The Fourth Line: This Week In the NHL

Alan Zlotorsynski touts the Capitals and blasts the Canadiens in the latest edition of his weekly “Fourth Line” NHL review.

Will fast start matter when the playoffs begin in Washington?

I said last week, that when we returned this week, the Washington Capitals could possibly be 4-3. I was wrong. Instead, Head Coach Bruce Boudreau has his boys 7-0, and with impressive wins over both Pennsylvania teams in the Keystone state, and the Detroit Red Wings at home, the Capitals are indeed for real.

If you are a Caps fan, as I am, you are probably afraid to ask the one question that beckons to be answered, what does all of this mean for the post season? Haven’t we seen all of this from Alex Ovechkin and company during the regular season? The Caps have averaged 112 points over the past three seasons, and are the two-time regular season Eastern Conference Champions.

How is this different and what it means for the spring has yet to be determined, but no, we have not seen this from the Caps, certainly not like this, and with these players.

Two seasons ago, the Capitals owned the NHL as they led the NHL in every major offensive category the mattered. Last season, and following an eight game losing streak in December, Bruce Boudreau changed his team’s style of play to a more defensive way of playing. The result was 92 less goals than the season before, but Washington finished the regular season with best goals against average in franchise history. They were second in the NHL killing penalties, but once again failed to translate any into post season success.

This year, the Caps seem to have found the “in between of the past two seasons”. They lead the league in scoring with 4.14 goals per game, and rank sixth on defense, allowing two goals per contest. With the added toughness from off-season acquisitions Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, and Jeff Halpern, the Caps have begun to play with more grit while keeping their finesse intact.

Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom still lead the team in scoring, but their third and fourth lines have been as big a factor as their top lines. In recent wins over Philadelphia, and Detroit, the Caps fourth line of Jeff Halpern, Matt Hendricks, and Mathieu Perreault, was nothing short of amazing.

During the 5-2 win over the Flyers in Philadelphia, Perreault had a goal and an assist and finished plus 2; Hendricks was plus-2, added an assist and three shots while winning all three of his draws; and Halpern was a plus-1, and won six of the seven faceoffs he took.

In the win over the Red Wings on Saturday, the trio continued to light up the score sheet. Hendricks had two assists, was plus 2, and had three good hits with 10-plus minutes of ice time. Halpern recorded an assist, won six of his nine faceoffs, and finished plus 2. Perreault was the games No.3 star with two goals.

Not to be outdone, the Capitals third line, or the “meat and potatoes line’, as Head Coach Bruce Boudreau refers to them is also playing well. Another offseason acquisition paying immediate dividends is Joel Ward. He has been teamed with Brooks Laich, and the speedy Jason Chimera to make up the hard checking, but surprisingly effective scoring line. The three of them have combined to score 7 goals and 12 points this season.

The play of goaltender Tomas Vokoun has not hurt either. Vokoun, who was the biggest steal off the free-agent market at $1.5 million, is 6-0-0, and is off to his best start since the 2005-06 season when he started 7-0-0 for the Nashville Predators. The Czech native is a long way away from his Caps debut in which he allowed five goals on 28 shots to the Bolts. Now he has a .944 save percentage and 1.80 goals against average. Vokoun has stopped all but 11 of the 198 shots he’s faced so far this season, and if he stays healthy, he could be a big piece that brings the Caps their first Cup in franchise history.

Like the depth of their lines, the Caps have never been this deep in net. If Vokoun can stay healthy, and backup (yes he is clearly the backup now) Michael Neuvirth delivers quality minutes, allowing Vokoun the proper rest, than it is fair to say that we could be watching this year’s Conn Smyth winner backstop the Caps during the 2011-12 season

Other News and Notes from around the NHL:

According to NHL.com, The National Hockey League has called a press conference for Thursday at 3 p.m. ET at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh in order to make a major announcement. NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman will attend along with Pittsburgh Penguins President David Morehouse, GM Ray Shero and Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. The reason for the press conference according to the Pittsburgh Post Gazette is the NHL will announce that the league’s 2012 entry draft will be held at Consol Energy Center.

