Tuesday, December 31, 2013

The OHL Goes Outdoors

Photo: Rena Laverty
With the NHL Winter Classic tomorrow in Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, MI, the past few days have provided a perfect opportunity for the state of Michigan to show the world how it celebrates the sport.  With the ice in Comerica Park in Detroit for a couple of events, including the Alumni game between former stars of the Detroit Red Wings and Toronto Maple Leafs, the OHL and AHL got into the act.

Today's focus is on the OHL, as there were two games happening on Sunday, with the Plymouth Whalers taking on the London Knights and the Saginaw Spirit facing the Windsor Spitfires.  The Whalers/Knights matchup didn't do anything special in terms of uniforms, so that won't be mentioned much, other than Plymouth won the game.  As for the Windsor/Saginaw match, both teams broke out special uniforms for the game.  Both teams went with a vintage look, with the Spits reaching back into their history for their look while the Spirit did well despite a brief history in the OHL compared to the Spits.  Both looks were good, and the game was even better, as Windsor would pull out a 6-5 win.

The SKA Report: The Last Weekly

Starting in the new year, the SKA Report will no longer be a weekly report, as there will be a cadre of hockey related events that need attention (i.e. outdoor games and the Olympics).  It will become a monthly report for the remainder of the regular season, at which point, it will turn to the KHL playoffs.

That out of the way, SKA was looking to get back on the winning track after losing three in a row heading into the most recent break.  Wednesday, SKA was in Cherepovets to take on Severstal, and both teams exchanged goals in the first period, with Teemu Laakso scoring for Severstal and Alexander Kucheryavenko for SKA.  Igor Makarov scored in the second period for SKA, and that would be all they needed, as Alexander Salak made the lead stand up and SKA emerged victorious 2-1 to end a three game losing streak.  Saturday was a trip to Ufa to take on Salavat Yulaev, and things didn't quite go as planned.  A scoreless first period gave way to Salavat scoring twice in the second period on goals from Igor Mirnov and Alexei Kaigorodov.  Dmitry Kalinin would cut the lead to one late in the third period, but the rally fell short, as SKA fell 2-1.

SKA begins the new year on the road, as they take on Admiral Vladivostok on Friday and Amur on Sunday.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Momentum Shift

The Portland Winterhawks came off of holiday break on Friday looking to gain some momentum heading into the Tuesday tilt against Kelowna.  To establish that though, they had to beat Tri-City in a home and home over the weekend.

Friday, the Winterhawks traveled to Kennewick, WA for the first half of the home and home against the Americans.  A scoreless first period gave way to an Oliver Bjorkstrand goal in the second period.  However, the Ams would respond with two goals of their own as Connor Rankin and Lucas Nickles would put the Ams up one heading into the final frame.  Midway through the third period, Garrett Haar would tie things up and send the game into overtime, where Anton Cederholm made short work of the period and gave the Winterhawks a 3-2 OT win.  Brendan Burke got the win in a solid outing.

Saturday was the Portland home game, and unlike the previous evening, it was pretty much all Winterhawks, as they dominated from start to finish.  Adam de Champlain scored the only goal in the first period and a Chase de Leo feed to Bjorkstrand would make it 2-0 in the second period.  Tyson Predinchuk would score his first goal in a Winterhawks uniform to make it 3-0 and by the time the second period ended, it was 4-0 after a Dominic Turgeon goal.  That was enough to chase Eric Comrie from the game and only a Brian Williams goal prevented Burke from getting a shutout, as the Winterhawks won 4-1.  The Winterhawks were without Taylor Leier, Derrick Pouliot, and Nic Petan, who are playing for Team Canada in the WJC.  They are also without Brendan Leipsic, whose suspension ends after the Victoria game on Saturday.

The Winterhawks host league leading Kelowna on Tuesday and Thursday in a meeting of the two best teams in the league.  Kelowna will be looking to extend a 14-game winning streak while Portland will be looking to put some distance between themselves and their U.S. Division rivals.  Friday, the Winterhawks head back to Kennewick, WA for a game before heading home to host Victoria on Saturday.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The SKA Report: The Long Vacation

Going into the holiday break, SKA was looking to break a recent two game slide with a game against Metallurg Magnitgorsk on December 11.  Unfortunately Metallurg had other plans.  The game started out scoreless after one period, but a Chris Lee goal in the second period changed that and Metallurg was up 1-0 after two periods.  SKA could not solve Vasily Koshechkin, as SKA went scoreless for the second time in the now three game losing streak, as Tim Brent would add an insurance goal to send SKA to a 2-0 loss and searching for answers during the break.

SKA returns from break this Wednesday with a road game at Severstal and will wrap up the week with a home game against Salavat Yulaev.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Break Time!

In the last game before holiday break, the Portland Winterhawks hosted the Everett Silvertips with the opportunity to expand their lead in the U.S. Division.  However, without some of their best players due to international tournaments or suspension, it was just not to be.  Josh Winquist and Jujhar Khaira would put Everett up 2-0 after one period.  Chase De Leo kept the Winterhawks in it with a goal in the second period to cut the deficit to one heading into the final frame.  Carson Stadnyk would restore the two goal lead for Everett before Paul Bittner cut the deficit to one again.  An empty net goal by Winquist would be all the scoring as Everett would go on to win 4-2 and leave the Winterhawks with only a two point lead in the standings.

The Winterhawks will play again on December 27 at Tri-City and will complete a home and home with the Americans the following evening.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Rivalry Weekend

In the days before the Portland Winterhawks go on holiday break, they had a couple of games with the Seattle Thunderbirds.  Friday was the team's first game shorthanded, as a few of their regular players are participating in international tournaments, including their two leading scorers in Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand, as well as captain Taylor Leier, Layne Viveiros, and Derrick Pouliot.  On the road against Seattle, Branden Troock got the scoring started for the Thunderbirds, but a Chase De Leo goal would tie things after one period.  Another De Leo goal made it 2-1 after two periods, but in the third period, it was all Thunderbirds, as Justin Hickman would tie it before Troock scored the game winner with his second of the night to give the Thunderbirds a 3-2 win.  Brendan Burke was solid for most of the game, though he would like to have the third period back.

The momentum of the win carried over for Seattle the following day as they jumped out to a 2-0 lead in Portland on goals from Adam Henry and Scott Eansor.  A Keoni Texeira goal brought down teddy bears and would leave the Winterhawks within one after two periods.  In the third period, the script was flipped from the previous evening, as it was the Winterhawks dominating the third period at home, as Paul Bittner scored twice to give the Winterhawks a 3-2 lead.  A Keegan Iverson tally made it 4-2, but Henry would keep the Thunderbirds close until the final minutes of the third period, when Bittner netted his third goal of the period, giving Burke and company a 5-3 win at home.

