Peter’s vacation continues, so you are stuck with me once more for the recap of last week’s NHL action.
Player of the Week: Artemi Panarin
You didn’t really think I’d get through two straight columns without talking about the Blue Jackets, did you? The Breadman had been having a solid if unspectacular year as the calendar turned to December. Despite his talent (or because of it), it had taken some time for the Jackets to find line mates that paired well with the Russian winger. The initial thought was to put him with Alexander Wennberg and Cam Atkinson. On paper, that line made all of the sense in the world—two high scoring wingers paired with a player who showed his acumen for setting the table last season. On the ice was a different story. While Atkinson and Panarin clicked at points, Wennberg was too conservative, often playing in no man’s land beyond the offensive zone face-off circles.
This lead to weeks of John Tortorella running the blender to try and find lines that worked. In the meantime, Wennberg’s injury also forced Tortorella to get more creative at center, a position the Jackets had been looking to upgrade during the offseason. Enter rookie, Pierre-Luc Dubois. While the Jackets wanted Dubois to be their center of the future, the team had been hesitant to play him at the position, preferring to try and ease him in. But Torts took the advice of Dubois’ father who had found that when he was struggling with his game, he actually improved when forced into the rigors of playing center. After a bit of a cold spell for Dubois, Tortorella decided to give it a try and Dubois slowly moved his way up the lineup, taking advantage of the opportunity presented by Wennberg’s absence, and finding himself on the top line with Panarin and Josh Anderson. If the Jackets make noise in the postseason, the decision to unite the three unlikely line mates may be looked back as the moment that set the table for their success.
So, in recent weeks, the line which has affectionately become known as PB&J (Pierre, Breadman and Josh) has started to click, but Panarin had yet to really have a performance where he went off. That changed on Friday night in New Jersey. After a poor performance in Columbus on Tuesday against the Devils (notwithstanding excellent possession performances from the PB&J line), the Jackets’ backs were to the wall. They really needed the win against their divisional opponent given how tight the race is in the Metropolitan. The game didn’t start well for the Jackets with the team entering intermission down 2-0 and likely facing an unhappy LukasTortorella in the locker room. But the tide would turn in the second period largely due to the efforts of Panarin.
Panarin caused a turnover which found its way to Dubois’ stick for his first assist of the night. Another turnover created by Panarin lead to a goal by Lukas Sedlak in the middle of a line change to even up the score. Panarin’s third assist of the night may have been the most impressive. As four Devils watched Panarin, he saw the trailer, Scott Harrington, and made a perfect cross ice pass to get Harrington the goal. After the Devils tied it before the second period ended, the Jackets got a rare power play goal when Panarin made a backhanded pass to Wennberg who, in a rarer aggressive play, went to the net and buried the puck. Panarin would add a fifth first assist of the night when he found an open Zach Werenski for the fifth and final goal of the night. And that summary of the game doesn’t even fully encapsulate how well Panarin played. He was consistently finding his way through traffic and the puck seemed to be magnetically attracted to the tape on his stick blade.
While Saturday’s game was not nearly as exciting, Panarin still managed a Corsi For percentage of 58%. The Jackets would strike early as Panarin found Anderson behind the net and he would bury it top shelf. When you have Sergei Bobrovsky in net, sometimes one goal is enough, and it would prove to be the case. Panarin now has 6 straight primary assists for Columbus, but when you look back at Panarin’s performance this week, the thing that stands out that is underrated about him and is the big difference from Brandon Saad, is his play away from the puck. His work in creating two turnovers that set up those first two goals against New Jersey during a crucial time in the game on Friday prevented the game from getting out of control and righted the ship for a team that had a couple poor performances against divisional opponents before that game.
Game of the Week: Winnipeg Jets 3 at Tampa Bay Lightning 4 (OT), December 9, 2017.
We’ve covered this game extensively this week, and with good reason. One of the top teams in the Western, versus one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. A classic matchup between the immovable object and the unstoppable force. Even with the Jets coming off of two losses entering the game, you knew they would play up for this one. Yes, I’m talking about Winnipeg for the second time in my two weeks doing this column and no it isn’t because there is a social media account that retweets anything you tweet featuring the word Winnipeg, positive or negative (yes, that really was a thing).
The game got off to a quick start as you’d expect from two offensive powerhouses. Adam Lowry showed some great patience with two Lightning players defending him to find Andrew Copp in the slot for the first goal of the game. The Lightning continued their streak of nine straight games with a power play goal (that’s possible, eh?) when Brayden Point made a beautiful feed to give Yanni Gourde a goal that Connor Hellebuyck had no hope to stop.
A Cedric Paquette goal was overturned for goaltender interference by Chris Kunitz, so the score would stay 1-1, but Mikhail Sergachev would finally put the Lightning ahead with a beautiful shot after losing his defender with a quick change of directions. The Jets would not go away though. Former Youngstown Phantom, Kyle Connor, would redirect a rising shot from Josh Morrissey to even the game at 2 and that is how the second period would end.
Winnipeg retook the lead near the midway point of the third period when Nikolaj Ehlers somehow found Andrei Vasilevskiy’s five hole before the goaltender could even react to the shot. After Vasilevskiy would stop another attempt by Ehlers, Nikita Kucherov’s shot through traffic somehow found the net and the score was again tied at three. Note—the sequence I just described happened in all of about 2 minutes of game time. Both teams then settled down and got the game to overtime to salt away a point for their troubles.
Overtime wouldn’t last long though as Point would elude Bryan Little and get his backhand over Hellebuyck.
The Lightning continue to be in a class by themselves in the early part of the season, but the Jets gave it their all.
News, Notes, & Nonsense:
A busy week in NHL and other hockey news. On Tuesday the news came down that Russia would be banned from the Winter Olympics as punishment for their concerted efforts to violate anti-doping rules during the Sochi games in 2014. Clean Russian athletes will still be permitted to play at the games, but not under the Russian flag. If they are looking for a team name, I suggest “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Russia, Steroid Free!” There was concern that the KHL might prevent its players from playing in the Olympics, which would have thrown a monkey wrench in Team Canada’s plans for the games. However, cooler heads prevailed as the KHL probably realized there was value to having its athletes compete on the world’s highest international stage…unlike the NHL.
Backing up slightly, last Monday the City of Seattle approved the memorandum of understanding with the Oak View Group to remodel the ancient KeyArena at a cost of around $600 million (most of it comes from private funds) so that it could be suitable to host one or more professional sports franchises. This will likely be the death knell for a competing project which would have seen a new arena built closer where the existing stadiums are, in SoDo. The NHL owners, who conveniently had a Board of Governor’s meeting, couldn’t wait to let Seattle know that they would be willing to take their money consider their application for expansion. Fee for expansion? $650 million, exceeding the $500 million that Vegas just paid. I think Seattle is a great market for hockey in an underserved part of the country, but I also think the economics of a team with startup costs of over one billion dollars are a bit shaky. For comparison, the Blue Jackets paid a franchise fee of $80 million and built an arena at a cost of $175 million…and still eventually needed a bailout from local government. From the league’s side, it is understandable why they prefer Seattle to, say, Quebec City, because of the geographic balance adding the market will create.
Finally, let’s take a moment to remember 11 years ago when Anson Carter and his Columbus Blue Jackets teammates released a Christmas album. Amazingly I see no trace of this masterpiece on YouTube, so, if you are looking for a Christmas gift for me, there you go.