Hockey Notes – December 20th

By Jon Swenson - Last updated: Monday, December 20, 2010 - Save & Share - Leave a Comment

- HBO Sports debuted the premiere episode of 24/7 Penguins-Capitals Road to the Winter Classic on Wednesday night. The anticipated 4-part series was created to bring viewers behind the scenes of the National Hockey League, and engage fans with the personalities and organizations in the leadup to the 4th annual outdoor Winter Classic on New Years Day.

According to Dan Steinberg and Katie Carrera of the Washington Post, the inside look may have been a little too close up. There was no need to artificially inflate drama with Washington and Pittsburgh. The Capitals were in the midst of a grueling 6-game losing streak and an extended slump for all-world franchise player Alexander Ovechkin. While Caps owner Ted Leonsis was shown as passionate and involved, head coach Bruce Boudreau was forced to unleash a fiery string of f-bombs on multiple occasions in desperate attempts to fire up his squad.

“This is the worst possible time for it to happen to Washington. If I’m Bruce Boudreau, I curse the day I agreed to do this, because I can’t hide right now,” ESPN analyst Barry Melrose told the Washington Post. Actually, the reverse is true and the Capitals organization deserves credit for opening the doors during one of the most trying times of the last 3 seasons. As December tumbles into January and February, fans occasionally get the sense that the regular season doesn’t matter. Watching the first episode of HBO’s 24/7, that is decidedly not the case. The Capitals are taking the losses personally. It is refreshingly different from the staid “every game matters”, “we need to just keep playing our game”, “we need the 2 points” mantras that are oft-recited to the media.

A more measured and calm Penguins team was streaking, registering their 12th win in a row while in front of the HBO cameras. The documentary traveled with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins for more light-hearted moments, the annual Christmas party, playing video games on the plane, playing hotel pranks on teammates. Insider behind the scenes moments included analytical daily player rankings by the coaching staff, and mic’d up verbal and physical confrontations on the ice. The 24/7 series continues with episode #2 Wednesday December 22nd, episode #3 Wednesday December 29th, and episode #4 January 5th.

“This is prime time. This is great exposure for the league, great exposure for the clubs, great exposure for the players,” NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said Thursday on XM Radio’s The NHL Hour. “I think the clubs have embraced this in a way some would have thought impossible in prior years.” In a league that has stressed tradition, honor and respect for generations, this organically fits with the movement to open up the game.

The 24/7 look into the NHL is also an opportunity for HBO to expand its reach into a fairly hardcore demographic. Hockey may not draw similar numbers to the NY Jets “Hard Knocks” series, but similar content could draw a steady stream of new subscribers from an untapped source. According to Puck the Media, the first 24/7 episode drew a 383,000 viewers for a 0.2 household rating. The “Hard Knocks debut in August drew 870,000 viewers for a 0.6 household rating.

The techinal production of HBO’s 24/7 also deserves comment. With an explosion of sports documentaries, hockey fans were looking for new and innovate ways to cover the game. Off the ice, HBO delivered. There were a number of compelling interviews, many accompanied by Liev Schreiber’s narration from on high. The in-game camerawork left a little room for inspiration. There were isolation shots on star players, and several hand held shots meant to convey the intensity on the ice.

There may be a feeling of not wanting to distract from the game, but when HBO gets involved with hockey hardcore fans want the channel to take chances and pull out all the stops. There was not enough that stood out from HBO’s in-game action. There was nothing similar to Formula 1′s high speed slo-motion camera detailing the flex and tourque of composite racing car frames under heavy G’s during a turn, nothing similar to Japanese MMA promotions strapping up a referee for a POV look at a knockout, or the NFL wiring hanging smart cameras to track and follow play.

All of that could be rendered moot by the weather gods on New Years Day in Pittsburgh. A heavy snowstorm similar to the one that covered Buffalo and Pittsburgh at the 2008 Winter Classic would provide an iconic backdrop for hockey’s largest stars. HBO would merely need to show up and keep the cameras rolling for an indelible sports experience.

“We started this in 2007 with De la Hoya and Mayweather leading into their big fight. We thought we could create a resurgence in the sport by injecting a little reality television into the sport, and giving an idea of what these fighters go through on a daily basis as they prepare for a huge event,” HBO president Ross Greenburg said Thursday on The NHL Hour. “Now, after a lot of soul searching, and a lot of pushing from your friend and my friend, John Collins, and of course (NHL Commissioner Bettman), and everyone at the NHL. They kept insisting ‘our sport is incredible, you ought to come, we will give you full access, the teams will be there for you, we’ll give you everything you need, we will go to training rooms, we will let you mic everyone during games. Come for a ride.’”