The Winterhawks have a home game Tuesday against Everett before the break, and there is no doubt that the Silvertips would love to get back on the winning track, as they lost all four games they played last week.  For the Winterhawks to expand their division lead, guys like Bittner and Iverson will need to step up, and certainly, Bittner has shown that he can do so when given a chance, as his hat trick Saturday happened almost a year to the day that he scored a hat trick while the likes of Ty Rattie and Seth Jones were participating in the World Juniors.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Rebuilding Continues

It didn't take long for Brian Burke to begin making his imprint on the Calgary Flames, as the president of hockey operations canned both General Manager Jay Feaster and assistant General Manager John Weisbrod.  Burke will fill the role of General Manager in the interim until a permanent replacement is found.  Feaster had been with the Flames since 2010, and was the man in charge when they Flames parted ways with Jarome Iginla last season.  Three years of non-improvement, marked this year by the fact that only provincial rival Edmonton is breaking their fall in the standings, plus Burke joining the team prior to this season, spelled doom for Feaster.  Potentially, this could also spell the end for Bob Hartley, as Burke hinted at a style change in the way the team plays.  In short, expect the Flames to be set back even further in their rebuilding process for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: The Light, the Dark, and the Endless Knot

The life of a WHL team is one of cycles: for every good run of years they have, there is bound to be at least a few off years where rebuilding is the name of the game.  Sometimes, there are even instances where a team knows its window is closing and they go all in.  That last instance is where the Portland Winterhawks are in a sense, as you will find out later.

First, the week that was, and the Winterhawks had their first chance to take back the U.S. Division lead from Everett on Tuesday, as they took on the Silvertips.  The teams exchanged goals in the first period, as Josh Winquist and Garrett Haar opened the scoring for their respective teams.  Taylor Leier would put the Winterhawks up 2-1 to end the second period, and that's when things opened up for the Winterhawks.  Alex Schoenborn, Chase De Leo, and Oliver Bjorkstrand made it 5-1 Winterhawks before the halfway point of the third period, which caused the Silvertips to switch goalies, as Austin Lotz was benched for Daniel Cotton.  Everett would get within two on goals from Ivan Nikolishin and Winquist, but a Derrick Pouliot goal would end the Silvertips' chances and ensure that Portland would be entering the Alberta road trip with the U.S. Division lead in a 6-3 win for Brendan Burke and company.

Friday was the rematch of the last two WHL championship series, as the Winterhawks and the Edmonton Oil Kings met in the latest chapter of a budding rivalry.  Nic Petan would open the scoring for the Winterhawks, but Dysin Mayo would tie things up at one after one period.  Cody Corbett would score the lone goal in the second period to put the Oil Kings up 2-1, and like the last game the Winterhawks played, things erupted in the third period.  Curtis Lazar would put the Oil Kings up 3-1 to open the third period, but Derrick Pouliot would put the Winterhawks within one soon thereafter.  An Edgars Kulda goal would put the Oil Kings up two again, but Leier would score the next two goals, including a goal with under a minute to go in the game to force overtime.  The game would need a shootout, where Reid Petryk would score the winner for the Oil Kings and send the Winterhawks to a 5-4 loss.  Because the Silvertips also lost that evening, that assured the Winterhawks of ending the week with at least a share of first in the division, as they earned a point in the shootout loss.

The Winterhawks went to Red Deer on Saturday to take on the Rebels, who would be a key figure in the Winterhawks' immediate future plans (more on that later).  The Winterhawks started out hot, as De Leo and Paul Bittner would put the Winterhawks up 2-0 to start the game.  Adam Musil would put Red Deer on the board to close the gap at one, but Brendan Leipsic would give the Winterhawks a two goal lead once again heading into the second period.  Schoenborn would put Portland up 4-1 to begin the second period, but a Vukie Mpofu goal would make it 4-2.  Connor Bleackley would put the Rebels within one, but a Leipsic goal would make it 5-3 heading into the third period.  Dominik Volek would score the only goal of the third period, but it wasn't enough, as Portland escaped Red Deer with a 5-4 win and Jarrod Schamerhorn got the victory.

Sunday was a day the Winterhawks would like to forget, as their third game in as many days wasn't kind to them.  They concluded the Alberta road trip with a game at Calgary, and for the first period, things didn't look so bad, as Bjorkstrand would put the Winterhawks up 1-0 after one period.  However, the fatigue of the road trip caught up to them, as the Hitmen would put up four unanswered goals, with Greg Chase and Kenton Helgesen scoring in the second period and Pavel Padakin scoring twice in the third period to give the Winterhawks a 4-1 loss.

The Winterhawks will have a home and home this weekend with Seattle, with a road game Friday and a home game Saturday.  And now, for the news of the week: the Winterhawks made a trade with the Rebels yesterday, acquiring the rights to Matthew Dumba and a conditional pick in exchange for Presten Kopeck and a couple of conditional picks.  Currently, Dumba is still with the Minnesota Wild and his entry level contract started this year, as he has played 13 games this season.  However, he has not played since November 23 and was released to try out with the Canadian national team in the World Junior Championships.  The Wild can still send Dumba down to juniors, but now instead of a Red Deer team that is trying to reload, it will be a Portland team that is looking to repeat as WHL champions.  Dumba's addition, if he does get sent back to juniors, would shore up a Winterhawks defense that hasn't played as well as in recent years.

Monday, December 9, 2013

The SKA Report: Holiday Blues

This past week wasn't particularly kind to SKA, as they could only muster four out of a possible 12 points on the road trip against division foes.  The trip started out well enough on Monday, as they went to Prague to take on Lev Praha.  Artemy Panarin opened the scoring for SKA, as the goal put them up 1-0 after one period.  However, things turned rough in the second period, as Lev scored three goals from Justin Azevedo, Michal Birner (on a penalty shot), and Michal Repik.  SKA would get a goal in the period on a Vadim Shipachyov shot to briefly tie the game at two, but the Repik goal would see SKA trail by one after two periods.  A Viktor Tikhonov goal early in the third period would be all the scoring in the period, and overtime was needed.  That was not enough, and the game went into a shootout, where Ilya Kovalchuk scored the deciding goal to give Alexander Salak and SKA a 4-3 victory in a shootout to give SKA two points in the standings.

On Wednesday, SKA traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia to take on a Slovan team that hasn't had a great deal of luck this season.  Both teams exchanged goals in the first and second periods, with Panarin and Andrej Stastny scoring in the first period and Mario Bliznak and Igor Makarov scoring in the second.  This game also needed overtime and a shootout, with SKA coming out victorious 3-2 on a winner from Roman Cervenka.  Ilya Ezhov was solid in the win.

Friday, SKA went to Moscow to take on rival CSKA, and things were not quite as well as the first meeting earlier in the season, as SKA was kept off the score sheet.  Alexei Morozov scored in the first period and Alexander Radulov scored in the third, and that was all CSKA needed, as SKA could not solve Ilya Proskuryakov in a 2-0 defeat.  Salak was solid in goal for SKA and deserved better.

