Thoughts Are My Own: Don’t Sleep on Toronto

Some thoughts as you begin yet another long, cold, winter week:

*I love the way Mitch Marner plays the game. Blazing speed, unbelievable vision. Just another great, young talent all around. Toronto was set up well before Auston Matthews came along, and Marner had much to do with it.

*Connor McDavid has just 10 points in his last 13 games. That said, he’s still the best player on the ice, he’s still getting the opportunities. No cause for concern. He’s on a 94-point pace. He’ll still reach 100.

*I go back and forth on what to make of John Klingberg and where he projects. But this is what I do know, for sure: there’s few players in the league on the back end as skilled as he is.

*Brent Burns is appointment viewing. One of the top-five hockey players in the world right now. Watching him probably mean staying up past bedtime on the East Coast, but you’ll be glad you did.

*Bo Horvat is emerging as one of the NHL’s better players.

*Here’s something out of the old baseball cliche ‘nothing matters before Memorial Day’, aka don’t overplay early-season happenings: the Calgary Flames were in tatters after the first month, but now look like the contending team many expected prior to the season. The Flames 17-8-1 record since November 15 has them in possession of the first Wildcard spot in the Western Conference. I’d be surprised if we’re talking about Calgary missing the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons come spring.

*Michigan Tech has seven losses in regulation this year, but none to an unranked team. The Huskies got what may have been its biggest win of the season on Saturday against Notre Dame. Expect Tech to be ranked this week.

*Frozen Fenway never fails to be a spectacle. And it was perfect conditions for it in Boston on Sunday, temperatures hovering in the 20s with snow on the ground. As is usually the case, it was the two Commonwealth Ave powerhouses; BU and BC, emerging victorious. The Terriers beat UMass, 5-3, in the early game before the Eagles beat Providence, 3-1, in the nightcap.

*Huge two points for Columbus on Sunday, with a 2-1 overtime win over Philadelphia, avoiding the three-game losing streak after winning 16 in a row.

*Sebastian Aho will be a NHL star in short order.

Tidbits

*Max Pacioretty has 14 goals in his last 16 games.

*The Oilers are 6-2-2 in their last 10 games, seven of which have come on the road.

*Owen Sound has now won 10 straight games in the OHL.

*The good times continue for Minnesota prospects. Dmitry Sokolov scored his 30th goal of the season for Sudbury on Sunday night. He matches his same total from last season, which he assembled over 68 games. He got there in 36 this year.

*Mississauga’s Owen Tippett moved into the OHL goal scoring lead with his 33rd goal on Sunday. Tippett has 15 goals and 24 points in his last 13 games.

*UNH’s Tyler Kelleher had five assists in Sunday’s 7-4 win over Brown to take the national lead in points, eclipsing Union forward Mike Vecchione. The senior won the race to 40 points, reaching the total in 20 games. His scoring line is 14-26=40.

Storylines for Monday

*With 543 career goals, Alex Ovechkin is one tally shy of Maurice Richard for 29th on the all-time goal scoring list. The Captials will be playing in Montreal on Monday.

*Roberto Luongo needs a win to take sole possession of fifth place on the all-time wins list. He’s tied with Terry Sawchuk, with 447.

*Patrik Laine and Matthew Tkachuk faceoff against one another when the Flames visit the Jets.

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World Cup of Hockey Post-Mortem: Some Facts and Figures

Some facts and figures in the wake of the Boston Bruins winning the World Cup of Hockey..

*But seriously, though. Only two players had more than three goals in this tournament: Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron with five and four, respectively. Six of the the nine goals came in the semifinals and final.

*All three goals in Canada’s 2-1 clincher against Europe were scored by Bruins. Zdeno Chara gave Europe the 1-0 lead in the first period before his NHL teammates delivered the late-game heroics; first Bergeron’s redirection to tie the score, then Marchand’s shorthanded goal to go ahead with 44 seconds to play.

