Good starts, bad starts, big starts and a bittersweet beginning. Here are 10 thoughts on the first 10 days of the 2009-10 NHL season:
1. Good Start
Whatever befalls the Atlanta Thrashers, Colorado Avalanche and Phoenix Coyotes this year, give the anticipated also-rans this much: They won their first game of the regular season – and then they went out and won their second game, too.
THN picked the Avs and Coyotes to finish 14th and 15th in the West and the Thrashers to finish 14th in the East. (The New York Islanders, tabbed by THN to finish last in the East, couldn’t hold up their end and lost 4-3 to Pittsburgh in a Game 1 shootout.)
Phoenix dumped host Los Angeles 6-3 on Oct. 3 and followed that up with an impressive 3-0 road shutout of the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins. Not to be outdone, the Avs downed visiting San Jose 5-2 on the opening night of the season and then blanked visiting Vancouver 3-0 two days later. And Atlanta? They thrashed Tampa Bay 6-3 in their opener and then downed host St. Louis 4-2.
Two wins does not a season make, but it’s good to see these clubs get off to a positive start.
2. Good Start, Part 2
You’ve probably heard this already, but it bears repeating: Dany Heatley scored a hat trick (and added an assist) in his first home game with the San Jose Sharks and was an astounding plus-6 in the 6-3 win over Columbus. Joe Thornton, Heatley’s center, assisted on San Jose’s first four goals in the game.
So far, so good. Check back in June.
3. Good Start, Part 3
Like aurora borealis in the northern sky, Marian Gaborik is a beautiful, but rare sight. Fortunately for the Rangers, the oft-injured ex-Wild star is shimmering on Broadway right now, with points in each of his first four games, including four goals. Gaborik scored the tying and winning goals against Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals on Oct. 8 and he made up for lost time – a little bit – by firing eight shots (one goal) against Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in the Rangers’ season opener on Oct. 2. When he’s on, there are very, very few players in the NHL who are as dynamic as the ultra-skilled Slovak. Question is, how long will he be on (the ice) before his groin acts up again? Here’s hoping he stays healthy for a change.
4. Bad Start
Welcome to the Battle of Alberta, Nikolai Khabibulin.
The Edmonton Oilers goalie, signed to a four-year, $15-million deal in the off-season, had a dubious introduction to the Alberta rivalry. First, in Edmonton’s home opener on Oct. 3, Khabibulin misplayed the puck in the final minute of the third period in a 3-3 tie, allowing Calgary’s David Moss to whack in an easy game-winner.
Five days later, and again on Edmonton ice, Calgary’s Rene Bourque deflected Jay Bouwmeester’s point shot past Khabibulin with 1.5 seconds remaining in regulation – and Olli Jokinen won it for the Flames in the shootout.
Silver lining: In between the disheartening losses to Calgary, Khabibulin stopped all three shootout shots he faced against Dallas en route to a 5-4 win. With the victory, Khabibulin became just the 24th NHL netminder to win 300 games.
5. Bad Start, Part 2
Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur, who have the inside track on being the Nos. 1 and 2 goalies for Canada at the Olympics, got off to slow starts. Luongo dropped his first three decisions and Brodeur lost his first two games, both at home.
But perhaps more surprising than the netminders’ poor performances was the reaction of their fans: Both Luongo and Brodeur were booed off the ice, at home. Patience, people, patience.
6. Bad Start, Part 3
Pity the poor Montreal Canadiens. A bubble playoff team at the best of times (THN predicted Montreal for eighth place in the East in our 2009-10 Yearbook), the Habs lost star defenseman Andrei Markov in their first game of the season and rugged blueliner Ryan O’Byrne in their second outing.
Markov is out until February with a lacerated tendon in his ankle, while O’Byrne is shelved until December with a knee injury. Montreal recalled Yannick Weber and signed Marc-Andre Bergeron as replacements, but the loss of Markov, who is easily the team’s best all-around defenseman, is devastating.
7. Big Start
For all the talk about the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia and Pittsburgh-Washington rivalries, there’s another no-love-lost-fest in the works: Philadelphia-Washington.
In their first meeting of the year, the Flyers won a wild 6-5 affair on Daniel Briere’s overtime winner. The best action came in the second period, though, when the two teams combined for seven goals in a 13-minute span – including two by Ovechkin and a hat trick by Philadelphia captain Mike Richards.
8. Big Start, Part 2
Jay Bouwmeester’s ice time in his first five games with Calgary: 29:10 vs. Vancouver on Oct. 1; 30:02 vs. Edmonton on Oct. 3; 24:22 vs. Montreal on Oct. 6; 29:57 vs. Edmonton on Oct. 8; and 26:36 vs. Dallas on Oct. 9 (Note: In the game against the Habs, the Flames had one power play and Montreal had zero; so, very little extra time for special teams players such as Bouwmeester.). His 28:02 average TOI leads second place Joe Corvo by nearly a full minute.
9. Big Start, Part 3
Just the fact that these guys started the season in the NHL is big news. We’re talking about unheralded rookies such as the three unknowns who made San Jose’s roster, defenseman Jason Demers (drafted 186th overall in 2008) and wingers Frazer McLaren (203rd, 2007) and Benn Ferriero (196th by Phoenix, 2006).
And while everyone expected Matt Duchene, selected third overall in last June’s draft, to crack Colorado’s lineup (which he did, to early positive reviews), who knew Ryan O’Reilly, the Avs’ second round pick (33rd overall) would be skating in the big league so soon?
In Toronto, a two-pronged Swedish invasion of goalie Jonas Gustavsson and winger Viktor Stalberg was the talk of the town, but Jay Rosehill (227th by Tampa Bay, 2003), who plays GM Brian Burke’s requisite “pugnacious” style, also cracked the Maple Leafs roster.
Don’t know how long these guys will last in the big-time, but it’s always refreshing to see some “who are they?” guys getting their chance.
10. Bittersweet Start
Rookie John Tavares scored in his first game and collected an assist, too, but the Islanders lost 4-3 in a shootout to Pittsburgh.
Tavares was foiled in his first NHL shootout attempt, while Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby showed the next ‘Next One’ how to do it, scoring in regulation and then converting the shootout winner.
Islanders fans have something to be happy about, though: For a limited time only, they can purchase pieces of the net into which Tavares scored his first NHL goal, all for the low, low price of $91.91. (Tavares’ sweater number is…ahh, you’ve probably figured it out already.)
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News’ senior copy editor and a contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.
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