NHL Wins and Sins: The timeless Alex Ovechkin, the unstoppable Lightning, and the pathetic Blackhawks
What's right and wrong in the NHL this week
It's time for our weekly installment highlighting what's right and what's wrong with the NHL during every week throughout the season. For all the things there are to love about the NHL and its product, there's also plenty to hate and plenty to criticize.
With that in mind, let's hash it out together ... right here ... every single Wednesday.
What's right: Tampa Bay Lightning
Chances are you already know the Lightning are pretty good because they've been good for quite a while now. But the recent tear that they've been on is pretty remarkable. Tampa is currently riding a seven-game win streak and have won 10 of their last 11. At 24-7-1, they're the league's top team by a pretty comfortable margin, holding a six-point cushion over the second-place Toronto Maple Leafs.
That's all the more impressive when you consider that this is a team that's been without their starting goaltender, Andrei Vasilevskiy, for the past month due to a fractured foot. (He appears ready to return this week.) Their backup, Louis Domingue, has been relatively decent in net, starting 13 games (11-2) and posting a .912 save-percentage over that time, but this isn't one of those cases where a goalie gets super hot and helps his team go on a run.
No, the Lightning have just been an unstoppable force over the past month or so. Their 4.00 goals per game leads the league by a wide gap (they've got nearly half a goal on second-place ... you guessed it, Toronto) but they've been especially deadly of late. Since Vasilevskiy's injury on November 15, they've averaged 4.7 goals per game.
I'll repeat that. Since Nov. 15, they've averaged 4.7 goals per game.
Just absolutely stupid. Not a bad way to pick up your hurt goaltender, I guess.
We've still got a few weeks until Christmas, but the Lightning already have two guys that have reached the 40-point mark in Nikita Kucherov (12-33-45) and Brayden Point (21-20-41) -- the only other team 40-point teammates right now are Colorado's Mikko Rantanen (13-39-52) and Nathan MacKinnon (20-27-47).
In the 14 games played since Vasilevskiy went down, the Bolts' stars have just been lighting the world on fire. Kucherov is averaging nearly two points per game (5-22-27) and Point isn't that far behind (12-10-22). Steven Stamkos has turned it on as well, especially in the last week. The Lightning captain scored six goals over four games in the last week (eight in his last seven), including a hat trick against the Rangers on Monday.
This insane pace is probably going to slow down at some point soon, but the Lightning have been great all year and this run provides a terrifying glimpse of just how dominant they can be when they're on -- even without their Vezina-caliber goaltender in net. It seems like every year the eventual Presidents' Trophy-winners go on a couple of really impressive mid-season runs that help them bank points, and it feels like this could be one of those runs for the Lightning.
What's wrong: Chicago Blackhawks
For as good as the Lightning have been lately, the Blackhawks have almost been as impressively bad. They're currently working on an eight-game losing streak and have lost 10 of their last 11. They sit dead-last in the NHL with a miserable 23 points through 32 games.
To put things into perspective, we're nearly halfway through December and the Blackhawks currently have the same amount of wins (9) as the Bears. (Shoutout to The Athletic's Mark Lazerus for pointing out that sad-but-true factoid. His Twitter account has been full of staggeringly depressing factoids lately.)
Over the course of this latest eight-game losing streak, the Blackhawks have given up 4.88 goals per game on an average of 35 shots a night. As you can imagine, this isn't a great time to be in Chicago's net -- Corey Crawford has lost each of his last eight starts and has a .871 save-percentage over that span, while Cam Ward has credit for the team's only win post-Thanksgiving but has also only posted a save-percentage over .900 in one game since the start of November. Then again, goaltending is far from the only issue -- especially when they netminders are standing in front of a firing squad on a nightly basis.
The 'Hawks have developed a terrible habit of coming out of the gate slow and lifeless. They've given up the first goal in 11 straight games and have been outscored 27-6 in the first period over that stretch. The Blackhawks are scoring but they're being forced to chase the game and play from behind a lot, and they're certainly not helping themselves with the frequency in which they take penalties. They definitely are lacking in skill and depth, but their personnel issues are currently being compounded by the fact that they're playing like a very mentally weak and fragile team.
Since firing Joel Quenneville, they've gone 3-12-2. Probably don't need to tell you that's not great. No offense to Jeremy Colliton but holy smokes, maybe not the guy you want leading this team. Coaching wasn't the issue under Q but it certainly seems like it may be part of the issue now.
