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Six Early Observations From The NHL's First Week

Graham Jenkins |
January 28, 2013 | 6:15 p.m. PST

Staff Writer

Veteran Mike Richards has yet to score for the Kings this season. (Kasey Spatz/Creative Commons)
Veteran Mike Richards has yet to score for the Kings this season. (Kasey Spatz/Creative Commons)
The lockout-shortened NHL season has wrapped up its first week. While there were many notable moments that occurred throughout the week, such as the Dallas Stars locking up Jamie Benn for five years and Patrick Marleau scoring nine goals in his first five games, here are three observations I made for both the Western Conference and the Eastern Conference.

Western Conference

Los Angeles Kings are slow out of the gates

There’s always discussion of teams having a so-called Stanley Cup Hangover, in which a team celebrates too hard over the summer that they don’t prepare well enough for the start of the regular season.

It’s pretty clear the Kings started this season with a major hangover. They looked downright awful in their home opener against the Chicago Blackhawks, surrendering three goals in the opening frame, and ultimately losing 5-2. A day that should have been celebratory turned out to be miserable.

Their next game against the Colorado Avalanche proved more troubling. The Kings had a 1-0 lead heading into the third period, but the Avalanche scored three unanswered goals to win 3-1. The Kings also had a 1-0 lead against the Oilers in their third game, but they gave up a goal with four seconds left to send it to overtime, and lost in the shootout.

Through three games, the Kings had scored only four goals. However, against the Phoenix Coyotes, they started to resemble the Kings that we saw post-2012 trade deadline, a Kings team that blew through the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Kings’ top six finally generated some offensive firepower and doubled their season goal output in one game, winning 4-2 over the Coyotes. Luckily for the Kings, one of their losses was in the shootout, but in the highly competitive Western Conference, every game is extremely important, and they have a lot of work to do to catch up.

Detroit Red Wings experience life without Lidstrom

Goaltender Jimmy Howard has been solid for the Wings. His defense has not. Three games into the season, it’s abundantly clear how much the Red Wings miss Nicklas Lidstrom on the blue line. The Wings gave up six goals to the St. Louis Blues in their season opener, including four power play goals and a shorthanded goal. That game alone should have raised some red flags, especially on the Blues’ TJ Oshie’s shorthanded goal, which resulted from him skating behind the Wings defense, taking a lead pass from Alex Pietrangelo from the Blues goal line, and scoring on a breakaway. Giving up a shorthanded goal is bad enough, but giving up a breakaway shorthanded goal is demoralizing and humiliating.

There will be a lot of growing pains with this Lidstrom-less defensive corps for the Red Wings, and their play right now may perhaps prevent them from reaching the playoffs this year. The Central Division is stacked with a still undefeated and highly explosive Blackhawks team and a very balanced and well-coached Blues team, and if the Red Wings’ defense continues to hold them back, it doesn’t look likely that the Wings will make it past either team.

Vladimir Tarasenko has a phenomenal debut

Speaking of the Blues, a team that is primarily known for its defense and goaltending appears to have found a secret offensive weapon: Vladimir Tarasenko. Tarasenko was drafted 16th overall by the Blues in 2010, and if his first six games in the league are any indication of what he brings to the NHL, the Blues better make sure he never goes away. Tarasenko scored two highlight reel goals in the Blues’ home opener against the aforementioned Red Wings, putting on a fantastic display of his puck-handling skills and his speed.

Tarasenko not only can score goals at will, but he can also distribute the puck well, tallying four assists on the year thus far. His eight points on the season in six games as a rookie is nothing short of sensational. He is the most exciting Russian rookie the NHL has seen since Alexander Ovechkin in the 2005-06 season. If he keeps up his production, he is a shoo-in for the Calder Trophy this year. The 21-year-old rookie may be a force to be reckoned with for many years to come.

