Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Blackhawks not worried by lack of consistent scoring


CHICAGO -- Brad Richards has been around the NHL long enough to recognize a hockey illusion when he sees one.


That's why he didn't flinch a couple weeks ago when asked about the Chicago Blackhawks having difficulty scoring goals. They were shutout Oct. 28 at United Center by the Anaheim Ducks, a 1-0 game highlighted by Anaheim rookie goaltender John Gibson.


It was the first time the Blackhawks were shut out this season, but not the first time they'd struggled to score despite controlling most facets of the game. Despite posting great puck-possession statistics, their 2.33 goals-per-game average was down almost a full goal per game from the previous two seasons, when Chicago ranked near the top of the League in that category.


That's really when questions started multiplying about their lack of offense, which Richards quickly shot down.


"You can't start breaking away, cheating, looking for extra things because we're not scoring goals," said the 34-year-old veteran center. "[Anaheim's] a good hockey team that we held, pretty much, to few chances. If you draw up how to play that team, that was a good game and we can't lose focus on that just trying to cheat and get more offense."


Stay the course, in other words. Keep playing the "right" way. Things will turn eventually, possibly as soon as their next game Friday against the Washington Capitals (8:30 p.m. ET, NHLN-US).


All of those sentiments have become mantras for the Blackhawks in a short amount of time. They believe their lack of goals this season is part anomaly and part their own fault for not attacking the net hard enough.


There is evidence to suggest both assessments are correct.


Nineteen of Chicago's 32 non-shootout goals through the first 13 games were scored in four games, including a 5-0 victory Tuesday at Bell Centre against the Montreal Canadiens. The common theme linking those four games is how much the Blackhawks swarmed the opposing net, creating constant havoc for defensemen and goaltenders.


"Very unusual for us [not to score], especially when we get the quality or the quantity of shots [we want]," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "I still think there's a higher quality that can be generated by us by getting to the net more, make it harder on goalies seeing pucks. I think that can ignite our offense, whether it's on the power play or in a 5-on-5 situation. There's where [we've] got to get. We're certainly getting [offensive] zone time. We're getting enough shots. But let's find more traffic."


When they do the goals seem to come in bunches. And yet there's also the anomaly part, which can be found in Chicago's other nine games. Despite dominating puck possession in most of those games, the Blackhawks scored 13 goals (1.44 per game).


The loss to Anaheim was a great example.


Other than sustaining their third regulation defeat, the Blackhawks didn't have a lot to gripe about. They outshot the Ducks 38-25, had 22 more total shot attempts (66-44), won 61 percent of faceoffs and killed Anaheim's only power play. But they didn't score and lost the game on a turnover in the third period that led to the game-winning goal, a shorthanded breakaway score by forward Devante Smith-Pelly.


"You can take some positives out of it," said left wing Patrick Sharp, who sustained a lower-body injury Tuesday in Montreal. "We always say the key to our team is the way we check and defend our net. I thought we did a very good job of that against a tough Anaheim team."


An overtime loss to the Calgary Flames on Oct. 15 at United Center was even more vexing. That game finished with the Blackhawks ahead 50-18 in shots and 96-33 in shot attempts against a goaltender who had been scuffling. Prior to making 49 saves in the Blackhawks' 2-1 overtime loss, Calgary's Jonas Hiller was 0-2-0 with a 3.53 goals-against average and .901 save percentage.


A week later, as concerns about Chicago's offense surfaced, the Blackhawks had no trouble scoring in a 4-0 victory against the Philadelphia Flyers. It was the first sign of what's been a turbulent, feast-or-famine start to the season.


Following the loss to Anaheim the Blackhawks scored four goals in a 5-4 shootout win Oct. 30 at the Ottawa Senators. They followed that by scoring two goals in back-to-back losses at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday and at home Sunday against the Winnipeg Jets.


After failing to score on 26 third-period shots against Toronto, the Jets handed Chicago its second 1-0 defeat of the season, extending the Blackhawks' scoreless streak at United Center to seven straight periods and counting.


