A quick mix of the things we gleaned from the week of hockey, serious and less so, and rolling four lines deep.
1. Before Ryan Reaves slid on Hockey Night in Canada‘s “After Hours” last month and unveiled his homemade Phil Kessel Thriller T-shirt — a sartorial, satirical eureka that Photoshop-mashes American icons Phil and Michael in their primes — he wore it on the Pittsburgh Penguins team plane for Kessel to see.
“He was laughing. He called me an idiot about 10 times,” recalled Reaves, a grin stretching like the tattoos on his expansive forearms. “He got a good laugh out of it.”
Reaves sent his mom the source image and asked her to go to one of those shirt-pressing spots in Winnipeg before the Penguins touched down to play Reaves’ hometown Jets.
“I wanted to throw something on there. She made it for me, and I wore it for our West Coast swing,” Reaves says. “It’s appeared in a couple of soccer warmups. It wasn’t the best quality, so it shrunk a little bit. I gotta make another one, maybe make a few more different ones.”
After wearing the tee on national TV opposite Scott Oake, Reaves said he’s been flooded with requests for more Phil the Thriller garb. He considered spinning it off into a side business, but his idea got swiped too fast. Christmas is nigh.
The shirts are now being sold through a few online outlets, including Amazon.com, Mom.
“Someone else jumped on it and they’re selling them right now. They beat me to it,” Reaves shrugged. “I don’t have time to start pressing shirts.”
2. I asked Reaves to pinpoint the biggest difference between playing on the Penguins as opposed to the St. Louis Blues, the only other NHL club he’s known. He gave me three.
I. Defensive-zone structure. Pittsburgh places more of an emphasis on man-on-man D than St. Louis.
II. Speed. “This team is faster,” Reaves said, “likes to push the pace more.”
III. Confidence. “This team just knows they’re champions for a reason. They’re always in the game; they’re never out. Whether you’re going into a period down 4-1 or up 4-1, you know you’re always in the game,” Reaves explained. “With the talent this team has, everyone believes we can come back because there’s a lot of firepower here.”
“We hold ourselves to a high standard, so it’s tough when we’re not winning and playing our best,” the defenceman said. But the Penguins have lost as many as they’ve won: 17. “There’s certainly a drive and a confidence with this group that we should win every night. That’s what we feel.”
3. For the second straight season, the Penguins were the NHL’s top trending team on Google in 2017, the search engine announced. Captain and Conn Smythe champ Sidney Crosby was the top trending player for the second straight year. These results, however, are U.S.-based.
The Ottawa Senators, Canada’s last playoff club standing and a constant source of rumours and debate, ranked as Google Canada’s top-searched sports team.
For those scoring at home, Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor were Canada’s most-Googled athletes. Ryan Shazier, Georges St.-Pierre, Denis Shapovalov, Serge Ibaka, and Sergio Garcia also garnered higher 2017 Google rankings than Drouin and Duchene, the only NHLers in the top 10.
“It can get a bit lonely at times when you’re hurt. You’re on a different schedule than the whole team, so you don’t see them as much,” Murray said. “It feels good to be back.”
Murray, 23, watched and re-watched the clip of Flyers forward Jakub Voracek crashing into him on a breakaway:
“The ice kinda just blew up underneath his skates,” said Murray, defending the man who injured him. “No intent there. He’s a fast skater, so when he’s coming in hot like that, a collision can be bad.”
Murray explained there is no way he could’ve braced himself for impact because he had to play the puck and keep his eyes on a shot.
5. Inexperienced backup Tristan Jarry, a prized prospect in the Penguins system, has appeared in 10 games (5-2-2) out of necessity, but coach Mike Sullivan believes the cameo will do wonders for the 22-year-old’s confidence and development. Most NHL teams don’t dress one solid goalie under the age of 24. The Pens have two.
“We’re fortunate to have these guys in our organization,” said Sullivan, with a nod to Pittsburgh’s scouting staff.
“It’s a different challenge when you’re playing on a contending team that plays in high-stakes environments, and a lot of times there’s a fine line between winning and losing. A lot of times, that timely save can be the difference.”
Murray said Jarry (.919 save percentage) was clutch in keeping an uneven Penguins team in the playoff mix during his absence.