*Steven Stamkos was the lone Canadian not named Bergeron or Marchand to score in the final. Stamkos joins John Tavares and Corey Perry – both of whom scored in the 5-3 semifinal triumph over Russia – as the lone Canadians outside the superstar top line of Bergeron, Marchand, and Sidney Crosby to tally a goal in the semifinal or final.

*It seemed like the story of the World Cup were the two squads that were multiple countries co-opped together in Team Europe and Team North America. Team North America, of course, was comprised of the best under-23 players from Canada and the U.S., an exciting, fast, skilled team considered the represent the future of the game. Europe was an old, gritty group that had a little bit of everything but didn’t look like the full package that managed to make an unexpected run to the final.

Interestingly enough, it looks like it might be the last you see of such teams. You can definitely mark that down as a guarantee with North America, the team being put together much at the detriment to the American squad; there were quite a few players on that roster that would’ve made a difference playing on John Tortorella’s team. So we’ll see what that means for Europe.

*As for filling out those seventh and eighth teams, here’s an idea for at least one of the two spots that need to be filled: a Canadian ‘B’ team. A team that features the best of those left off the Canadian roster. The talk is that Canada could put together a second team and beat most, if not all, other countries. Well, let’s see it.

*Seventy-nine goals were scored in the tournament. Twenty of those were scored by players who played for either the Boston Bruins or the Tampa Bay Lightning. That’s more than a quarter. Of course, it’s important to point out that give-or-take a quarter of the players in this tournament play for the Lightning. Or at least it seemed that way.

*Here’s the breakdown of scoring by NHL club:

Boston- 11; Tampa Bay- 9; Washington-6; Chicago, Colorado, Toronto- 5; Detroit, Pittsburgh, St. Louis- 4; Edmonton, San Jose, N.Y. Rangers- 3; Calgary, Anaheim, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Arizona- 2; N.Y. Islanders, Ottawa, Winnipeg, Nashville, Buffalo, Vancouver, Florida- 1.

*Canada’s title makes it six of eight for the Red Leafs between the three installments of the World Cup of Hockey going back to 1996 and the Canada Cup, of which there were five of between 1976 and 1991. Something about that country when it comes to hockey.

It’s Been a Good Run For Europe, But the Run Ends Here

The signature moment to date in the career of Team Europe goaltender Jaroslav Halak came in the spring of 2010. A 24-year-old goalie for the Montreal Canadiens at the time, if you could pick him out of a lineup, you knew him as the second man in line to Carey Price in the Montreal crease.

Halak showed he was more than that by backstopping the Habs to the Eastern Conference finals, knocking off Presidents Trophy winner Washington and defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh along the way.

The clock struck midnight, however, in the Stanley Cup semifinal, the hopes of Cup No. 25 dashed by way of a five-game drubbing at the hands of Philadelphia. A red-hot Halak was out-dueled by his white-hot counterpart Michael Leighton. The mediocre Canadiens were outplayed by a good Flyers squad that was playing its best hockey at the right time.

It’s not unreasonable to expect a similar outcome in the best-of-three World Cup of Hockey final between Halak’s European club and Team Canada, which kicks off Tuesday night.

Europe isn’t mediocre like that Montreal team, they’re actually pretty good. The problem is they’re facing a Canadian team that’s not only a dream team, but a club that’s firing and clicking on all cylinders. Halak, who has played at his 2010 form, is up against the best goaltender in the world in Price.

Price has stopped pucks at a .948 rate, allowing just five goals on 97 shots faced. Sidney Crosby is playing the hockey of his life, linemates Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand adding new life to his game. The forward and defensive lines are flush with world-caliber players. There’s no letup.

It’s been a great run for Europe, a good, well-built team that flew beneath the radars of everyone going into the tournament. It shouldn’t have; Anze Kopitar and Roman Josi are among the best players in the world while Frans Nielsen, Tomas Tatar, Mats Zuccarello, Marian Gaborik (out with a leg injury), Marian Hossa, Leon Draisaitl, and Zdeno Chara are great assets to any team. At the very least, they’ll put up a fight.

That won’t be enough against Canada, a team too big, too strong, too fast, and too talented for this Europe team to contain.

