Hockey, like any sport, inspires a follow-the-leader mentality. Whatever worked last must work best, the logic goes, so it’s not hard to see why teams that skate hard are having a lot of success lately.
And it’s not just puck-possession hockey that’s working for teams, though that is a factor. For struggling squads, the inability to catch up to an opponent results in numerous groaner penalties – hooks and holds – that inevitably put them behind the eight ball on the scoreboard.
To wit; the Toronto Maple Leafs, currently paying rent in the NHL’s basement, also find themselves near the top of the league when it comes to minor penalties taken, with 71 through 13 games. Other teams struggling to stay out of the box include Carolina, Montreal, Anaheim and Tampa Bay (also in the mix are the Pens and Rangers, who have Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist to save their sorry behinds when they get the gate).
In a nice control experiment, the Buds and Bolts combined for 14 minor penalties in Tampa’s 2-1 win over Toronto Tuesday night. Naturally, stellar goaltending by Antero Niittymaki and Jonas Gustavsson (OK, the giveaway to Mattias Ohlund wasn’t too hot) kept the score low, but what do you expect from two teams at the bottom of the standings?
Out west, the importance of playing peppy can also be seen in the Jekyll and Hyde performances put on by the Edmonton Oilers. In an early-season 6-1 shellacking of the Predators, it seemed as if Pat Quinn’s troops were the only ones allowed to touch the puck, as Nashville floundered under Edmonton’s pressure. With the Oilers up two and Marcel Goc in the box for holding, Edmonton’s Zack Stortini essentially salted away the game with a power play goal.
Fast-forward a couple weeks and the Oilers are dying out there. Playing an upstart Islanders team led by John Tavares and Matt Moulson, Edmonton looked dead to the world by the third period. Considering the Isles have coughed up more leads than Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross, you’d think the Oilers would have been on the young New York squad late in the game.
Not so much. The wheels weren’t moving and the Oilers barely even threatened former netminder Dwayne Roloson (although at one point Dustin Penner did fall on him) in the final frame. Passes were missed, breakouts looked nearly impossible and the Islanders won the night. In fact, Tavares and crew have looked alright lately and the idea they’re going after the puck with gusto has been mentioned in the local press as a positive development.
It’s hard to make heads or tails of the NHL standings right now. After all, we’re only about 15 games into an 82-game season. But when you consider the overall success of teams such as San Jose and Chicago over the past couple years (and the fact they had several amazing showdowns in the regular season last year), it’s not hard to figure out the common denominator.
The team that skates together, wins together.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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