“It’s no surprise,” Murray said. “He’s a great goalie. He has a great mind-set, so he’s stepped up and is doing a great job. I think he’s stolen a couple games for us. He’s made all the saves he needs to, and then some. He’s been stellar.”
Enough to make us block out that misguided Antti Niemi experiment.
6. The greatest stat of Chris Neil’s career might not be the 1,026 NHL games played — the hard way. It might be the zero suspensions over the course of that 19-year pro journey in which he straddled on the line.
If you’re around the game for a while, you end up rooting for certain guys more than certain teams. I had a co-op placement in journalism school that involved covering the North Bay Centennials in 1999. Their best player was Neil.
It felt like any given night there was a better chance he’d get a Gordie Howe hat trick than not. The talk of the town finished that season with 46 goals, 26 points and 215 penalty minutes in 66 games.
Darcy Tucker delivered a timely tweet upon the announcement of Neil’s retirement Thursday:
— Darcy Tucker (@16DarcyTucker) December 14, 2017
7. The Calgary Flames have lost slightly more faceoffs than they’ve won, but you won’t hear coach Glen Gulutzan complaining. His group has actually improved slightly in the circle since the NHL cracked down on encroachment.
“It does take away some of the competitiveness,” Gulutzan said, “but it’s taken away the rugby-style faceoff where everything is tied up and locked down and scrum it out. What it has done is, it’s created more offence, more clean wins. If that’s the intention as far as safety for the officials, I think it’s had that effect.”
Gulutzan isn’t the only one who’s noticed that once one centre gets kicked out of a draw, the second man is extra cautious for fear of taking a two-minute violation penalty.
“Every club probably got stung with one early, so the second guy coming in is real passive,” he said. “They try to win, but they don’t cheat whatsoever, because they don’t want to get the jump and go down two. You don’t want the penalty, right?”
These small details can impact outcomes. When Toronto’s Patrick Marleau was tossed for a draw in Philadelphia Tuesday, winger Zach Hyman lost it, and the Flyers scored off the winning faceoff. Leafs coach Mike Babcock let the linesman hear all about it.
8. Calling it now: The Vegas Golden Knights will qualify for the 2018 post-season.
9. Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher, Calgary’s Matthew Tkachuk, and Pittsburgh’s Bryan Rust rank one, two, three in penalties drawn. But known pests Gallagher and Tkachuk have each taken at least 50 per cent more penalties than Rust.
Sullivan said most of the minors Rust draws are hooks and holds.
“It’s an indication that he plays with his strengths. He uses his speed. He forces opponents to have to defend him. He’s brave. He’s willing to play inside,” Rust’s coach explained.
“If he gets a step on a player, he’s willing to take the puck to the net. He gets inside the dots, forces them to defend him, and that usually where infractions occur.”
10. Stacia Robitaille, wife of Los Angeles Kings president Luc, tweeted about her disturbing run-in with Donald Trump.
When the Kings win the Stanley Cup, here’s $100 saying they boycott the White House visit.
I was once on a elevator alone with @realDonaldTrump (& a man w/him) at Madison Square Gardens. He was aggressive & told me I was coming home with him. I laughed, stating I was married to a Ranger. He guaranteed me my husband didn’t make as much money as him. #ThisIsOurPresident
— Stacia Robitaille (@StaciaRR) December 12, 2017
I tweeted about an unwarranted & uncomfortable experience I faced years ago — my tweet was not for money or attention, but in hope that others would not be intimidated by these horrific bullies we face today. Responses I’ve received are why women don’t speak up in first place.
— Stacia Robitaille (@StaciaRR) December 13, 2017
11. Maple Leafs winger and one-time all-star Leo Komarov has one goal in his past 21 games and just two even-strength goals all season (one was into an empty net). This despite playing with creative offensive linemates like Nazem Kadri and Marleau for the majority of the time.
Komarov ranks fourth among all Leafs forwards in average ice time (16:34).
12. Here’s something not hockey, but it’s really funny.
“The Accidental Activist” is a satirical sketch centred around an American baseball pitcher playing in Montreal who runs off the mound during O Canada to relieve himself. America loves him as he embraces his anti-Canada stance.
Give it a watch, courtesy of The 5th Quarter from OBB Pictures.