Sunday was a game in Riga against Dinamo Riga, and it was an offensive show.  Marcel Hossa scored the lone goal in the first period to give Dinamo Riga a 1-0 lead after one period.  Riga would put up three more goals in the second period before SKA's offense began to come to life.  Juris Upitis, Georgijs Pujacs, and Miks Indrasis would score for Dinamo Riga, but SKA countered with goals from Evgeny Ketov and Anton Burdasov to make it 4-2 after two periods.  SKA would get to within one on a Dmitry Kalinin goal, but that would be as close as they would get, as Mat Robinson would put the game out of reach.  A Kovalchuk goal would close the gap by one again, but an Indrasis goal on an empty net was all the scoring, as Dinamo Riga pulled out a 6-4 win.

SKA has one game this week before break, as they welcome Metallurg Magnitorsk on Wednesday.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Spits Exchange

It's been a wild week for the Windsor Spitfires, as they made two major trades.  Earlier this week, the Spitfires made a major trade with the Guelph Storm, as both Kerby Rychel and Nick Ebert were sent to Guelph while Windsor got Brody Milne and several draft picks, which include Guelph's 2nd round picks from 2014 until 2018.  For perspective on how this impacts both teams, consider that Guelph is trying to match offense with Midwest Division leader Erie, and certainly, Rychel's addition to go along with Jason Dickinson and Tyler Bertuzzi is a step towards countering Erie's group of Dane Fox, Connor Brown, Andre Burakovsky, and Connor McDavid.  I'll get to how it impacts Windsor after I get to the other trade the team made this week, this time with the Kingston Frontenacs, as Ryan Verbeek was sent out and in exchange, the Spitfires will get Sam Povorozniouk and a fourth round pick in 2016.  The Frontenacs are a youthful group, with Sam Bennett, Henri Ikonen, and Roland McKeown all NHL draft eligible in 2014.  The addition of Verbeek only makes the Frontenacs younger, and given that the Frontenacs are still trying to figure out the bottom portion of their roster, Povorozniouk's departure wasn't much of a surprise, as the Fronts needed character guys, and that is where Verbeek is likely to get his chance.

As for the Spits, on the surface, it can be said that they are packing it in for the season.  However, they are only five points behind Sault Ste. Marie in the Western Division and are on a three game winning streak.  Milne gets an immediate chance to prove his worth, as he is likely lining up with 2014 NHL Draft eligible Josh Ho-Sang.  Povorozniouk will also get considerable ice time with the Spitfires, something that would be less likely with the Frontenacs squad that remains young.  The draft picks are obviously important for the Spits, as they can rebuild through the draft for years to come.  Moving Rychel was difficult, as he is the son of Spits GM Warren Rychel, but the Spits still have Ho-Sang, and with the influx of players coming in from the class, it is clear that the Spitfires are looking to keep a tradition of winning going for a while.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

A Day in the Spotlight

For the annual Hockey Day in Canada festivities, which will be held on January 18, 2014, all seven NHL Canadian teams will be in action and there will be three cities that will have the spotlight shined on them.  The three?  Sydney, NS, Barry's Bay, ON, and Prince George, BC.  That last city, as you may know, is home to the WHL's Prince George Cougars, who are currently five points out of the last playoff spot as of this writing.

This is certainly a great honor for the city of Prince George, as the entire country will get to see what the city and the team are about.  The northernmost team in the WHL, the Cougars haven't exactly been successful, with their best season coming in 2006-07, where they made the Conference Finals, but they have turned out some good NHL players such as Zdeno Chara, Dan Hamhuis, Dustin Byfuglien, and Eric Brewer.  Currently, Chase Witala and Troy Bourke lead the team in scoring with 29 points, with mid-season acquisition Todd Fiddler not far behind with 27.  Ty Edmonds is the starting goaltender and has a 3.51 GAA.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Keeping Pace

The Portland Winterhawks had a chance to close in on the Everett Silvertips, if not take back the U.S. Division lead this week, as the Winterhawks had two games to the Silvertips' one.  The Winterhawks' quest will have to wait one more game, as both teams won out this week, with the Winterhawks taking a harder than expected route.  Friday, the Winterhawks looked to continue their dominance over the Spokane Chiefs as they went into their arena and proved to be rude guests.  Dominic Turgeon and Mitch Holmberg exchanged goals in the first period, but it would be Oliver Bjorkstrand who gave the Winterhawks the lead heading into the second period.  Brendan Leipsic and Keegan Iverson scored for the Winterhawks in what ended up being alternating goals between the teams, as Holmberg scored both Chiefs goals to get the hat trick and send the game to 4-3 going into the third.  Holmberg's hat trick ended up being matched by the Winterhawks, as Bjorkstrand netted two of his own goals in the third period to complete his own hat trick and giving the Winterhawks yet another win against Spokane, this time being a 6-3 final.  Brendan Burke got the win and Paul Bittner came away with three assists.

Sunday was a rematch from last year's Memorial Cup tournament, as the Saskatoon Blades came calling.  Bjorkstrand and Matt Revel exchanged goals to make it even at one after one period.  Saskatoon dominated most of the second period, with Revel and Nathan Burns scoring for the Blades, to make it 4-1, with Burns accounting for two of the three goals in the period for the Blades.  However, the Winterhawks cut the lead to one at the end of the period on two Nic Petan goals.  Petan would tie the game with his third goal of the evening to open the third period, but Collin Valcourt would put the Blades back up one.  However, Portland had some magic left, as Petan and Bjorkstrand closed out the scoring in the game and the Winterhawks escaped with a 6-5 win.  Burke got the win in relief of Jarrod Schamerhorn.

The Winterhawks will be on the road this week, as they will get a chance to reclaim first place in the U.S. Division as they look to avenge an earlier loss to Everett on Tuesday.  The weekend will be spent in Alberta, as the Winterhawks get reacquainted with their WHL Finals foe from the last two years in Edmonton on Friday.  Saturday, the Winterhawks face a formidable foe in Red Deer and on Sunday, the Calgary Hitmen open their doors to the Winterhawks.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The SKA Report: The Calm Before the Storm

Before SKA hits the road this coming week, they had a game on Friday against Atlant at home.  The result was one that SKA wanted and needed in getting that momentum heading into a tough four game road trip through the division rivals, as SKA jumped to a 3-0 lead after one period on goals from Alexei Semenov, Evgeny Ketov, and Maxim Chudinov.  Ilya Kovalchuk padded the lead in the second period, and except for a Roman Rukavishnikov goal late in the third period, SKA prevented Atlant from getting anything past Alexander Salak as SKA cruised to a 4-1 win and in the process, has some momentum going into next week.