"It can [be streaky]," Quenneville said of scoring goals. "It can be more so for individual scorers. Sometimes they get red hot; sometimes they go a little bit cold. At the same time, as a team we've never had that issue. We've always found a way to get some type of production. Doesn't matter what line or who [scores]."


Though that may be true, it hasn't stopped Quenneville from searching for productive line combinations. Already known for juggling his lines, he's worked overtime at it this season. He's tried almost every possible combination together, including reuniting Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane on the top line Tuesday.


Quenneville has moved players up and down the lineup, withheld ice time for some and added it to others. Yet nothing really has had great effect. No matter who has played together, they've played strong games almost every time out.


According to Puckalytics.com, Chicago entered play Wednesday with a League-high 671 shots attempted at 5-on-5, and their Corsi-for percentage of 57.0 also topped the League.


Eliminating blocked shots (Fenwick) changes little in showing how effectively Chicago has possessed the puck during 5-on-5 play. The Blackhawks' Fenwick-for percentage of 56.1 is second to the Minnesota Wild.


Chicago also has taken an impressive 40.1 percent of faceoffs in the offensive zone.


All those metrics say the Blackhawks shouldn't be struggling to score goals.


But they are scuffling in that category, at least when it comes to scoring on a consistent basis. That shows not only in their 7-5-1 record, but also in their team 5-on-5 shooting percentage of 5.19 percent, which was 29th in the League entering play Wednesday. The Blackhawks had an 8.43 5-on-5 shooting percentage last season and 8.97 percent in 2012-13. That's why it's easy to see why there's no panic in the Blackhawks locker room.


Stay the course. Keep playing the "right" way. Things will turn eventually.


"You go through stretches," Quenneville said. "Sometimes some stats become fluky and unusual. Try to find a good explanation for it, you might not find one. I feel that with the ability we have in the locker room and the balance we have in our lineup ... we feel it's just a matter of time. We're getting enough looks and enough chances that find a way to get through. It's still early, but one thing we don't have to worry about too often is production."


In other words, why start now?



Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Canadiens head to Buffalo seeking answers to slump


MONTREAL -- Ten days.


That is all it has taken for the Montreal Canadiens to go from being the toast of the NHL, a team sitting pretty with a 7-1-0 record, to one getting booed in its own building.


The Canadiens have won once since defeating the New York Rangers 3-1 on Oct. 25, a five-game span that has seen Montreal get outscored 18-6, with the exclamation point being laid down by the Chicago Blackhawks in a 5-0 win at Bell Centre on Tuesday.


The Canadiens are 1-3-1 in the 10 days since that win against the Rangers, and what appeared to be a promising start to the season has gone seriously sideways in a hurry.


"Nothing's working for us," center Tomas Plekanec said Tuesday. "I mean, I thought we played hard in the first period, we put pucks to the net. We need to take a step back. We have to stay positive as much as possible and we've got to fight through it.


"We've got to help ourselves, somehow."


The Canadiens can do that as soon as Wednesday, when they will visit the Buffalo Sabres and former captain Brian Gionta and alternate captain Josh Gorges for the first time since they left Montreal during the summer -- Gionta via free agency, Gorges in a trade.


But a lot of things will need to change in order for the Canadiens to come out of their current rut, and a win against the Sabres would not be as important as how they play in Buffalo.


The Canadiens are a team built on speed, one that thrives on mistakes and is able to transition from defense to offense as quickly as any team in the NHL.


But they have not been doing that of late. Far from it.


Pucks that used to crisply go from stick to stick up the ice are now bouncing away to the opposition. There is little cohesion in anything the Canadiens are doing offensively, and they appear unable to enter the opposing zone more than one player at a time.


"We know what we want to do and when we do it, we're so hard to play against," Plekanec said. "That's our game. The transition game is our game. I think what we need is our second guy on the forecheck, our second guy when we're getting pucks through the neutral zone and in the offensive zone, our second guy is a little bit too late. They get two guys there and outnumber us in the corners and they get it out too easy."