Greenburg discussed the earned respect for how physical the modern NHL has become, and how much of a grind the players have to endure over the course of an 82-game season. “I have really grown to respect, to be honest with you, how physical this sport is,” Greenburg said. “What it takes to be a National Hockey League player… I don’t think people have ever appreciated how tough these players are to do this day in and day out.”

“We got a lot of average sports fans back into boxing,” Greenburg concluded. “Hopefully we are going to do that with your sport.”

San Jose Sharks Logan Couture Calder candidate tied 5th NHL goal scoring

- After his 2 goal performace in the Sharks 4-1 win at St. Louis on Saturday, Logan Couture was tied with Rick Nash for 5th in overall in the NHL goal scoring race. The 21-year old from Guelph, Ontario has scored 9 goals in his last 10 games. Couture and linemate Ryane Clowe have helped buoy the Sharks offensively while the big stars get back up to speed.

“Couture is not a surprise,” head coach Todd McLellan said after the St. Louis game. “He is a competitive player that loves playing the game. His passion and his success is starting to rub off on some of our older players.” While Carolina’s Jeff Skinner and Philadelphia goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky were early favorites for the NHL Calder Trophy race as the league’s top rookie, Couture has taken a clear lead in recent weeks among hockey pundits on both coasts.

- How Did The Sharks End Up With Logan Couture? – Kevin Burgundy for Please do not read if you are a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, have a heart condition, or have a heart condition and are a Toronto Maple Leafs fan.

- In addition to earning first star of the week honors last Monday by the NHL, Sharks left wing Ryane Clowe was interviewed by KNBR 680AM’s Razor and Mr T program. Clowe talked about WWF fake wrestling injuries vs real hockey injuries, how players and teams try to obfuscate injuries in the regular season and playoffs, Clowe’s experience as a San Francisco Giants fans during their run to a World Series championship, the championship parade, taking batting practice with the Oakland A’s, expectations for the San Jose Sharks, and several other topics. KNBR’s home page is available here, and a direct download of the MP3 file is available here.

“It was great (watching the Giants win the World Series). I am from a small town in Canada. I didn’t really have an option to play baseball, but I have always loved watching baseball. From the Blue Jays when they won those back-to-back World Series, I have always been a big fan. I watch all the transactions and all of the offseason stuff. When I came to San Jose, I justed started going to a lot of Giants games. I have also been to a lot of Oakland games as well. Then I became good friends with Kevin Frandsen when he was with the Giants. I would show up a lot and meet him, and he would leave me tickets. I started to meet a few of the other guys. This year a lot of the guys, Dany Heatley and Douglas Murray, when we would get a chance we would really enjoy going to the games. Especially in AT&T Park, it is such a beautiful place to watch a game. I love going.”

“It is pretty reasonable for people to expect that from us. The ultimate goal is for the Stanley Cup. We have had such dominating regular seasons the last few years where we have won our division, we have won the conference, we have won a Presidents Trophy, it is absolutely expected for us to be one of the top teams and to make a run to the Stanley Cup. Even though we lost to Chicago, we feel that we made pretty good strides last year. It is one of those things where we are knocking on the door, we just have to open it up and get through there. We have been close for years, we feel we have a different attitude and a different approach right now. I think last year was a little nervous from being knocked out in the first round a year before. We felt we had maybe a little added pressure, where we had to get through there, and we did. It is a hard road, it is a long road. It is not going to be easy, but that is why the regular season is here, to build a foundation and prepare yourself.”

- Antero Niittymaki (11-3-3, .907SV%, 2.38GAA) was solid for the San Jose Sharks on Saturday night, stopping 21 of 22 shots against for his 11th win of the season. His only misstep over 60 minutes was on David Backes penalty shot in the second period. It was the first back-to-back wins Niittymaki had earned since October 30th, and the first back-to-back wins the Sharks as a whole had earned since November 30th. “We don’t have a clear cut #1 or #2,” head coach Todd McLellan said. “When it is all said and done, when we head into this summer we are probably going to need both of them.”

Discussion of the Sharks goaltending tandem picked up when Antti Niemi earned 7 of the first 8 starts in December. Niemi, and the team in front of him, alternated wins and losses in 6 appearances. Back-to-back losses against Dallas and Nashville gave Niittymaki the opportunity, and he struggled against Dallas in part due to the lack of recent action he has received, and in part due to the only 18 shots on goal put up by Dallas. “It was nice to play, but it felt terrible to be honest with you, I haven’t played a whole lot and they didn’t shoot the puck.” Niittymaki told David Pollak of the SJ Mercury News. Head coach Todd McLellan also noted that a lack of practice time with two long road trips also played a part.