SKA hits the road this week and they will have a chance to pad their lead in the Bobrov Division, as they take on Lev Praha on Monday, Slovan Bratislava on Wednesday, CSKA on Friday, and Dinamo Riga on Sunday.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The SKA Report: Winning Ugly

This past week wasn't the best of times for the SKA offense, but they still got away with three wins in the four games.  Monday was the team's chance to avenge a loss to Lokomotiv a few days earlier, and much like the previous meeting, SKA struggled to get its offense moving.  Dmitry Kalinin got the scoring started for the good guys, but that would be all they get for the game.  Ilya Gorokhov would tie the game to make it 1-1 after the first period.  It remained that way until the closing minutes of the third period, when Sergei Plotinkov scored the game winner to give Lokomotiv its second win in as many games against SKA.  Alexander Salak was the hard luck loser in the game.  Wednesday, SKA welcomed Severstal, and much like the Lokomotiv game, the offense was hard to come by.  However, SKA was on the right side of the close game, as they would get goals from Roman Cervenka and Evgeny Ketov sandwiching a Severstal goal from Anatoly Nikontsev, making it a 2-1 win for Salak and SKA.  Friday, they welcomed Traktor and like the previous meeting, SKA shut down Traktor.  Evgeny Skachkov, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Maxim Chudinov scored in the first period, and Salak made it stand up, as SKA shut out Traktor again, this time being a 3-0 score.  Sunday, Neftekhimik came to town to exact some revenge, but it was not to be, as Ketov opened the scoring for SKA in the first period.  Nikolai Belov tied things in the second period, but Chudinov netted the game winner to make Ilya Ezhov and SKA a 2-1 winner.

This coming week will be a light time for SKA, as they welcome Atlant on Friday before hitting the road next week.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: From Hunted to Hunter

The Winterhawks' week is one of good news, bad news.  First, the bad news: the Winterhawks lost first place in the U.S. Division this week.  The good news: it wasn't all their doing.  While the Winterhawks entered the week with a two point lead over Everett, this week was the Silvertips' opportunity to take first by virtue of playing four games (they won all four) to the Winterhawks' two this week.  The Winterhawks were home to Spokane on Friday, and right away, the Winterhawks took the lead 3-0 after one period on goals from Brendan Leipsic, Garrett Haar, and Derrick Pouliot.  The second period proved to be a wild one, as the teams exchanged goals, with Connor Chartier getting the Chiefs within two before Leipsic added his second of the game to give the Winterhawks the three goal lead once again.  The Chiefs cut the lead to one on goals from Riley Whittingham and Adam Helewka, but Taylor Leier would give the Winterhawks a 5-3 lead going into the third period.  Mike Aviani cut the lead to one once again, but that was as close as they would get, as Leier added an empty net goal to give the Winterhawks a 6-4 win and extend the team's winning streak against the Chiefs that dates back to last year's playoff meeting.  Brendan Burke picked up the win.

Saturday, the Winterhawks went to Kent, WA to take on a Seattle Thunderbirds team that was undoubtedly stewing from a 10-2 pasting in the last meeting.  Justin Hickman and Leier exchanged goals to make it an even game at one after one period.  The Thunderbirds would take a two-goal lead heading into the third period on goals from Roberts Lipsbergs and Branden Troock.  However, the Winterhawks had an answer to that, as Keegan Iverson, Nic Petan, and Leipsic would put the Winterhawks up a goal with five minutes remaining.  A late tally by Justin Hickman forced overtime, where the Thunderbirds' Alexander Delnov scored the deciding goal and the Winterhawks ended up on the wrong end of a 5-4 overtime decision.  Burke took the loss.

The Winterhawks don't play again until Friday at Spokane, where they will look to extend their dominance over a game Chiefs team, and on Sunday, they will welcome Saskatoon into town for a rematch from last year's Memorial Cup round robin.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

WHL Odds and Ends

The WHL season is two months in, and it's fairly safe to say that some trends stick out more than others.

  • Portland leads the league in goals scored, which isn't exactly a surprise despite the Winterhawks losing Ty Rattie, Tyler Wotherspoon, and Seth Jones to the pros.  However, the second leading team in goals scored?  Swift Current, who was actually the second worst offensive team in the Eastern Conference to qualify for the playoffs last year.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, the three worst teams on offense (from worst on up) are Lethbridge, Kamloops, and Red Deer.  None of those teams are a real surprise, since Lethbridge just traded away two of their top three scorers from last season recently, Kamloops lost a lot of scoring in the off-season and traded away Tim Bozon a few weeks ago, and Red Deer just simply doesn't score a lot of goals.
  • Defensively, Kelowna leads the league in goals against, but they are also the only team to have not played 20 games, though that changes tonight.  The next best defensive team?  Edmonton, who is now getting hot, as they have won eight of their last 10 games.
  • Conversely, Lethbridge is the worst team at keeping the puck out of the net, and now, they are turning to Teagan Sacher to try and turn things around.  Corbin Boes and Christopher Tai have had little success to this point.  Saskatoon and Prince George are the next worst teams on defense.  Not coincidentally, all three have given up triple digits in goals to this point in the season.
  • Speaking of Lethbridge, they finally cracked the double digit mark in points for the season, as they earned a point in the overtime loss to Red Deer on Saturday.  Things do not figure to get any easier, as they traded away Ryan Pilon to Brandon, making it three important players traded away this season alone.
  • Until this weekend, Seattle had not won since trading for both Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie.  They earned a win and an overtime loss this weekend in games at Victoria.
  • Exactly one team as the same amount of goals for as they do goals against (Kootenay).
  • The most penalized team in the WHL is Lethbridge, with 474 minutes.  Some discipline should be instilled here, as it may explain the alarming number of goals against.
  • The leading scorer in the league is Mitch Holmberg of Spokane.  The next two leading scorers are both Winterhawks in Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand.  Last year's co-leader Brendan Leipsic is fifth on the team in scoring, behind Petan (the other co-leader from last year), Bjorkstrand, Taylor Leier, and Chase De Leo.
Should these trends speak of what's to come for the following months of the season?  For the most part, yes, as Portland will score, and they have the firepower to do so while Lethbridge is still in search of a solution in goal, as well as players that want to stay in Lethbridge.  However, one expects Spokane to level off soon, as Portland has had their number, and they can be streaky, both good and bad.  Though Edmonton trails Medicine Hat in the standings, one expects them to take the top spot in the Central Division soon.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Edmonton Gets the Universe

It's been a strange two and a half years for Ilya Bryzgalov.  From signing a nine-year deal with Philadelphia prior to the 2011-12 season to his views on the universe and polar bears to his buyout from that nine-year deal this Summer, there's been no shortage of interesting things happening as long as he's around.  Prior to being picked up by Edmonton a few weeks ago, he was actually signed to play with the Las Vegas Wranglers.  Given the Oilers' struggles early in the season, they went out and gave Bryzgalov a one-year deal and sent him to Oklahoma City of the AHL for a couple of games (both were against Abbotsford, and he struggled in the first game, but played well in the second).  Apparently, a couple of games was all the Oilers needed before they called him up to the big club, and certainly, his presence will provide even more of a circus in an Edmonton locker room that already includes the neverending saga of Nail Yakupov and a defense that STILL can't stop anyone, though to be fair, the forwards inexplicably have an allergy to back checking.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Division Rivals Clawing Away