When the Canadiens are not transitioning well, they become very easy to play against, and that's what's happened during the past few games.


"We're having trouble creating rhythm in our game," coach Michel Therrien said. "Our transition game isn't there. In a relay race, when you don't get that baton, you can't race. That's what's happening to us right now."


Therrien attempted to fix that Tuesday by putting his two top puck-moving defensemen on the same pairing, the first time this season P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov played together on a regular basis.


It didn't work.


Subban and Markov were on the ice for three Chicago goals and were on the points of a Canadiens power play that went 0-for-4, dropping them to 8.1 percent for the season, better than only the Minnesota Wild and the Sabres.


If the Canadiens transition game is going to work, Subban and Markov will be a big part of it. Subban, for one, does not like what he's seeing from his own play this season.


"Am I guilty of not being my best? Yeah, I am. I don't think this season I've been my best," Subban said. "The good thing is there's a lot of hockey to be played, I know I can be better, and it starts [Wednesday]. Another opportunity.


"You can say whatever you want, nobody cares. People just want to see you play better. People want to point the finger at me? That's fine. I've got to be better. And I will be."


Subban was made a part of the Canadiens leadership group this season when he and Max Pacioretty joined Plekanec and Markov as alternate captains to fill the void left by the departures of Gionta and Gorges. It's a role he takes seriously, and he openly admitted taking blame for the way he's played fits with the sort of accountability the Canadiens want to establish in their dressing room.


That role also appears to allow Subban to take a positive view of the situation the Canadiens finds themselves in, a sudden market correction from powerhouse to mouse in a span of 10 days.


"Obviously we know that the past couple of games haven't been our best games, and we're paying for it the past two, but that's OK," Subban said. "That's all a part of learning. There's a lot of hockey to be played this season. What we have to do is figure out, this is the way we're going to get out of these situations.


"As a guy who's part of the leadership group, you watch to see if guys are getting down on each other. We're not doing that. Guys are supporting each other, building each other up. That's what's important. That's what's going to get us out of this thing."



Which amazing goal was better? Tarasenko or Malkin


Monday, November 3, 2014

Julien has shown steady hand in guiding Bruins


BOSTON -- Despite a whirlwind of circumstances that might sink a lesser team -- most notably an injury to defenseman Zdeno Chara and the trade of top-four defenseman Johnny Boychuk days before the start of the season -- the Boston Bruins have stayed afloat in the standings, in part because of the coaching of Claude Julien.


Through 13 games the Bruins are a respectable 7-6-0, as Julien has again proven he can handle rosters with different levels of experience, age and talent. Through his eight seasons as the Bruins coach, Julien has compiled a 317-171-65 record, won the Stanley Cup in 2011 and has guided the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Playoffs in seven straight seasons.


He was rewarded over the weekend with a multiyear contract extension by general manager Peter Chiarelli.


"In general I think he's done a very good job," Chiarelli said in response to a question about Julien’s work this season Monday. "This year, there's been a lot of flux I guess with either contract situations or trades, trades within training camp, so he's had to deal with that. You know he's had to deal with some younger players coming up. We're one game over .500. We've played better the last four or five games. He's done a good job. You give a coach a contract extension based on the job that he's done globally. And globally, for us over the years, he's done a very good job."


Julien's success with Boston has also included a second trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 2013 and a Jack Adams Trophy in 2009. Julien took over a team that had failed to qualify for the playoffs two years running. In the first month of his first regular season, Julien lost center Patrice Bergeron to a career-threatening concussion. The Bruins still made the playoffs and pushed the top-seeded Montreal Canadiens to seven games in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.


Over Julien's years as coach, the Bruins have succeeded despite injuries to other star players, some controversial trades and even the decision of two-time Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Tim Thomas to take a year off. They responded to a historic loss in the second round of the 2010 playoffs, when they lost a 3-0 series lead to the Philadelphia Flyers, by winning the Cup the next season.