Speaking of the Penguins, they are still rolling right along without Sidney Crosby, and recently Evgeni Malkin. The Pens have the most points in the NHL with 16, but have played four more games than the Capitals, and two more than the West leading Dallas Stars.

Former Stars winger James Neal, who came to Pittsburgh during a deadline trade last season, has finally settled in, and leads the team in scoring. His 8 goals are second most in the NHL, as he  paces a Pittsburgh offense that is sixth in the league despite having Malkin for just four games and no Crosby so far this season.

The Colorado Avalanche continues their surprising hot start. Leading the Northwest division of the western conference with 12 points, the Avs shouldn’t be that big of a surprise at all. Two seasons ago, the Avalanche were a playoff team with 95 points, and had the fourth-best offense in the west. Last season’s struggles resulted from a number of reasons with injuries topping the list.

What is so surprising is how the Avs have gotten to 6-2-0. They have won six straight games on the road, including a win in Chicago in Saturday night.

Colorado has a good mix of youth and veteran leadership, and are very deep at the center position. The off season acquisition of goaltender Semyon Varlamov, while  still not a bargain, is making fans forget how much the Avs gave up to get him. He’s 4-2 with a .929 save percentage and a 2.41 goals against.

Colorado’s top three centers of Matt Duchene, Paul Stastny, and Ryan O’Reilly are three good-looking playmakers. They have a combined 14 assists, and with an average age of 22.3 years old, should provide the Fans in Denver with year’s of consistent  scoring. Forwards David Jones (5 goals), and Milan Hejduk (3 goals) along with rookie winger Gabriel Landeskog will benefit greatly from their play making ability.

With the addition of Shane O’Brien and Jan Hejda, the Avs are much deeper on defense than last season and much bigger too. The Avs 6 regular defenseman average 6’3 and 225-pounds.

Critics may say that four of their six wins have come against struggling teams (Boston, Columbus, Ottawa and Montreal), who have a combined record of 9-22-3. However, I would point out that Colorado’s other two wins came against Toronto, and the Chicago Blackhawks.

It is too early to know whether Colorado is a playoff team, but they are certainly headed in the right direction now, and with their youth, possibly the next five to seven years.

What is wrong with the Stanley Cup Champs, and is Jacques Martins job safe?

Many people were starting to ask, what is wrong with the Stanley Cup Champions. The answer is probably nothing; the city of Boston is notorious for championship hangovers. Just ask the Red Sox, Patriots, and Celtics.

However, not only are the Bruins starting the season slowly, but also they are also starting games slow as well. Boston surrendered the first goal for the sixth straight game Saturday night against the Sharks, and actually fell behind 2-0 before tying the game, only to lose 4-2.

The Bruins power play, which was horrible throughout their cup run last season, has been equally as bad, and inconsistent to start the year. The B’s scored a PP goal to start the year against the Flyers, but then went four straight games without an extra man helper. Boston then converted three of their next seven chances before delivering a goose egg vs. San Jose.

Oddly enough, the Bruins could get healthy in a hurry as they get set to play their biggest rivals in a home at home series. The Montreal Canadiens come to town Thursday night at the TD Garden, and if you think the Bruins are in search of a few answers, at least they are not struggling like the Canadiens in Montreal.

The panic buttons are sold out in the city where hockey is a way of life. The Canadiens suffered their sixth straight loss on Monday night to the Florida Panthers, including a record five home losses to start the season. The next game is against the tough Philadelphia Flyers on Wednesday and the Canadiens will probably have to get ready without their leading scorer Max Pacioretty, who missed the third period Monday night with an undisclosed upper body injury.

Tomas Plekanec said about the teams 1-5-2 start in an interview following the game, “it’s not like we’re doing everything bad. But it’s not enough. We had pressure. We’ve outshot the opponent in nearly every game, but it’s not enough. We have to battle through it.”