The Portland Winterhawks started the week on top of the U.S. Division and ended the week the same way...barely.  Tuesday, the Winterhawks welcomed a Seattle Thunderbirds squad that hasn't fared so well since the trade for Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie a few weeks ago (their former team Lethbridge has since traded another disgruntled player Ryan Pilon to Brandon and just now cracked the double digit point total for the season).  It was not a good night if you were a goaltender for Seattle this night, as the Winterhawks skated out to a 5-0 lead after one period on goals from Brendan Leipsic, Paul Bittner, Chase De Leo, Derrick Pouliot, and Nic Petan, with Pouliot's goal forcing the Thunderbirds to switch goaltenders, as Justin Myles was chased for Danny Mumaugh.  Bittner would put Portland up 6-0 before Shea Theodore would finally put Seattle on the board to make it 6-1 heading into the third period.  Taylor Leier would get in on the scoring, making it 7-1, with Bittner making the hats fly on his third goal of the night to make it 8-1.  Oliver Bjorkstrand and De Leo would sandwich a Justin Hickman goal to make the final 10-2 and give Brendan Burke the win in a relatively easy game for the team as they hit the road for the weekend.

Friday, the Winterhawks travelled to Everett to take on the Silvertips, who finally have the results (again) to go with their tough play that has identified them through their existence.  Manraj Hayer and Tyler Sandhu put Everett up 2-0 after one period, with Sandhu (who was the key player for Everett in a trade that saw Seth Jones go to Portland a couple of seasons ago) adding another in the second period to make it 3-0.  Bjorkstrand and Pouliot made it a game for the Winterhawks, but they could not get any closer, falling 3-2 and into a first place tie with Everett...for the evening.  Burke took the loss.

Saturday was expected to be a tough game at Kamloops with the shortened time for preparation, as the Everett game started later than most games the previous evening.  However, special teams lived up to its title, as the Winterhawks crushed a Blazers team that doesn't have the offensive talent of recent years.  It was close early on, as the Winterhawks and Blazers combined for five goals.  Leipsic opened the scoring, but Chase Souto and Cole Ully would put Kamloops ahead. midway through the period.  However, it would not last, as Leier and Leipsic would give the Winterhawks the lead after the period.  Souto tied the game, but that would be where the good for Kamloops ended, as the Winterhawks dominated the rest of the way.  Pouliot and De Leo added goals on the power play to make it 5-3 after two periods.  Petan and De Leo would add shorthanded goals 27 seconds apart to give the Winterhawks a 7-3 win and Burke his second win in three contests for the week.  Combined with the SIlvertips' loss to Prince George the same evening, the Winterhawks escape with the U.S. Division lead for the week.

The Winterhawks play on Friday against Spokane and on Saturday against Seattle, with the Winterhawks looking to pad their lead on their division rivals.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The SKA Report: Kicking Off the Rust

SKA started the first game after break in Yaroslavl on Thursday and a matchup with Lokomotiv.  Their offense didn't get the memo, as they failed to score a goal in the game.  For most of the game, it was their defense that carried the game, and certainly, Alexander Salak deserved a better result than he did, as SKA held Lokomotiv off the board for two periods.  Emil Galimov broke the tie early in the third period and Sergei Plotinkov added an empty net goal to hand SKA a loss to start the second stanza.  Saturday, the offense showed up enough to get past Atlant 2-1.  Alexander Kucheryavenko made it 1-0 SKA after one period, but Alexander Kadeikin would score the equalizer in the second period.  Viktor Tikhonov would score early in the third period, and Salak would make it stand up, giving SKA three points in the standings.

SKA is home for the week, and they get their first chance at revenge on Monday as Lokomitv comes into town.  Severstal arrives for a Wednesday game, Traktor will be looking for revenge on Friday, and Neftekhimik will look to gain some momentum on Sunday.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What's Old is New Again

The Buffalo Sabres finally decided to clean house today, as both General Manager Darcy Regier and head coach Ron Rolston were given their walking papers.  Ted Nolan returns to the job he held between 1995 and 1997 on an interim basis and Pat LaFontaine was named President of Hockey Operations.  For the Sabres, the canning of Regier was overdue, as the Sabres last made the playoffs in 2011 and were languishing in last place in what has been a season worse than even they could have imagined.  Last season, Lindy Ruff was fired in the middle of the season, which opened the door for Rolston to try and right the ship.  He had the interim label taken off prior to this season, but the writing was on the wall for him the second he sat the top line for half the game in a drubbing at the hand of the Anaheim Ducks on a recent road trip.  Nolan did a pretty good job in Buffalo, but was let go due to issues with then-GM John Muckler and star goaltender Dominik Hasek.  His departure opened the door for Ruff, who would lead the Sabres to a Finals appearance two years later.

LaFontaine will be helping in the Sabres' search for a General Manager and has stated that he would not be the one to take the job.  His role as President of Hockey Operations will undoubtedly be similar to the one that Joe Sakic has in Colorado, and LaFontaine will have a fair amount of pull, as his days in a Sabres uniform were mostly successful.

The SKA Report: Back to Work

The break is over in the KHL, as four teams took the ice today.  SKA will wait until tomorrow to take the ice and attempt to pad the six point lead in the Western Conference.  This week, they travel to Yaroslavl to take on Lokomotiv on Thursday and will see a familiar face in Evgeny Artyukhin on Saturday, as they face his new team Atlant.  SKA will be home the following week for games every other day beginning Monday.

Before the season, it was all about Ilya Kovalchuk, and certainly, the contract numbers with SKA rival those of his New Jersey Devils numbers.  However, he isn't the only player producing, as the pick up of former league leading scorer Roman Cervenka has been an equally good signing, and combined with Viktor Tikhonov having a breakthrough year, SKA is a team to watch.  Of course, you need goaltending, and Alexander Salak has been just as valuable of a signing as Kovalchuk, providing a 1-2 punch in net with Ilya Ezhov.  Improvements are needed, as they are with every team, and certainly, it begins with consistency, something that hasn't always been there with SKA.  Some of it is key players such as Kovalchuk and Kevin Dallman missing time due to injuries, and some of it is secondary scoring, with Tony Martensson and Patrick Thoresen being the primary threats there.  It's nice of them to score, but they are so much better when the trio of Kovalchuk, Cervenka, and Tikhonov are all at their best.  Defensively, they play better than the sum of their parts, and that begins with Dmitry Kalinin and +/- leader Maxim Chudinov.  Dallman will be an offensive threat from the blue line once he gets healthy, and that should take some pressure off of the forwards to produce.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Win, Lose, and Extra Time

The Portland Winterhawks began the week with an 11-game winning streak.  They ended it beginning a brand new winning streak, as Wednesday against Tri-City wasn't kind, particularly in the waning moments of the game.  Taylor Leier opened the scoring to give the Winterhawks a 1-0 lead after one period.  The second period would end up tied at two, thanks to goals from Chase De Leo and Connor Rankin and Brian Williams scored for Tri-City.  The game would be tied until the last 30 seconds of the game, when Parker Bowles scored the game winner for Tri-City and handed Portland and Brendan Burke a 3-2 loss.