The Sharks have a balanced position with regards to goaltending. The coaching staff is looking for one netminder to exhibit more consistency on a night in and night out basis, but barring any extended hot streak the rotation should continue. Going with Antti Niemi for the first two weeks of December was against the grain considering how well Niittymaki was performing, but it also instilled confidence in Niemi and strengthened the tandem as a whole. Niemi tightened up his positioning, battled harder for pucks down low, and the team gelled around him and gave him more confidence. The team may not be at a “win and you stay in” scenario yet, a scenario this blog first called for when Evgeni Nabokov was battling Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala for the #1 role, but Todd McLellan has two quality puck stopping tools at his disposal he can use to get the job done.

- David Perron missed his 21st straight game as the Sharks visited St. Louis on Saturday. Perron is suffering from post-concussion symptoms after being checked by Sharks captain Joe Thornton. Thornton was given a 2-game suspension at the time, a ruling based on the newly enacted Rule 48. The Sharks and Blues combined for three first period fights in the game. Ryane Clowe first dropped the gloves with B.J. Crombeen, Scott Nichol fought Chris Porter, and Jamal Mayers faced off against Brad Winchester. The Sharks had not fought previously for 12 straight games, just shy of the 13 game franchise record according to television commentator Randy Hahn. The fights appeared to be more of a reaction from on ice hostilities than any retaliation against Joe Thornton.

- Defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic has been on a hot streak after he ended his 27-game scoring drought on December 9th. In his last 6 games, Vlasic has scored 2 goals and added 3 assists. Vlasic’s timing appeared to be off earlier in the season. Pucks were not getting through traffic on net, and passes were off the stick or behind the body of forwards driving down low. Confidence was also a factor as he had to adapt to new defensive partners after the retirement of Rob Blake.

The Sharks need Vlasic to be a leader from the back end, on and off the scoresheet. Murray, Wallin, Huskins and Demers can answer any physical element an opponent brings to bear, but San Jose need more maturity and leadership from Vlasic. Often when an opponent starts rolling, a single clear, a keep-in at the blueline, or carrying the puck through the neutral zone can settle the team down. Vlasic needs to raise his game during critical situations. It is tough to remember that at only 23 years of age, he is the second longest tenured Shark on the blueline.

- Douglas Murray missed his 4th consecutive game with a lower body injury on Saturday. In only 2 games back from a hand injury, Devin Setoguchi has scored 3 goals and registered 6 hits. #16 for San Jose has been a handful for opposing defenses down low. More on Setoguchi below.

- Chase blasts Blues for not responding to Thornton – St Louis Post-Dispatch.

“The game against the Sharks the other night really bothered me,” Chase told hosts Tim McKernan and Jim Hayes. “David Perron gets knocked out by Joe Thornton, and we didn’t respond. It’s been a long time since I could say that about a Blues team. If there’s guys in there that are looking to be leaders, and are looking to be captains … we hear about these young guys, they’re stepping up, they’re stepping up … well they didn’t step up the other night.

“Joe Thornton came to St. Louis prepared to fight, at least be confronted by one of the guys over their teammate … not one guy responded … not one guy went and said one thing to Joe Thornton.

“It can’t continually be Cam Janssen, Brad Winchester and B.J. Crombeen that step up all the time. Some of these guys have to do some things that are out of their character. And to me, I was embarrassed to be honest with you. I was sitting between the benches for two periods expecting some kind of … if you’re a teammate, you’ve got to go out and confront Joe Thornton. If it’s only verbally, you have to make him feel uncomfortable. The San Jose Sharks came in prepared to have that happen, and the St. Louis Blues did NOTHING, and it was embarrassing”…

“Either they don’t get it, and know that they should respond to the guy, or they don’t like David Perron, and either way that’s a problem,” he said…

“I was so (ticked) off watching the game, I couldn’t even sit down after the third period,” Chase said. “Listen, don’t give me that (bleep) about it’s the new and the old (NHL players) because whether you think that people notice or not, you’re wrong. When the St. Louis Blues fans come out and boo for a period and a half every time (Thornton) touches the puck, and you don’t respond, then they quit booing because they’re like ‘Geez, if these guys don’t care, what do we care?’ That’s what happened in that game. The fans went there anticipating that somebody was going to step up. If you just go get in (Thornton’s) face for one period, you don’t ever have to buy a beer again in St. Louis. This guy cares, and it didn’t look like they cared.

“… That bothered me, I’m telling you, that bothered me because 22 years of being around here with the jersey and stuff, stick up for yourself … stick up for the jersey and think about the rest of the guys that did.”

I would have to agree with media assessments from San Jose and St. Louis that the first period fights on Saturday night did not appear to be a retaliation for Thornton’s hit on Perron. In my opinion, the shoe was a little on the other foot compared to past seasons. Instead of the Blues trying to knock a more talented offensive team off their game with physical play, the situation was reversed. St Louis was answering the physical play on the ice from San Jose.