Julien has struck a balance between reward and punishment that's maximized his teams' talents.


"I think since I've been here, we've been fairly successful. But it always hasn’t been great times. There's been some difficult times that we've faced," said forward Chris Kelly, who has played for Julien since 2011. "And I think the thing with Claude is when there's times for him to get upset with us, he does. And when there's times for him to pat us on the back, he does that as well. So I think he does a great job of managing his players and knowing how to get the most out of us."


The Bruins have mostly been a veteran team the past several seasons. Because they typically spend near the ceiling of the NHL salary cap, the Bruins had to start a slight youth movement this season. Already before camp started they knew they were going to get younger up front because of the departures of Jarome Iginla and Shawn Thornton. Injuries to Chara, Torey Krug and Kevan Miller, in addition to the Boychuk trade, have accelerated a youth movement on the back end as well.


Julien has met his latest challenge head-on.


"Right now we have to bring some young players in at times and develop those guys, and that's something where I think my past experience having coached junior and the American Hockey League, I've dealt with younger players," said Julien, who led the Hull Olympiques to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League championship in 1996-97.


"So you look at the young players that have come in throughout the years, whether it's been [forward Milan] Lucic as a 19-year-old. David Krejci played his first full season I think as a 21-year-old my first year here. There's a lot of players. We could go on and on and on. And Dougie Hamilton as of late. And you've got to give those guys some confidence, you've got to work with them and you've got to allow them to play. Those are things that you have to be able to accept and excel in as a coach today, because there was a time where years back where it was all about veterans and it was really tough for young players to find their way into a lineup. So we have to make that adjustment, and that adjustment I feel comfortable making because of my past experience as a coach moving up in this field."


Bergeron believes Julien's consistency of temperament helps him with players of all ages.


"I think he's good at finding I guess the strength of every player and finding ways to get the best out of him, whether they're veterans or younger guys," Bergeron said. "I think he started in junior hockey and even the American league, so I think he's dealt with younger players in the past and he's used to that. And I don't think it's anything for him. He's a fair coach, he's a coach that wants the best out of his players and always finds a way to do that. So I don't think it changes from the young guys to the veterans. I think it's just his own style and you've just got to buy in to what he wants us to accomplish as a team."


The Bruins roster should continue to see a changeover the rest of this season and in the years ahead. Chiarelli will probably make trades to bolster his club for a postseason run in 2015 and the current roster includes six regulars that can become unrestricted free agents next summer, plus Hamilton, Krug, forward Reilly Smith and goaltender Niklas Svedberg, who can become restricted free agents.


Chiarelli has proven with this extension that he thinks he has the man to shepherd the Bruins' transitional years ahead.


"Well we've had change every year. It just happened that some of it happened during training camp, which has been a little different," Chiarelli said. "I mean he's done a good job throughout the years and he's shown an ability to go with the flow. And he's got solid foundations and principles and I would anticipate that that would continue. That's why we would want him to be here going forward."



Canadiens not panicking despite some trouble spots


BROSSARD, Quebec -- The Montreal Canadiens will enter their game Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks tied for the second-best record in the National Hockey League, their 8-3-1 mark through 12 games sitting behind only the Anaheim Ducks.


Despite that, the Canadiens find themselves in the middle of their first mini-crisis situation of the 2014-15 season.


Such is life when you play professional hockey in Montreal.


The Canadiens are in the midst of their first losing streak of the season, their 6-2 loss to the Calgary Flames on Sunday coming after a 3-2 overtime loss on the road to the Vancouver Canucks last Thursday.


The Canadiens are pretty well insulated from the sometimes hysterical reactions of their passionate fan base, but on occasion they can't help but realize what the people on the outside are thinking of their team.