Saturday, the Victoria Royals came calling, and they would jump to a 2-1 lead on goals from Austin Carroll and Brandon Magee, with Leier scoring in between for the Winterhawks.  The score would remain the same for the second period and would also remain that way until six minutes remaining in the third period, when Oliver Bjorkstrand would force overtime and give Portland at least a point in the standing.  Unfortunately, that would be all they get, as Magee would get the game winner in the extra frame, giving Victoria a 3-2 win despite another solid effort from Burke in goal.

Sunday, the Winterhawks welcomed the Regina Pats for the only meeting of the season, and from the start, the Winterhawks were the better team, as they peppered the Pats goaltending with 58 shots.  Nic Petan and Brendan Leipsic scored in the opening frame to make it 2-0.  Dryden Hunt and Leier exchanged goals in the second period to make it 3-1 for the Winterhawks.  Kyle Burroughs kept the Pats in the game with a goal to cut the lead to one, but De Leo and Leier would shut the door for the Winterhawks and give Jarrod Schamerhorn a win in a relatively easy and much needed 5-2 win for the Winterhawks heading into next week.

The Winterhawks welcome their I-5 rival Seattle on Tuesday before hitting the road on Friday against Everett and on Saturday at Kamloops.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Changes in Florida

With the Florida Panthers off to a slow start, which followed a last place finish in the league last year, the Panthers have decided to make changes to the coaching staff today, as Kevin Dineen was given the pink slip as head coach.  Craig Ramsay and Gord Murphy were also let go, meaning there would be a new head coach and new assistant coaches for the remainder of this season, at least.  Brian Skrudland and John Madden will be taking over as assistant coaches while Peter Horacheck comes in from the AHL affiliate in San Antonio to take over the head coaching duties on an interim basis.  Horacheck had been the Rampage coach for all of a month, as he was previously an assistant coach for Nashville from 2003 until 2013 and before that, he was a head coach in Milwaukee (2002-03 season), Trenton (2001-02 season), and Orlando (1999-2001).

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Remembrance Week

With Veterans Day approaching in the United States and Canada holding their own time of Remembrance for those who served in the Armed Forces, it is only natural that some teams have special jerseys commemorating this time of year.  In the NHL, most teams are sporting camo practice jerseys that get auctioned off after the game.  In the junior leagues, teams are putting forth jerseys to be worn specifically for their Remembrance Day game.  In the OHL, the Peterborough Petes will wear the jersey you see above in a game against Kitchener tonight while the Kingston Frontenacs will wear a special jersey (below) in their home game tomorrow against (Surprise!) Kitchener.

What about Kitchener?  Well, the Rangers already had their special Remembrance Day jersey unveiled and while the result wasn't what they wanted (they lost to Windsor), the Rangers definitely looked sharp wearing them.

It's great seeing the hockey leagues do something special to remember those who served and in many cases, they often get the jerseys for the special occasion right, particularly in the lower leagues.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Manny's Back

Manny Malhotra has had a trying time since being struck in the eye with a puck in the 2010-11 season.  Prior to that, his best role on the ice was as a third line center who could win the critical face-offs, and it was for that reason the Vancouver Canucks signed him to a three year deal prior to that season.  Since the injury, he hasn't been himself, and as of the beginning of the season, he was looking for a team.  The Charlotte Checkers, the AHL affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes, took a chance on him and signed him to a PTO, and it was here that he showed his true worth as a guy you can count on off the ice, as he helped a teammate find a medal lost while the team was playing paintball (the full article can be found here).  On the ice, he can be counted on by teammates there, as well, as he dropped the gloves in a game.

Friday, he made his return to the NHL, as he was called up by the Carolina Hurricanes, and in last night's game against Philadelphia, he scored the winner in overtime, giving the Hurricanes a 2-1 win at home.  In a time where most people wrote off Malhotra after last season, his road back wasn't easy, but he is here now, and the Hurricanes' organization is better for it, on and off the ice.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Another One Rides into the Sunset

The NHL sees another player from the 1993 Draft retire, as Jason Arnott announced his retirement today.  With 417 goals and 521 assists in an 18 year career, Arnott came to define the power forward role that saw him play with Edmonton, Dallas, New Jersey (twice), Nashville, Washington, and St. Louis.  While he never cracked the 80-point barrier, he brought leadership, which was most evident in his stint in Nashville, as he was captain for a couple of seasons there, and he also notched three 30-goal seasons, with one of them coming in his rookie year, where he finished as the runner-up to Martin Brodeur for the Calder Trophy.  He also holds the Predators' single season record in goals (33 in 2008-09, which was also the number he scored his rookie year) and was a member of the 2000 Stanley Cup champion New Jersey Devils.

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Lay of the WHL Land

Almost two months into the season, the WHL only has two certainties going for it right now: the U.S. Division is better than we thought, and the Lethbridge Hurricanes are worse than we thought.  Apart from that, anyone other than Lethbridge is at least within striking distance of being playoff bound in March.  So, what does everyone need to do?  It's time to look at the divisions and give ideas on how it could shake out.

East Division

Currently, seven points is all that separates first place (Prince Albert) from last place (Moose Jaw).  For all of the offensive firepower that Prince Albert had, it was supposed to be better with a proven goaltender in Cole Cheveldae and an improved defensive unit that collapsed at the end of last season.  They are in the middle of the pack in that department, but have shown signs of turning it around lately, winning both games this past weekend.  Of the remaining five teams, Swift Current has to be feeling good, as they are currently on a four-game winning streak, with come from behind wins against Lethbridge and Saskatoon (they were trailing 5-1 at one point in the third period).  Saskatoon can score, as they are tied for second in the league in goals, but being the second worst in the league on defense speaks to the problems of the team's chances.

Central Division

Currently, Medicine Hat and Calgary are neck and neck for first in the division, but one almost expects Edmonton to somehow find their wheels and take the division once again.  Kootenay is a dark horse, provided that Tim Bozon can be the second line scoring option they hoped for and Red Deer's lack of offense is rearing its ugly head once more to the point that Patrik Bartosak needs to bail them out once more.  Lethbridge is basically playing for the first overall pick in the Bantam Draft, as they blew third period leads against Moose Jaw and Swift Current in recent weeks, as well as getting blown out at home against Tri-City.

