You could feel it all the way from Orange County, Calif., to Las Vegas. No, it wasn’t the Santa Ana winds, but the tremendous sigh of relief from the Anaheim Ducks after scoring an early goal en route to their second victory in 11 starts this season following Saturday’s downing of the visiting Nashville Predators.
For Nashville, it was first trip to Southern California, giving us a first-chance opportunity to see why this young club could upend the likes of St. Louis, Minnesota, Dallas and defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago. (Hey, Winnipeg, we’re rooting for you – to claim the loaded Central Division).
For several years, this column has expounded on the play of Finnish goaltender Pekka Rinne, who again ranks high among the NHL charts in victories. He is also undefeated (3-0-1 record; .945 save percentage) against the rugged Western Conference.
However, it’s the players immediately in front of Rinne which is the difference in making Nashville a contender after a difficult, first-round playoff exit to the eventual champion Blackhawks in six games.
Featuring players with strength, size and mobility, we already know about Shea Weber, an All-Star for four of the past five seasons, who is one of the league’s top snipers on the power play – he had one each vs. Los Angeles and Anaheim over the weekend.
Weber’s partner the blue line is Roman Josi, a native of Switzerland, who can really handle the puck. Instead of clearing the zone, Josi can make precise passes to aid the transition game, listed among the leading defensemen in assists. Only LW James Neal has posted more points for the Predators.
Josi also rates among the leaders in blocked shots.
Everyone also seems to talk about the “slow” start of Seth Jones, yet his statistics are solid despite not scoring a goal. However, this workhorse, who once won the Jim Piggott Memorial Trophy (top rookie in the Western Hockey League) won gold at the World Juniors Championships. His father is former NBA player Popeye Jones.
Nashville entered the weekend in first place at 7-1-1, but after gaining just one point against the Kings and Ducks (the Preds used their backup goalie in Anaheim), they slipped to fourth place with Dallas (9-2-0) heading the field.
LW Filip Forsberg joins Neal among the scoring leaders, including two assists against the Kings in Saturday afternoon’s overtime setback.
More than goalies
Although I heavily utilize goaltender statistics in my handicapping, I also give a bonus point to each team with more than one defenseman playing at a high level.
A case-in-point comes from the New York Islanders, which recently signed free agent acquisition Brian Strait to a 3-year contract.
Jettisoned by Pittsburgh after just 12 games over two seasons, Strait overcame a horrible 2013-14 campaign and is healthy again as a stay-home defender to add depth to the Isles.
Joined by Travis Hamonic, Marek Zidlicky, Calvin de Haan and former Boston standout Johnny Boychuk, Brooklyn should remain in the Metro Division hunt all season.
Congratulations, sort of, to Anaheim after scoring just 10 goals over a 10-game stretch. The Ducks scored three first-period goals against a backup goalie, they reverted to their so-so selves over the next two periods yet finally won for just the second time all season.
There is already rumbling about replacing head coach Bruce Boudreau with Dallas Eakins, the Ducks’ Triple-A coach in San Diego who formerly was head coach at Edmonton.
However, Anaheim just signed Boudreau to a 3-year contract extension and the team is sometime cheap when it comes to coaches. Plus, some of the blame can be attributed to the absence of Ryan Getzlaf, who recently underwent appendectomy surgery.
San Jose: After scoring 20 or more goals in each of his first five full NHL seasons, San Jose is coping without center Logan Couture after fracturing his right fibula on October 15. He remains on schedule to soon return to the Sharks, who lead the Pacific Division all season until L.A. went on its current 7-game winning tear.
Montreal: Owners of the best record in hockey, finally faced several Western Conference clubs and fared predictably poorly. They lost to Vancouver and Edmonton before salvaging a win in Calgary. What will happened when they start meeting teams from the Central? More importantly, how will the Habs do without G Carey Price all this week due to a lower-body injury?
Columbus: The Blue Jackets (2-10-0), tied with Toronto (1-7-2) for the worst record in the National Hockey League, recently claimed their first two wins for new coach John Tortarella. The reason? Torts sat out C Ryan Johansen due to “illness.” He’s scored just once this year after ranking first in assists and second in scoring for the Jackets last season.
Arizona: Expect an upswing by the Coyotes following the return of C Antoine Vermette, who had two points in his return to the lineup on Friday night vs. Vancouver. He missed three games because of a lower-body injury.
Contact Nick at [email protected].