It’s a safe bet that if the Habs do not turn this around in a hurry, the Jacques Martin countdown should begin, if it has not already. The Canadiens are not a patient organization, especially to start the year. Just ask current Bruins Head Coach Claude Julien.

Over in the Western Conference; 

The Dallas Stars are off to a hot start, and seem to be playing a grittier style of hockey under new Head Coach Glen Gulutzan. Leading the Western conference with 14 points, the Stars are playing lock down hockey.

Gultutzan has used his third line to demonstrate the style of hockey he wants from his team.  Radek Dvorak,  Vernon Fiddler and Adam Burish or Eric Nystrom are all getting under the skin of opposing teams, and allowing resident agitator, and center,  Steve Ott, more time to focus on what General Manager Joe Nieuwendyk wants from him, more scoring.

Ott said of the Stars third line on the teams website, “All four guys are extremely competitive, veteran present players that have a strong defensive background. And when you kind of put them all together, they’ll continue to get better. They’re playing against top, top guys in the league and it’s not easy,” Ott continued by saying “All of them have good skill as well, so sometimes your best defense is hanging onto the puck and you don’t have to defend as much. Those guys are more than capable of sacrificing, blocking shots, making the right play at the lines. All those little things add up to being a hard to play against line.

The Stars, who are 7-2-0, are off to their best nine-game start since going 8-1-0 in 2006-07. They are playing solid defense, and have given up two or fewer goals in all but one of their games. Dallas, however, is not taking advantage of their offensive opportunities. The Stars are 4 for 31 on the power play – 21st in the NHL.

Dallas is  getting great goaltending from Kari Lehtonen, who is third in the NHL with 1.54 GAA, and a .955 save percentage, and leads the league with 7 wins. The Stars could be decent playoff contenders if they can get any offense, but with the impending sale of the team through bankruptcy, it is unlikely Dallas will increase its payroll anytime soon to find that help.

Vancouver businessman Tom Gagliardi continues to pursue the team in an extended period of exclusive negotiation, but the Dallas Morning News reported today that Chuck Greenberg, former CEO of MLB’s Texas Rangers, has also been approved as a potential Stars buyer.

Who’s laughing last now:

The last player chosen in the pickup hockey game that was the NHL All-Star game last season, is this young seasons leading point scorer. Phil Kessel (9G, 6A) of the Toronto Maple Leafs leads all players with 15 points.  Two players are three points behind Kessel.  Jason Spezza (5G, 7A) of the surging Ottawa Senators, and last season’s leading scorer, Daniel Sedin is right back in the mix with 4 goals and 8 assists.

Los Angeles Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, whose middle name should be “brick wall,” is leading all NHL goalies in almost every major category. Quick has been lights out this season, as he has posted a .972 save percentage and a .081 goals against average.  The most incredible stat is his 3 shutouts to start the season.

Quick broke several franchise records in the process. Quick now claims the team record for consecutive scoreless minutes with 184 minutes and 56 seconds, surpassing Rogie Vachon. He has also become the first Los Angeles King to earn three consecutive shutouts, and is the first in the NHL to do it since Steve Mason of the Columbus Blue Jackets accomplished the feat in December of 2008.

The Edmonton Oilers are certainly an up and coming franchise, and really, why wouldn’t they be. They have the last two No.1 overall selections on the roster, and oh by the way, another first round selection in second year center Jordan Eberle.

Coincidently all three are the team’s top three point scorers. Last years. No.1 Ryan-Nugent Hopkins (5G, 3A) leads all rookies and the Oilers with 8 points. Tied with 7 points are the previous years. No.1, Taylor Hall (2G, 5A), and Eberle (1G, 6A), who was the No.22 overall selection the same year Hall was picked.

