As if often the case, the first two weeks of the NHL season have been rife with some early surprises. Several stalwarts from last year have shown some early signs of trouble, while a few of last year’s whipping posts have been flashing some signs of hope for their fan bases. For anyone who loves good hockey, these are things to be excited about, even if you know deep down in side they probably aren’t going to last.
Fans of the long suffering Toronto Maple Leafs (of whom my co-author Jay counts himself) have once again had something to cheer about early, with the team off to a strong 4-0-1 start. While Jay reminds me that last season started with similar promise before a painful crash back to reality, the Leafs have undeniably been playing some solid hockey early on. I was able to catch their come from behind victory against the Jets last night, and sure, Winnipeg has been pretty bad to start the season, but that shouldn’t lessen the effort the Leafs made, rallying behind Lupul and Kessel to take a 4-3 OT win after falling down 3-1 early in the game. There are signs this may not last: goalie James Reimer’s stats are not any better than last year’s, with a goals against average over 2.50, and Phil Kessel can’t keep up his Gretzky like production of 2.4 points per game all season (can he?). Still, it’d be nice to see the Leafs mount something this year, and they certainly look more like a team that can turn things around, though they’re in a hotly contested Eastern Conference.
In the West, the young gun Avalanche (who I took note of in my season preview) are off to a hot 5-1-0 start, averaging over 3.0 goals per game and getting solid early starts from both new goalies (JS Giguere and Seymon Varlamov). The second part really has to be a relief for the team after taking a gamble in ditching former goalie Craig Anderson despite a solid season. The Avs are looking sharp, and of all the surprising teams out of the gate, I think they have the best chance to make something happen come playoff time.
But we’ve also had some reverse surprises from last year’s Stanley Cup teams with both Vancouver and Boston struggling early. Vancouver can point a lot of fingers at goalie Roberto Luongo, who so far has defied my predictions and early defense of him and been downright awful in net. He’s always been guilty of leaky goals and the occasional flaky performance, but his 3.70 GAA so far is inexcusable (and that’s after 4 starts, so don’t just blame the sample size), and if he doesn’t find a way to bounce back soon, he may find his starts slowly going to back-up goalie Corey Schneider. Sure, the Canucks have seen some light from the Sedin twins, and Ryan Kesler (my Hart trophy prediction) is back soon, but until they patch the gaping hole that is Luongo’s five hole, they’re not going anywhere.
The Bruins, meanwhile, can chalk their poor start up to a general lack of discipline. For a team that so capably handled the sophomoric antics of the Canucks early on in the Stanley Cup finals, this year’s Bruins (who are mostly the same roster as before) have been embarrassing on the ice. Anyone unlucky enough to catch their downright shameful loss to the Hurricanes on Tuesday witnessed a team more interested in taking chippy shots and cheap penalties than hunkering down and playing hockey. When you accumulate more penalty minutes than there are minutes in the game (72 penalty minutes? Are you kidding me?), you are doing something extremely wrong, and as a big fan of the Bruins last season, I was fairly ashamed of what I saw. This is a roster of great young players and veterans alike, but if they can’t return to the tough but disciplined hockey of last season, it could be a long, hard winter in Boston, one that’s guaranteed to derail any remaining bandwagon fans from last year’s Cinderella story.
There are countless other storylines happening in the league right now. The Pens are missing almost all their superstars and are currently down to five defensemen thanks to injuries (and one bad boarding decision by Letang), yet still managing to win games, reminding us that hockey is as much about fundamentals as it is big names (though James Neal’s early Herculean efforts have helped). The Capitols have come out with their best start in franchise history, going 5-0-0, and so far Jay’s Hart pick of Ovechkin is looking prescient. The Flyers are close behind in terms of success, featuring the triumphantly returned (and impressively lithe) Jaromir Jagr. The two meet up tonight for what should be an explosive match-up. Meanwhile, in the West, Dallas and Detroit are lighting it up, while usual stalwarts San Jose flounder (will they regret parting with Danny Heatley and Setoguchi?). And Ottawa (5.0 GAA!) and Columbus (the only winless team) are just awful. Period.
For such an engaging start, however, you have to wonder how much the average American viewers have been taking notice. With the NBA pretty much finito for the season, this could be a prime year for the NHL to recover an audience after its own labor woes in the mid 2000’s. The problem, however, is that hockey has been a consistently tough sell for Joe Sportsfan, at least stateside. As an avid hockey fan, I sometimes can’t grasp the aversion to the sport some have, but as I have been playing the latest EA hockey game this year, I think some of it is starting to make sense.
For the record, I love EA’s NHL series for its engaging offline play. Seriously, the “Be a Pro” mode, which simulates a players career from the minors through retirement, is one of the most engaging sports sims ever, one that forces you to learn your position and how to play the sport properly (not spamming the same cheesy running and passing plays like Madden). But recently I’ve been trying to play the game’s online team mode and have begun to realize, first, that hockey requires an insane amount of teamwork and unselfish play, where most would rather just see an endless parade of breakaways, and that, second, American sports goers really don’t understand sports that don’t have clear points at which to cheer.
My mom is the perfect example. She’ll always jump into football and baseball games with relative ease, but would always complain about how hard hockey was to follow whenever my dad and I threw on a Pens game. Both football and baseball share one thing in common: their mechanics can be broken down pretty easily. At its most basic, football is all about getting the ball past a certain line while baseball is about getting your players to bases. It’s simple, concrete, and easy to follow. At it’s most basic, hockey is about getting a rubber puck into a net, sure, but the real engaging action takes place elsewhere. It’s about the match-ups, the battles on the boards and behind the net, and how teams handle the pressure. And a lot of it, more so than any other sport, comes down to reacting to the chaos of physics that happens when sticks, ice, and the puck meet. It makes for some of the most fast paced and unpredictable action sports has to offer, but it’s a steep learning curve. You can tell when your football or baseball team is on the verge of something big. In hockey, those points can seem almost random if you don’t recognize how much positioning and momentum influence things.
Hockey continually tries to make the game more accessible, sometimes to the chagrin of fans (remember the digitally enhanced glowing bucks?). But it still requires a level of engagement far beyond most other sports. I can sit and watch a football game without really having to focus. I can tune out, show up for a big play, then tune out again. Hockey for me is two to three hours of constant engagement and (at least when my Pens are playing) a lot of stress. It’s exhilarating, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but it’s a hard sell for the casual sports viewer. Why invest so much into a sport?
I am not sure where exactly I am going with all this, other than to say this is shaping up to be a great year in the NHL, and if you haven’t followed hockey since the Winter Olympics (or ever), now is a great time to get back into it. It might take a little time to get into, but trust me, it’s a worthwhile investment, especially if you’re coming to the realization that you’re not going to be watching much NBA this fall and winter. Plus, you’ll have an awesome column to follow!