Eastern Conference

Tuuka Rask's great play has the Bruins starting strong. (Dan4th/Creative Commons)
Tuuka Rask's great play has the Bruins starting strong. (Dan4th/Creative Commons)
Boston Bruins shut down opponents

While Tim Thomas is taking the year off, it’s business as usual for Boston Bruins goaltending. Tuuka Rask looks perfectly capable of serving as Boston’s No. 1 goaltender, sporting a .925 save percentage, which is right around his career average of .926. His GAA on the year so far is 1.96, a little bit lower than his career average of 2.19. The relative consistency in GAA and save percentage should be encouraging for Bruins fans, because they suggest his performance is consistent, and more importantly, sustainable.

It also helps that the Bruins allow only 26.8 shots per game, which is good for third-best in the entire NHL. For comparison’s sake, the Dallas Stars are dead last in shots allowed, as teams have shot on average a staggering 37 shots per game. Essentially, Tuuka Rask is getting a lot of help from the defensive play for the Bruins, which will help him in the long run as he won’t have to be Superman every night to keep the Bruins in games.

Another interesting note is Boston’s penalty kill percentage: 100 percent. Through four games, they have been shorthanded 17 times, and have yet to give up a power play goal. And when a team has great penalty killing, it usually means they have great defense and goaltending. Logically, they will give up a goal on the penalty kill at some point this season, but if Boston can put together consecutive game streaks without giving up a power play goal, they will be in great shape.

Tampa Bay Lightning strike early and often

If Tampa Bay can keep up the offensive production they’ve gotten early on, look out, Eastern Conference. In five games, Tampa Bay has scored 24 goals, an average of 4.8 goals per game, which is insane. They have scored six goals in a game twice already, most notably on Jan. 25 against the Ottawa Senators, in which they came back from a 3-1 deficit with less than five minutes to go in the second period.

A major contributor to Tampa Bay’s offense is their power play, which as of Jan. 28 is ranked 4th in the NHL at 28 percent, capitalizing seven times on 25 chances. They average five power plays a game, which means they average almost 10 minutes per game in the attacking zone with the man advantage, and that relentless offensive pressure will wear out opponents during the game, especially in the third period. Of course, it helps to have Steven Stamkos, Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier on the top line and on their No. 1 power play unit. Those three forwards will generate a lot of offense for the Lightning.

An area of major concern, however, is that the Lightning have allowed an average of 34.2 shots per game, which means starting goaltender Anders Lindback is having to work really hard to keep his team in the game. While Tampa Bay’s offense can be relied upon to score a lot of goals, if they do not improve their defensive game, they could lose a lot of games down the stretch and slip in the standings at crucial points in the season.

Washington Capitals struggle early

New head coach Adam Oates and his Capitals are off to a rough start, having lost their first three games of the season, and looking terrible in every one of those games. A major reason for their poor play is an abysmal penalty kill. They sit at 25th in the league in penalty kill percentage, sporting a 69.2 percent kill rate. They have been shorthanded 26 times and have allowed teams to score on them eight times. They have allowed 19 goals on the season, with more than 42 percent of those goals allowed scored on the penalty kill.

The offense has also been off to a very slow start, with franchise player Alex Ovechkin finally scoring his first goal of the season five games into the season. If the Capitals want to be successful, they will obviously need their star player to start scoring on a consistent basis.

A stat that can be somewhat encouraging for Capitals fans is their shots for per game, which is 30.6. That is only 0.2 fewer than their shots allowed per game at 30.8. If the Capitals shoot at that rate on a consistent basis, one can expect that more shots will start to go in to opposing goals as the season wears on.

Final Thoughts

It should be noted that all of these observations are relying on very small sample sizes. Penalty kill percentages league-wide should start normalizing, since teams will not be able to sustain penalty kill percentages near 100 percent. On the opposite side, penalty kill percentages near 60 percent are unusual as well, and I don’t expect to see teams perform that poorly as the season goes on.

I doubt the Lightning will be able to produce nearly five goals a game the majority of the season, and if they continue to give up more than 34 shots a game and their goaltending declines, they will be in trouble. I also don’t expect the Kings to perform as badly as they did to start the season, and if they do replicate their play from the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, they could give the Sharks a run for their money for the Pacific Division crown.

Reach Staff Writer Graham Jenkins here or follow him on Twitter.



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