] game,” Oshie says.
“For me, I didn’t think about that. I was just playing hockey and trying to win a game. It’s unfortunate that now there’s no chance for that couple hundred—and that’s just [those who approached] me—people that picked up a stick.”
Still in denial that Gary Bettman’s decision is final, Oshie did concede that he’d tune in to see an amateur USA squad try to bring home gold.
“I’d 100 per cent watch it,” Oshie says. “I’d watch every game, but there’s a difference in the pace of the [NHL] game compared to college kids.”
5. Shortly before the Capitals secured their second straight Presidents’ Trophy and the devastating injury to Kris Letang was announced, I got into ye olde playoff-format debate with Oshie.
Loved his response when I suggested Washington avoid the Penguins in Round 1.
“We’re going to have to play them eventually. Honestly, we lost out to Pittsburgh [last spring],” Oshie said.
“I’d relish the opportunity to send them home early. Whatever it is. I think home ice is important, but we’re going to have to play one of those two teams anyway if we’re going to get where we wanna get to.”
6. If you could form a hockey team from scratch right now, you’d have to consider starting with Victor Hedman as your No. 1 defenceman. Either him or Karlsson.
In Thursday’s must-win over Toronto he skated a silly 28:32 and registered three assists to draw within a point of Karlsson’s 71 on the year.
It’s Tampa’s most critical stretch of games, and the pace-controlling D-man has put up 11 points in his past nine games.
“He kinda drives the bus back there. When he’s on, our team’s on,” coach Jon Cooper said. “I have no idea if he’ll be one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy, but I’ll tell ya, in my three or four years coaching this team, a lot of our success is predicated on how Victor’s played. As you’ve seen, we’ve had a lot of team success the past couple years. He’s just a phenomenal athlete.”
7. ‘Tis the season we learn which NHLers will delay their summer vacations to join their national team at the world championship,
a.k.a. the Oilers Bowl. Canada is the tournament’s two-time defending champ.
We know Taylor Hall is out. We know Mark Scheifele, Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon are in. Max Domi has a quiet four-game point streak going — does he suit up again?
Wonder if it would be wise for Hockey Canada to purposely avoid going heavy on NHLers and instead focus on prospective Olympians for this tournament? A chance to them to bond and get more shifts on the big ice.
8. At the risk of dealing out more angry Olympic statements to a fan base that might already have ring fatigue, I thought Kevin Shattenkirk’s mini rant was particularly strong but couldn’t squeeze it into my column on his pending free agency.
So here he is:
“Now they seem to want to use it as a bargaining chip, and that’s wrong. That’s not what the Olympics are for. The reason we started going was so we could grow the game and show the world how great it is when you get the best players in the world playing against each other. I know that’s what they’re trying to achieve with the World Cup, but that’s going to take time. This is right in the prime of it. The last Olympics was fantastic, and to just dismiss it, really without much conversation, is tough.
“A lot of guys here [in the Washington room] went in 2014. That’s why it’s so frustrating. We knew how great of an experience it was. For my family to get over there and watch me play and go to their games and events, that’s something we’ll have forever. The Russian guys were fortunate to have it in their home country; you saw how exciting it was for them. We’d all be foreigners in South Korea, but I think it would be cool to experience that.”
Asked if he’d begrudge an NHL teammate like Alex Ovechkin or Evgeny Kuznetsov for bolting mid-season, Shattenkirk was definitive.
“No. I tip my cap to those guys for doing that,” he said. “That’s something that will cause trouble with your team, but if that’s your sentiment, if that’s how you feel, then absolutely you should honour that and be proud you did it. I definitely wouldn’t hold anything against you.”
9. For every Shattenkirk there is a Nate Schmidt.
The Capitals’ depth defenceman lost his roster spot when Brian MacLellan brought in a shiny, new rental. He never complained.
The affable Red Bull that is Schmidt drew into the lineup last-minute Tuesday in Toronto when John Carlson pulled out midway through warm-ups — and scored a goal.
“The guys were excited for him to score,” coach Barry Trotz said. “He’s one of those ultimate teammates. When you make a deal to bring in a guy like Shattenkirk, Schmidtty is the ultimate teammate and backed off his spot.”
Schmidtty was flying high post-game and told a great story behind his new haircut, given to him without permission by Braden Holtby:
10. Do Lou’s rules apply to playoff beards?
Brian Boyle certainly hopes not. He’d like to let his facial hair grow.
“I never thought I had much of a beard to begin with, but apparently I do,” the newest Maple Leaf said.
Boyle chocks up his Captain Hook look (“That’s how it grows”) to laziness. He’d rather let it flow. After the deadline trade?
“Tried to buzz it up,” Boyle explains. “They said, ‘You gotta take that down [even more].’ ‘OK.’ ”
11. Sunday brings the final game at The Joe. And while we’re perplexed by the schedule makers’ choice of opponent — New Jersey Devils, really? How about Montreal? Or Chicago?! Even Colorado? — we did enjoy cup-of-coffee Red Wing Wendel Clark’s memories of going in there as a Maple Leaf.
“The love-hate of that rivalry,” Clark recalled.
“We always played Friday at Joe and Saturday at home. You never knew which one was going to be the hockey game and which one was going to be the other. Always remember great ice and fans. Even when we did an alumni game, I think in ’06, and it was almost sold out. The fans still hated us. That rivalry, the old Chuck Norris Division rivalry, Toronto-Detroit we had a couple playoff rounds in there as well. A great old building. Big rink, great ice, and the fresh coat of paint he Red Wings always put in the [visitors’] dressing room right before the playoffs started.”
12. Have a few cherished personal memories of the old barn.
The first time I met Gordie Howe and he made a joke and kindly signed an autograph for my dad.
My first Stanley Cup final game, which I attended with my girlfriend, and the Red Wings beat the Penguins that night and the place rocked to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Staying in Windsor with enough buddies to get a group rate and some free plush Zamboni toys. One guy never made it back across the border that night (he’s fine).
But the big one was my first live NHL game as a kid. Me in the back seat of my grandfather’s truck, him holding onto that little handle above the window up front and telling stories. A big, gentle heart who bet on horses, woke up early to take his grandkids out for greasy breakfasts, and the guy who took me to my first real hockey game. Like “Joe,” he too had a friendly, ordinary nickname. Everyone called him Pal.