Chase is directly calling out a young Blues squad that is dealing with injuries to several top-6 forwards. David Perron (concussion), Andy McDonald (concussion) and T.J. Oshie (broken ankle) are out for an extended period. Erik Johnson (knee) was a surprise return after missing only one game, but defenseman Roman Polak and Alex Pietrangelo have also been out. Chase’s point would be more receptive if it was more of a clear cut dirty hit than a simple hockey play, and if the opposing player was someone other than Joe Thornton.

- Observations from a 4-3 OT loss – Mike Heika for the Dallas Morning News.

- Stars-Sharks photos and observations from Mark Stepneski for ESPN Dallas.

- According to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun Evgeni Nabokov touched down from Russia to his home in San Jose on Friday. Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman reportedly has been in contact with Nabokov’s North American agent Don Meehan, but he may hold pat with current Lightning goaltenders Dan Ellis and Mike Smith.

Lebrun also included San Jose Sharks right wing Devin Setoguchi in his Trade bait: 10 players who could move before Feb. 28 article. “Two years removed from a career-high 31 goals, the 23-year-old winger has disappointed and frustrated the coaching staff in San Jose,” Lebrun said of Setoguchi. “They don’t have to trade him, since they have all their 2011 draft picks in hand and some terrific prospects in the minors, but we know other teams covet Setoguchi.”

Speed, physical play, and a heavy shot. There is a lot for opponent’s to like in Setoguchi’s game, but as is the case with a lot of younger players, consistency has been an obstacle. Setoguchi is skating like a man possessed at the moment. Using the NHL video selector, one of the leagues few Japanese-Canadians is having success down low around the net and with his shot from the slot. Where you could really see his game turn the corner is if Seto starts mirroring the puck possession and puck protection utilized by Ryane Clowe (which both forwards were working on at the start of training camp). Setoguchi has 25 pounds less to work with, but an extra gear or two on the hockey transmission. Fast foward to the end (16 seconds) of this Setoguchi is a lousy lawyer commercial. If Setoguchi starts driving around players to the net like that on a regular basis, drawn penalties, goals and rebound opportunities are going to come in bunches. GM’s are wary of trading away potential 30 and 40-goal scorers, and opposing GM’s are salivating at the opportunity to bring him into the Eastern Conference.

- Interview with Fox Sports and The Hockey News trade expert Lyle “Spector” Richardson – Sharkspage.

- Former San Jose Shark Jeremy Roenick introduced the Winter Classic NHL Showcast Showdown prize package on Monday’s episode of The Price is Right. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby detailed the prizes, Winter Classic clothing and jerseys, travel, hotel, rental car, VIP access and tickets for the Bridgestone Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, and a new Honda 2011 CRZ hybrid.

- Winning the draw by any means necessary – Sean Gordon for The Globe and Mail.

“Don’t forget the intentional loss, feels like I’ve been doing that a lot this season,” Joe Pavelski, a centre with the San Jose Sharks, says jokingly. He has been one of the NHL’s premier faceoff men over the past four seasons (his current 51.4 per cent is below his career average, a fact that displeases him greatly).

For all the attention players pay to faceoffs – watching video, taking extra practice – Pavelski points out that it’s still two sticks, one puck and a dot on the ice. “There’s only so many options,” he says. “You can’t hide out there. It’s all about execution, quickness and strength.”

- The NHL and comic book guru Stan Lee are scheduled to make an announcement regarding the Guardian Project this week. 30 Guardian superheros have been created for each NHL team. “In the creation of GME and its unique and unprecedented relationship with the NHL, I truly believe we have the perfect combination from which to launch 30 new superheroes and excite young fans around the globe,” Stan Lee said. The project will include an online presence, mobile applications, publications, gaming, in-arena, and merchandise elements.

- Best Managed Teams of the Last Decade – Bird Watchers Anonymous.

- This was sent by a fan in the buildup to the Ottawa game earlier this month: How To Be An NHL Defenceman – Bloge Salming. If you missed the Lonely Island originals on Saturday Night Live, this song may go over your head. Dan Boyle may cringe at the appearance, but this is one of the best parodies BS and DGB have ever done.

[Update] Which blueliner does Todd McLellan trust most to start in the defensive zone? – Fear the Fin.

[Update2] Can Fehr save the NHLPA? – Globe and Mail roundtable.

[Update3] Lots of information from Hockey Night in Canada this weekend: host Ron MacLean sat down for an interview with new NHLPA head Donald Fehr, Coach’s Corner with Don Cherry debuted yet another DJ Steve Porter music video, and the Hockey Hotstove roundtable covered Sami Salo’s return to Vancouver, the future of the Atlanta Thrashers, and HBO’s 24/7.

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