Six days and 35 games into the 2018-19 season, we’ve seen some pretty wild stuff, a lot of goals and, well, a good amount of American League goaltending. We’ve had three 13-goal games, two of them on the same night and one of them in which the Toronto Maple Leafs blew four separate leads to win the game in overtime. We saw the Washington Capitals score seven goals in one night, then give up seven the next. Of the nine games that have gone beyond 60 minutes, two-thirds of them have avoided the dreaded shootout. Jonathan Toews looks like he wants to re-establish himself as one of the NHL’s truly elite players again. It’s been fun.
And even though it’s been a little like an ’80s revival with 221 goals in 35 games for an average of 6.31 per game, history tells us we probably shouldn’t get used to it. Coaches will adjust, goaltending will get better and the game will tighten up. Count on it. Two seasons ago, NHL teams scored 234 goals in the first 36 games for an average of 6.5 goals per game, but ended the season averaging just 5.54, which is pretty much par for the course these days.
So we know the NHL is going to somehow choke the life out of offense, as it always does. But what remains to be seen is whether it will successfully choke the life out of some of the personality we’ve seen from players this season. The early results are encouraging, but once again, it would be unwise to simply assume it’s going to continue in the long-term.
The height of the great theatre came Sunday night in Chicago during Toronto’s wild 7-6 overtime win over the Blackhawks. With the score tied 5-5, Auston Matthews got what he surely thought was the game-winning goal with 1:02 left in the game and celebrated by doing a bit of hot-dogging, putting his glove up to his ear.
But just 33 seconds later, with Blackhawks goalie Cam Ward on the bench (which was probably the best place for him given how both goalies played), Patrick Kane tied the score and did a bit of tit-for-tat hot-dogging of his own, raising his glove to his ear and chirping the Leafs bench on the way back to his own. It elicited a wry smile, and probably the realization that it was a lesson learned, from Matthews. Here’s how it played out:
But here you had the pre-eminent American-born superstar in Kane and the upcoming American superstar in Matthews basically trading haymakers in front of more than 21,000 people in the United Center and millions more on television. It was absolutely wonderful. Matthews finished the night with a goal and two assists to take over the NHL’s scoring lead and Kane scored twice. There they were, two ridiculously talented players, basically playing their own personal game of Horse and indulging in the kind of back-and-forth we see far too infrequently.
A few hours prior to that, the Carolina Hurricanes were involved in a 13-goal game of their own when they defeated the New York Rangers 8-5 on home ice. Led by new captain Justin Williams, the Hurricanes had one of the most unique post-win celebrations you’ll ever see, applauding the crowd, then skating from their own blueline to the other end of the ice and jumping into the boards. Williams then tweeted: “Enjoy the good times and have fun with it…let’s celebrate more this year.”
All great stuff and all welcomed, but let’s hope the hockey world doesn’t beat this spontaneity and showmanship out of the likes of Matthews, Kane and Williams the way it always does. Hockey needs this kind of stuff. Fans have been begging for years for players to show their true personalities and having the players do so can be nothing but good for the sport. Imagine you had attended your first NHL game in Carolina on Sunday. You watched your team score a ton of goals, win the game and celebrate like that. Chances are you’re going back.
So Auston Matthews, Patrick Kane and Justin Williams, keep on keeping on. Dismiss the ramblings of the bully windbag on Saturday night who will undoubtedly take you to task for actually exhibiting some emotion. Tune out the old-time hockey folk who believe that being happy about scoring or winning is tantamount to showing up and disrespecting your opponent. And, by all means, please dismiss the knuckle draggers who believe Lars Eller had a beating coming to him from Brad Marchand because he celebrated a little too enthusiastically and chirped the Bruins bench after scoring the seventh goal in a 7-0 game. Perhaps what he did was not great form, but it did not deserve to be responded to as though he had just steamrolled the Bruins’ goaltender.
There is, or at least there could be, something happening here. Players coming into the league are, without a doubt, bringing more swagger into the NHL with them. A lot of them have no problem showing their emotions and drawing a little more attention to themselves. It does not make them bad teammates or bad people or arrogant showboats. The old guard will be dragging into this new world kicking and screaming, and will do everything in its power to prevent it from gaining traction. We know that will happen. Young players and those with personality should not prevent that from peeling back the curtain a little bit and showing us what they’re really feeling.