"There's no panic. Nobody's panicking here. I'm sensing some panic," coach Michel Therrien said after a high intensity practice Monday. "Bad games happen to every team. We're very disappointed with what happened, and we've taken note of it. … We're conscious of the passion of our fans, we're conscious of a lot of things. But there's a lot of parity in the League and every game is very difficult to win. So you have to be at your best every game to give yourself a chance to win. [Sunday], we were far from our best."


The Blackhawks arrive in Montreal under very similar circumstances. Coming off two straight losses, to the Toronto Maple Leafs on the road and the Winnipeg Jets at home, Chicago has had an incredible amount of trouble scoring goals. In 12 games, the Blackhawks have scored two or fewer goals in nine of them, going 3-5-1 in those games.


But unlike the Blackhawks, whose 6-5-1 record reflects the problems they have had thus far, the Canadiens shiny record has been masking some areas where they haven't been at their best all season.


There are a number of key statistical categories where the Canadiens find themselves in the bottom third of the NHL after 12 games, prior to the game Monday between the New York Rangers and the St. Louis Blues: 5-on-5 goals for and against (21st), goals per game (24th), goals against per game (20th), shots on goal per game (24th), shots on goal against per game (22nd), power play percentage (26th), power play opportunities (26th), times shorthanded (29th) and penalty kill time (29th).


To name a few.


The Canadiens are also one of two teams in the NHL, along with the Philadelphia Flyers, who have scored the first goal in only two games this season, and they are the only team yet to hold a lead at the end of the first period.


The more advanced stats are not kind to the Canadiens either, with the team sitting 23rd in the NHL in both Corsi- and Fenwick-for percentage (shot attempts and unblocked shot attempts) when the score is close, according to war-on-ice.com.


"There's more areas of our game that we would have liked to clean up than expected, especially given the record that we had," Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty said. "But at the same time it's been 12 games and we're looking to get better every game.


"It's early in the year, but you can't use that excuse anymore."


Therrien is not making any rash decisions in the wake of the 6-2 loss against the Flames.


It is early in the season and a lot of the statistics listed above are disproportionately skewed by the Canadiens three regulation losses, which came by a combined score of 16-3.


Coming off perhaps the most embarrassing of those three losses, the Canadiens first on home ice this season, Therrien did not tinker too much at practice Monday with a forward group that has had trouble producing offense of late. He has two players sitting out of the lineup in Jiri Sekac and Michael Bournival who might help in that area, and Therrien did not rule out one or both of them coming in Tuesday, but they remained extras in practice Monday. And following a brief stint at center, Alex Galchenyuk will move back to left wing on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Brendan Gallagher.


The one serious adjustment made at practice Monday was pairing top defensemen Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, a combination Therrien uses at strategic times during games, but which has not started a single game together this season.


Markov and Subban were, by far, the Canadiens most effective defensive pairing last season, driving possession and ensuring the puck stayed far away from goaltender Carey Price more often than not.


"They're a threat every time they're in the opposition end. There's no question," Price said. "[Markov's] vision is second to none and he finds P.K. all over the ice. P.K. obviously has the lateral ability and the shot to get it on net. So I think if we're using those two guys [Tuesday], they need to do what they need to do, and that's get pucks towards the net."


The problem, if Markov and Subban do indeed play together, is the rest of the Canadiens defense becomes thin on talent. Alexei Emelin, Subban's regular partner, would move to the left of Markov's partner Tom Gilbert, with Nathan Beaulieu likely to play his second straight game to the left of Mike Weaver on the third pair.


But by and large, the Canadiens will be staying the course against Chicago on Tuesday and hoping whatever ailed them the past two games was more of a blip on the radar than signs of a downward trend.


"I think we just need to stay confident in our abilities and keep moving forward," Price said. "Sure, we lost two games, but it's not the end of the world.


"There's no overwhelming sense of panic in this room."


Not yet, at least.



Sunday, November 2, 2014

Gaudreau showing Flames he belongs in NHL


CALGARY -- Johnny Gaudreau is listed as a member of the Calgary Flames, though he can't claim to be a Calgary resident. One month into his NHL career, Gaudreau still is living in a downtown hotel.