B.C. Division

Kelowna has played to expectations this year, sitting at the top of the division and sweeping Prince George this weekend helped.  Victoria is not the most talented, but they do play tough, and the weekend result notwithstanding, Prince George has played tough as well.  Vancouver's early struggles seem to be over, and they may be picking up momentum going into the rest of the season.  Both Vancouver and Prince George, however, will need to do better to keep the puck out of the net, as they are the next worst teams in goals against after Lethbridge and Saskatoon.  Kamloops admitted to rebuilding when they traded Tim Bozon, and what was a daunting task of finding scoring turns into a near impossible task.

U.S. Division

The toughest division in the WHL, Portland is somehow beginning to pull away with it once again.  The top offensive team is on an 11-game winning streak despite a middle of the road defense, but like last year, goaltending only has to stop enough pucks, as the offense will take care of the rest.  Second place is a logjam, as Seattle, Everett, and Spokane occupy that spot.  The best defensive team resides in Everett, and clearly, Kevin Constantine behind the bench has made a big difference.  How much it continues to be a difference maker will depend on how well they do without Austin Lotz for a few weeks.  Spokane's played well, but they've also lost all three meetings against Portland this season, and their last seven dating back to last year's playoffs.  Seattle acquired Lethbridge's second and third leading scorers from last season, and while it's expected to help in the long run this season, it didn't help much this weekend, as they dropped decisions to both Portland and Everett.  The annual question of where the offense will come from seems to be a theme for Tri-City, but having a healthy Eric Comrie has kept them in games this season, and they are only two points behind the logjam.

Leading Scorers

Mitch Holmberg leads the league in scoring and was named the Player of the Month for October.  The next two scorers are both Winterhawks in Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand, but the real surprise is that three of the top 10 scorers are in Saskatoon, as Nikita Scherbak, Nathan Burns, and Colin Valcourt rank seventh, eight, and ninth, respectively.

Leading Goalies

Little surprise here, as Jordon Cooke has played well, earning Goalie of the Month honors, and both Tristan Jarry and Eric Comrie have continued the good play from last year over to this season.  Surprisingly, Brendan Burke only ranks 16th among eligible goalies while Chris Driedger is outside the top 20.  I don't expect either goalie to be that low for long.

Assessing SKA: the First Break

With the KHL on break until the 13th and SKA not playing until the following day, this week is a perfect time to see where the team is at this point in the season.  Currently, they lead the Western Conference by six points over rival Dynamo Moscow and hold an 11 point lead over Dinamo Riga in the Bobrov Division.  Obviously, it begins in goal, where the trio of Alexander Salak, Ilya Ezhov, and Dmitry Shikin have each posted a GAA under 2.00.  That's a good sign that SKA is comfortable playing anyone in goal, as each has shown confidence when given the call, particularly when Salak, the starter, needs a rest every now and then.  Defensively, you would like to see more points from the blue line, but a large part of that group's issues lie in the fact that Kevin Dallman has missed considerable time to injury.  However, the group as a whole has done well, and nowhere is that more evident than the +/- number of Maxim Chudinov, who ranks among the league leaders in that category (23).  Roman Cervenka leads the team in scoring, with Ilya Kovalchuk just behind him, though he has played fewer games due to injury.  Kovlachuk makes everything go on offense, but having a former league leader in scoring (Cervenka) and the team leader in goals (Viktor Tikhonov) makes this group very dangerous.  Artemy Panarin has emerged recently as a solid secondary scoring threat while Patrick Thoresen has continued to score, though at lower levels because of the talent ahead of him.  Alexander Kucheryavenko and Panarin lead the forwards in the +/- category.  The special teams are doing well, as SKA ranks fourth on the power play and are sixth on the penalty kill.

SKA will come out of break on the 14th to play at Lokomotiv and will travel to Mytischi to play Atlant on the 16th before coming home for a match against Lokomotiv on the 18th.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: Turn it Up to 11

The Portland Winterhawks are picking up exactly where they left off from last season, as they are now halfway to matching the number of double-digit winning streaks.  Wednesday, the Winterhawks welcomed the Brandon Wheat Kings, and things got off to a great start for the Winterhawks, as they jumped out to a 3-0 lead after one period on goals from Taylor Leier, Chase De Leo, and Nic Petan.  A Keegan Iverson goal made it 4-0 after two periods, and the Winterhawks had the game in hand, despite Rihard Burkarts and Ryley Lindgren scoring for Brandon in the third period, with Brendan Leipsic scoring in between the Wheat Kings goals.  A 5-2 decision for the Winterhawks made a winner of Brendan Burke.

Friday, the Winterhawks traveled to Seattle with first place on the line, and right away, the Winterhawks established their superiorty, with Leipsic scoring twice and Garrett Haar adding a goal to give the Winterhawks a 3-0 lead.  Leier would put the Winterhawks up 4-0 before a Jaimen Yakubowski goal would get Seattle within three after two periods.  Justin Hickman would make it 4-2, but a Leier goal in the closing seconds made it 5-2 for the Winterhawks and another win for Burke.

It was only a week ago that the Winterhawks stole first place from Spokane, and their rematch on Saturday was the Winterhawks' chance to pad their lead early in the season.  Oliver Bjorkstrand opened the scoring for the Winterhawks in the first period, with Alex Schoenborn adding a goal in the second period.  Paul Bittner added a goal in the third period, but Cole Wedman would keep Burke from getting a shutout.  Still, the Winterhawks came away with a 3-1 win and a better grip on first place heading into next week, as well as a chance to add to the 11-game winning streak.

The Winterhawks are home this week, as they take on Tri-City on Wednesday, Victoria on Saturday, and Regina on Sunday.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Rocketing to the Rafters

In the midst of doing the SKA Report, I came across a bit of news that the number retirement ceremony for Pavel Bure by the Vancouver Canucks is tonight as they take on the Toronto Maple Leafs.  This is coming a day after both Henrik and Daniel Sedin signed 4-year extensions, which will take them through the 2017-18 season.  As for Bure, who was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame last year, the number 10 will be raised to the rafter, where it will reside with numbers 12 (Stan Smyl), 16 (Trevor Linden), and 19 (Markus Naslund).  Bure was the Canucks' first superstar player, scoring 254 goals with the team in seven seasons.  An acrimonious fallout prior to the 1998-99 season saw him get traded to the Florida Panthers and while he finished his career with the New York Rangers, his best years were in Vancouver, where he scored 60 goals  and notched over 100 points in two of his seven seasons with the team.  As controversial as he was in his later years with the team, no player (prior to 1999) made the Canucks fans jump to their feet like Bure, whose speed was a major catalyst for many of his goals.  The number retirement ceremony is the best sign that the hard feelings between the Canucks organization and Bure is now in the past, and now, no player will wear the number 10 in Vancouver again.