Why Europe Will Beat Sweden

Few had Team Europe reaching the semifinal round of the World Cup of Hockey. Fewer have them getting past Sweden to earn the right to play in the best-of-three final against Canada.

So it’s nothing new for Europe.

There’s a lot that isn’t new for Europe. It’s a veteran group that’s been through it all – world championships, Stanley Cup playoffs, Olympics, you name it. Skill, speed, and goaltending go a long way in short tournament. Experience is next down on the list.

Europe is the oldest team in this tournament, with an average age north of 30. But the team combines for 1,045 games of Stanley Cup playoff experience, 841 games of international experience, and have made a combined 29 Olympic appearances.

The roster is well-constructed. Strong down the middle, led by all-world pivot Anze Kopitar and his monster minutes. Fran Nielsen has been one of the best players in this tournament. Leon Draisaitl leads the youth movement on the roster, and has been great in his own right; he scored the winner in overtime against the Czech Republic, and his goal in the second period of Euorpe’s 3-0 win against Team USA was a tally the Yanks never recovered from.

Mats Zuccarello, Thomas Vanek, Marian Gaborik, and Marian Hossa have been money from the wings. Roman Josi might be among the five best defensemen in the world. Zdeno Chara has been used perfectly in the supporting case role on the blue line.

Jaroslav Halak? Yeah, he’s pretty good. Best known for taking an unheralded Montreal team in 2010 and carrying it all the way to the Eastern Conference finals, he’s doing it again, albeit with a better European squad. His .946 save percentage in the round robin was bested only by Canada’s Carey Price (.948) among goalies who played all three games in group play, while facing 14 more shots than Price saw. His 111 shots faced was the most for any netminder in the opening round.

Of course there’s more to this club than just Halak. Which is why they can – and will – pull the upset on the Swedes.

Just because you have a few grey hairs, doesn’t mean you’re over the hill. And these guys have all been here before.

How Europe wins: Just doing everything well, as they’ve done throughout this tournament. While not the fastest, strongest, or biggest, this is a well-assembled team. They’re built from the net out, they’re well-coached. It starts and ends with ace pivot Anze Kopitar, one of the world’s best when it comes to play in all three zones.

How Sweden wins: Open up the ice sheet. When Sweden does that, plays fast-pace, moves the puck, nobody in the world beats this team. The defensemen are best when the possession is in their control, and jumping into the rush and making plays with their sticks.

Why Canada Wins the World Cup

Canada is king.

OK, roll your eyes. Say it’s a tired concept. A take. Apply whatever word you’d like.

Then try to prove it’s not true.

Canada has spent nearly two decades on its perch atop the professional hockey circuit, taking gold medals and world titles what seems to be time and time again. While the none of the country’s seven NHL cities have celebrated a Stanley Cup title since Montreal’s 1993 triumph, a majority of the players whose names have been engraved on Lord Stanley’s cup since then are Canadians.

The Canadian dominance doesn’t appear to be slowing down.

During round robin play of this year’s World Cup of Hockey, the Leafs went a perfect 3-0, tearing through it Group A counterparts; Team USA, Team Europe, and Team Czech Republic by a combined score of 14-3. The nearest peers to its plus-11 goal differential is North America and Russia (who Canada plays Saturday night in the WCH semifinal), with plus-three differentials. North America was the closest to Canada’s 14 tallies with 11, five of which were accounted for by Canadian-born players.

The offense has come from everywhere; nine different players account for Canada’s 14 goals, 16 have recorded at least a point. Not a single goal has been unassisted.

Meanwhile, the all-star blue line corps of Drew Doughty, Alex Pietrangelo, Jay Bouwmeester, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jake Muzzin, and Shea Weber has made work easy for best-in-the-world netminder Carey Price, who has stopped 61 of the 63 shots that have come his way.

The disaster for Canada that was the 1998 Nagano Games – the first Winter Olympics the NHL sent players to – in which the Canadians failed to win a medal ceded itself to the run of dominance for the country on the international stage. Following those Games, all parties involved got together, aired grievances, buried the medal it didn’t win and moved on, devising a plan and moving forward.