He hasn't been told to find a more permanent residence. Yet.


"I hope to hear the news," said Gaudreau, who has one goal and four points 10 games into his first full professional season after a standout career at Boston College. "There's nothing definite yet. Each day I'm fortunate to be here and I'm going to do my best to try to make sure [general manager Brad Treliving] is telling me to get a place. Hopefully I keep proving to them and showing them that I belong here."


His coach said he's doing just that. He'll have another chance to prove himself Sunday against the Montreal Canadiens (7 p.m. ET, CITY)


Gaudreau had the game-winning goal and an assist in a 4-3 defeat of the Nashville Predators on Friday, impressing Flames coach Bob Hartley and Predators coach Peter Laviolette.


"He's a good player," Laviolette said of Gaudreau. "Good players do that. They can change a game."


It's not the first time Gaudreau has been a recent standout for Hartley. After Gaudreau had an assist in a 2-1 shootout loss to the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday, the Calgary coach was effusive in his praise.


"Johnny Gaudreau was buzzing," Hartley said. "He was fun to watch even from the bench. At some points I was watching him and feeling like a fan. He is so good at creating room for himself. He is a good worker. It's a sign that he's growing in this organization."


After getting the chance to sleep on it, Hartley still was complimentary the next day.


"That was Johnny's best game," he said. "Best game with the puck, Johnny without the puck. I felt that he was our best forward."


It's as good as Gaudreau has felt through 12 games in the NHL, 11 this season and the final game of 2013-14, when he scored in his debut against the Vancouver Canucks.


"I think it was one of those games where I was just making little plays," Gaudreau said of his effort Tuesday. "I try to do the little things right. I try to be smart in the defensive zone and try to create chances offensively. I was playing with a bunch of different players [Tuesday] and everyone was playing really well. It's easy to play when you're playing with players who are playing well as well."


It's more than just the supporting cast Gaudreau has been surrounded by, though. Hartley believes Gaudreau's development is through the hard work done by the young forward.


"Pretty impressive but it's still young," Hartley said. "To Johnny's credit, he's a great student, especially the way that he improved in our zone, in our system. He's a smart young man and he wants to do it and he works hard. You look at him in practice, he's always working, he's always applying himself.


"That's why that he's playing well and progressing in our organization."


But there will be questions surrounding Gaudreau, at least in the early stages.


He's listed at 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds. He has been dealing with an abundance of questions as to whether he can survive the rigors of the NHL game at that size.


"Your questions were our questions at the same time. Not only for Johnny but any young players that step in the NHL," Hartley said. "Johnny, his size will always be the ultimate question from everywhere. But he's answered this question since he started to play.


"Johnny is tough mentally. I'm sure that he went through so many battles where he had to prove himself that it's kind of another normal step for him. It's a big step into the NHL but I'm sure he went through this in college. I'm sure he went through this in midget or high school or wherever he played. It's déjà vu for Johnny but under a much bigger microscope. I feel that he's handling it very well.


"Once again he's answering it with great performances. He's progressing. He's doing good, but again, it's just a matter of getting better every day."


He's been doing that since he was a healthy scratch against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 17.


Gaudreau had been held without a point in his first five games, with one shot on goal. After watching the Flames' 3-2 loss that night to the Blue Jackets, he returned the next game and had his first two points of the season, including the game-winning goal, against the Winnipeg Jets. In six games since sitting out he has two goals (both game-winners) and four assists.


"It's been a learning experience for me," said Gaudreau. "It's been a different experience and a little different for me but it was a good transition.


"I'm excited for the next month and to see if I can keep improving, keep playing well with talented players."


And keep a Calgary residence.


"I just try to play every day like it's going to be my last one," Gaudreau said. "I'm fortunate enough to be up here playing with the Flames and playing with a whole bunch of talented players. I'm taking it one day at a time and doing my best every day."