What's right: Alex Ovechkin
At the start of training camp this year, it was reported that Ovechkin showed up looking like he was in the best shape of his life. It would have been easy to roll your eyes and laugh that off with a "yeah, sure ... alright." After all, we all saw the pictures and videos from his summer-long bender after capturing his first Stanley Cup. By all indications, he may not have been sober for months. We were supposed to believe this guy was more ready than ever for another NHL season -- his 14th -- at the age of 33?
Yeah, sure ... alright.
But anyone who doubted that forgot one thing: Russian machine never breaks.
This week, Ovechkin scored six goals over the course of four games, including a hat trick against the Red Wings on Tuesday. That brings his total on the season to 25 in 30 games, good enough for the league's overall lead. It's the highest goal total Ovechkin has ever had through his first 30 games in any NHL season (his previous high was 22 in 2014) and it ties an NHL record for the most ever scored by a player age 33-or-older through a team's first 30 games.
At the moment, he's projected to finish with 68 goals this year. He's 33 years old. He's a freak of nature.
"I try to do the same thing over and over again. It's fun," might be the most fitting Ovechkin quote that has ever existed. May as well just print that on the ice in the left circle at Capital One Arena.
It seems patently absurd to wonder whether Ovechkin could possibly threaten Wayne Gretzky's all-time goals record considering he's approaching his mid-30s and is still 262 back of The Great One, but Ovi shows absolutely no signs of slowing down, both skills-wise and passion-wise. What if he plays for another 10 years? Jagr hit 45 before sputtering out, why can't Ovechkin? It's not completely unfathomable after all, is it?
Those are probably not questions that need to be answered right now. But we should take some time to appreciate what he's doing right now and do our best to enjoy a living legend while we can.
What's wrong: Ryan Reaves
Ryan Reaves and Tom Wilson reignited their personal rivalry during a Stanley Cup Final rematch in Vegas this week and things got a bit ugly and violent halfway through the game. After going at each other throughout the first period, Reaves delivered a late, blindside hit on Wilson that knocked him out of the game with a concussion and got Reaves ejected.
As both players shared the ice in the Knights' offensive zone, Wilson briefly gained possession with a quick touch pass and was subsequently crushed by Reaves with the late hit/ While the collision wasn't egregiously late or overtly dirty -- the contact was shoulder-to-shoulder -- it still had a rather ugly outcome. Wilson's helmet was sent flying and his head appeared to bounce off the ice as he came crashing down.
But Reaves isn't a sinner this week because of the hit or the fact that he wasn't suspended for it -- a decision I agree with given the five-minute major and game misconduct he was assessed on the ice -- but rather how he handled the aftermath of it all.
After the game, Reaves said he didn't believe the hit was that bad and that Wilson "ran into a lion in the jungle." Reaves also promptly turned around and began signing pictures of a concussed Wilson on the ice in pain, inscribing that same turn of phrase next to his autograph.
Looking past the fact that lions are typically found in savannah or dry forests and not the jungle, willingly lending your signature to a memorabilia company to profit off of another guy's injury (and head trauma, nonetheless) is in pretty bad taste. It takes a lot to turn Wilson into something of a sympathetic character but there's always quite a bit of sensitivity when it comes to concussions suffered as a result of illegal hits these days.
Plus, to my knowledge, Wilson has never signed photos of any of his 800 headshot victims.
Ultimately, the photos were pulled from the memorabilia store and "destroyed" before any of them were distributed. According to Reaves, he's the one who called the memorabilia store back and told them to get rid of them after he came to the realization that they were in poor taste.
If that actually happened, it didn't occur before the internet caught wind of the photos and raised a stir.
What's wrong: St. Louis Blues practice fights
Yep, the Blues are still terrible (not quite as terrible as the Blackhawks but still) and now things have gotten bad enough to the point where they're turning on each other and eating their own in practice.
St. Louis defenseman Robert Bortuzzo and forward Zach Sanford got into a heated fight in practice this week, and this was no "let's just argue and angry hug for a few moments to send a message" practice fight. Bortuzzo pretty much beat the brakes off Sanford before the two were separated, and then Sanford tossed a stick at Bortuzzo to let him know he didn't appreciate getting pummeled.
While it's obviously not ideal to see teammates mauling each other in practice, the Blues clearly needed something to wake them up and light a fire under the team. Was this it? The Blues are 1-0 since the practice tussle, so maybe! Either way, they should probably turn things around rather soon because you definitely don't wanna see this become a regular occurence.
Non-goal of the week
Best illegal goal of the week goes to referee Tim Peel, who scored an accidental goal with his frank and beans. Pretty impressive stuff.
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