The plan has led to three golds in four Olympics since, only at Torino in 2006 did Canada fail to win gold. The Canadians have also won the IIHF World Championships (a much more watered-down version of the WCH) five times since 2003, after having won it just twice in a 40-year span from 1962-2002.

Lots could happen over the next week between now and when a champion will be crowned, which could happen as early as Thursday. Canada will need to win as many games as they’ve already won to win that crown.

But based off what we’ve seen, there’s no reason not to expect more of the same.

How Canada wins: The X-factor for the Canadians is its fourth line of Joe Thornton, Ryan O’Reilly, and Matt Duchene. Duchene might very well be the most important player on this squad, tied with Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews for the team lead with four points. No team can counter Canada’s fourth line. From there, the Canadians just need the best players to be the best players. You know, establish the play, get pucks deep, be heavy on the forecheck, all that stuff.

How Russia wins: The offensive firepower the Russians bring speaks for itself. Starting with Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, Vladimir Tarasenko, and Evgeny Kuznetsov and working its way down to Pavel Datsyuk, Artem Anisimov, Vladislav Namestnikov, and Nikita Kucherov, its your typical explosive, high-octane Russian lineup. But the player who decides whether Team Russia lives to play another (up to three) days? Look no further than Sergei Bobrovsky. Bobrovsky is an intriguing case; we’ve seen the best (2013 Vezina Trophy winner) and we’ve seen him at his worst (.908 save percentage in 37 games in 2015-16). It’s been Bobrovsky at his best in this tournament, stopping 91 of 96 shots in three round robin games, in which Russia went 2-1. Any hopes of Russia pulling the upset begins with Bobrovsky playing at the level he’s played during this tournament.

We’re Back

So why am I doing this?

Here’s a brief history of PuckWatching. I started it up a couple years back, got caught up in school and other things and it fell by the wayside. Rinsed and repeated another year later.

Well, now I’m out of school. I’m still busy as hell, don’t get me wrong. But maybe now I guess I have more of a plan. Bigger goals. Better vision. I don’t know. The time is also right to get started again, given we’re at the commencement of the hockey season; the World Cup of Hockey already underway, the CHL set to kick off this week, and less than a month away from the start of the NHL, AHL, and college hockey. In other words, everyone’s got that preseason pucks fever.

My hope is that this can be a place where hockey fans can go to get anything and everything hockey. And I’m not just talking NHL. I’m talking anything that involves a sheet of ice, a rubber biscuit, and a stick. That means the international circuit. It means the minors. I’ll give you college hockey, some CHL. Maybe mix in some Junior A. And of course, there’s women’s hockey, which in my opinion is the most grossly overlooked sport in our current media landscape – especially when you factor in its coverage compared with other female sports.

The game has never been in a better place. Hockey has never had a bigger following than it has now. More kids are playing. More fans are watching. The talent pool has never been so deep. We’re seeing not just players, but in some cases legit superstars, coming out of places like Florida, California, and Arizona. The top-end talent – i.e. Gretzkys, Lemieuxs, Messiers, etc. – may not be where it was in the 1980s and ‘90s, but there’s never been more players worthy of NHL employment.

I won’t be breaking any news (at least not yet, that is), but there will be plenty to see. You’ll see things you couldn’t find elsewhere, you learn things you hadn’t previously known. There will be analytics thrown in there. I’ll throw some stories your way. I’ll give my opinion (trust me, I’ve got plenty of them). But it’ll all be in moderation. There’s enough places on the internet that corsi-out its visitors or numb their minds with hot takes. You won’t find that here (especially takes).

I love this game, have since I was a little kid. My first career aspiration was to be the next great Bruins defenseman, but this is the next-best thing. The game has everything a fan craves – drama, suspense, speed, skill, pace, camaraderie, physicality. That passion will come out through this site. And hopefully it will bring out the passion for the game in all of you – whether you’re a lifelong fan or just got hooked on the game a few days ago.

And that’s why I’m resuming my work on this website.