The Oilers will face a stiff test on Thursday, as the undefeated Washington Capitals come to Rexall Center. The hard quick ice surface in Edmonton will not benefit just the young Oilers. The Great 8, Nick Backstrom, Alex Semin, and company know how to utilize what many NHL players call the best ice in the league.

The fisticuffs:

Fighting is apart of the game, and each week I will make sure you have a chance to read about, and see some of the best fisticuffs of the week.

According to hockeyfights.com, Ottawa Senators tough man, and last season’s NHL penalty minutes leader, Zenon Konopka, leads the league with four fights this season. Chicago’s Jamal Mayers, and the Rangers Brandon Prust are second with three fights apiece.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the Rangers and Senators are two of three teams that lead the NHL with seven fights so far this season. The third team with seven early season glove droppers is a surprise; the Vancouver Canucks have accumulated almost 25 percent of their entire fight output from last season.

Vancouver had just 29 fights as a team last season, and has accumulated their high early season total over a nine-day span. Only Maxim Lapierre has more than one bout.  If you are thinking last year’s Western Conference champions are frustrated with a 4-4-1 start, think again. Last season they started 2-4-1 before winning 8 of their next 9 games.

Here are a few that may get the juices flowing.

The Oct-18 bout between the Buffalo Sabres Cody McCormick and the Montreal Canadiens Travis Moenwas a good up and down affair. The Rangers Brandon Prust and the Jets Tanner Glass renewed acquaintances from their western conference days in Winnipeg. You decide who wins, and last but certainly not least is the Nashville Predators Jordin Tootoo, versus the Canucks Aaron Volpatti. It is fair to say Tootoo danced a little more than did Volpatti.

The Best and the Worst, the Top 5 and Bottom 3:

The top four playoff teams (the Boston Bruins, Vancouver Canucks, Tampa Bay Lightning, and San Jose Sharks) are a combined 15-15-3.  Meanwhile, the bottom four teams from last season’s standings (the Edmonton Oilers, Colorado Avalanche, Florida Panthers, and New York Islanders) are 18-11-2.

Oh-Canada….Thanks to the Toronto MapleLleafs, and Edmonton Oilers, the seven Canadian teams are a combined 22-27-8. If you take out their records, it is an ugly 13-23-5, EH!

The Top 5:

No. 5-Detroit Red Wings: Ty Conklin did not play well against the Caps, hence the 7-1 loss. The score was not as bad as the game, but I cannot forgive a 4-1 loss to the Blue Jackets, they almost dropped out of the poll.

No.4- Dallas Stars: They lead the Western conference, are fourth in the West in goals for and third in goals against.

No.3- Colorado Avalanche: Six road wins puts them ahead of the conference leader. I am a believer until they prove otherwise. The win over the Blackhawks in Chicago is the reason they enter the poll this week. By the way, it is also the reason the Hawks did not make it.

No.2- Pittsburgh Penguins: At 7-2-2, the Penguins continue to amaze. Without Crosby and Malkin the Pens have not missed a beat. Imagine what may be once both are on the ice together again.

No.1- Washington Capitals: The only other undefeated team in pro sports is the Green Bay Packers, and they could potentially have questions on defense, the Caps will not. If they stay healthy, forget about it, the Caps will win the Stanley Cup.

Bottom 3:

No.28- Winnipeg Jets: The fans will show up in Winnipeg, win, or lose, but I bet they understand why they did not in Atlanta. However, the fans in Calgary should be grateful. Another sorry team in Canada this season may take some of the national media attention off the Flames.

No.29- Montreal Canadiens: WOW, I never saw this coming. The Habs are a minus-8 and showing no signs of breaking through.

No.30- Columbus Blue Jackets: Lookout, the Blue Jackets are on a winning streak, one, but it was against the Red Wings.

Have a great hockey week.

Alan Zlotorzynski writes for TheFanManifesto. 

The entire FanMan team can be followed on Twitter at @TheFanManifesto, or liked on Facebook by clicking here.

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