The SKA Report: Heading into Break

In the last week of games before they take a week and a half break, SKA remained on a winning streak and are atop the Western Conference.  Monday, SKA hosted rival CSKA and prior to the game, the captains of each team participated in the Olympic Torch relay on the ice, since the Winter Olympics are in Sochi, Russia.  For much of the game, it was SKA that had the Olympic effort, as they skated out to a 2-0 lead after one period on goals from Ilya Kovalchuk and Viktor Tikhonov.  Vadim Shipachyov and Alexei Ponikarovsky would put SKA up 4-0 in the second period before CSKA would get on the board thanks to Maxim Goncharov.  However, SKA would close out the second period with a goal from Artemy Panarin.  CSKA would score in the third period on an Aleksey Morozov goal, but it was not nearly enough, as Alexander Salak and company took the game 5-2.  Wednesday, SKA hosted Lev Praha, and nothing happened in the first two periods.  That changed in a hurry, as SKA would score five unanswered goals, with Tikhonov, Andrei Sigaryov, Roman Cervenka, Shipachyov, and Igor Makarov all scoring, and Kovalchuk assisting on three of the goals, giving Salak a shutout in the 5-0 victory.  Friday, the worst team in the conference Slovan Bratislava came calling, and for one period, things were even as Panarin and Tomas Netik traded goals for their respective clubs.  SKA began to pull away in the second period, as Shipachyov and Panarin scored to make it 3-1 after two periods.  Ponikarovsky and Milan Bartovic traded goals in the third period, and the game would end 4-2 for SKA, giving Salak a win in all three games.

SKA does not play again until the 14th, when they travel to Yaroslavl and play Lokomotiv.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Dropping Like Flies

The KHL season isn't quite at its halfway point, but already, the KHL has seen six coaching changes since the beginning of the season.  Already making changes were Avangard, Lokomotiv, Metallurg Novokuznetsk, and Atlant.  As of today, you can add two teams that won't make it through the 54-game regular season with just one coach, as Yugra and Neftekhimik announced coaching changes this week.  Yugra announced that Sergei Shepelev was relieved of his duties as head coach and will be replaced by Oleg Davydov on an interim basis.  Davydov was an assistant coach for the team.  Neftekhimik also made a change, as Vladimir Krutinov was shown the door and Dmitry Balmin was handed the keys to the team.

The KHL takes a week off next week, but clearly, the patience of some teams is not high, and of the teams to make a change at coach, only Atlant is currently above the cut-off line for the playoffs, though they are only a mere point ahead of Lev Praha and Severstal.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: The Great Eight

The Portland Winterhawks were on the road this past week, and when the week started, they were not in first place.  As of today, they are in first place, thanks to wins in all four games.  Tuesday was the second of a five game road trip, as they took on a Lethbridge team that has had issues both on and off the ice.  Chase De Leo, Keegan Iverson, and Brendan Leipsic all scored in the first period and after 20 minutes, it looked like another rout was on.  However, Lethbridge had other ideas, as Brady Ramsay would cut the lead to two after two periods and Axel Blomqvist would pull Lethbridge within one at the 14:35 mark.  However, the Winterhawks ended any hopes of an upset by hanging on to a 3-2 win.  Wednesday, the Winterhawks traveled to Medicine Hat to take on a Tigers team that was in a bit of a funk.  Nic Petan scored the lone goal in the first period, but things would get ignited in the second period, as both teams would put up a three spot each, with the Winterhawks getting goals from Taylor Leier, De Leo, and Iverson while the Tigers would get goals from Cole Sanford, Steve Owre, and Blake Penner.  4-3 would be the score until late in the third period, when Leipsic would seal the 5-3 win for the Winterhawks and their sixth win in a row.

Friday was a trip to Cranbrook, BC, where the Winterhawks would get their only look of the season at a Kootenay Ice team that features Sam Reinhart and newly acquired Tim Bozon, noted thorn in the Winterhawks' side from his Kamloops days.  Petan would open the scoring and De Leo would net the next two goals in the first period for the Winterhawks, but Reinhart would pull Kootenay within two after one period.  No scoring in the second period would give way to an Austin Vetterl goal to make it 3-2 early in the third period.  However, Derrick Pouliot and Josh Hanson would score for the Winterhawks, and not even a Zak Zobrosky goal could get Kootenay back in the game, as Iverson would end any hope of a comeback with his third goal of the week.  Jarrod Schamerhorn would earn the win in his only appearance this week, and Oliver Bjorkstrand assisted on four goals this game.

Saturday was the last game of the road trip and against division rival Spokane, first place was at stake in an early season match-up that also saw the Chiefs try for revenge for an earlier loss.  Leier and Leipsic would sandwich a Liam Stewart goal to make it a 2-1 advantage for Portland after one.  Bjorkstrand would put Portland up 3-1 early in the second period, but goals by Mike Aviani and Jason Fram would tie things up until the 16:11 mark, when Leier would score what became the deciding goal for the Winterhawks.  Brendan Burke was outstanding in three contests, and his confidence is growing with every game.

The Winterhawks return home for a game against Brandon on Wednesday before hitting the road for rivalry games against a revamped Seattle team on Friday and a return engagement with Spokane on Saturday.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Trading Places

As you may remember, I offered some solutions on fixing the Buffalo Sabres, and one of those involved trading Thomas Vanek.  My solution to that now differs from what Buffalo decided to do just now, as they sent him to the New York Islanders for Matt Moulson, a first round pick in 2014, and a second round pick in 2015.  Both players are set to be free-agents after the season, and for both teams, this is essentially a swap of goal scorers with Buffalo getting additional draft picks.  However, the dynamic is more than that, as Vanek gets his wish to leave the Sabres squad that is rapidly becoming a national punchline and now, we will see whether Moulson's numbers were a direct result of being linemates with John Tavares.

From his rookie year in 2005, Vanek as scored at least 20 goals a season, and that includes the lockout shortened season last year.  He has managed to score 40 goals twice, and is a likely threat to reach that total this season should he be on a line with Tavares.  Moulson emerged as an offensive threat in the 2009-10 season, notching the first of three 30-goal seasons while lined up with Tavares during Tavares' rookie year.

Where this trade could go wrong is that both are unrestricted free-agents after the season, and the Islanders could be the ones that lose the most, as they did give up two draft picks in what stands to be potentially deep drafts, and if Vanek walks away, it could be ugly when the team moves to Brooklyn.  For the Sabres, while they finally have some semblance of peace, if only for a little while, they do have to hope that Moulson's numbers are not just a mere product of being a linemate of John Tavares.  The draft picks help, but the feeling here is that the Sabres could have gotten just a little more.

The SKA Report: Playing West

SKA is coming off a good week in which they amassed five points in two games.  On Tuesday, they finished up a road trip with a game at Neftekhimik.  Viktor Tikhonov opened the scoring to make it 1-0 after one, but a Yegor Milovzorov goal would tie things up early in the second period.  Patrick Thoresen would put SKA up one to close out the second period, and a Roman Cervenka goal would be insurance that they need to end the road trip with three points and a 3-1 win.  On Saturday, SKA returned home to play division rival Dinamo Riga.  SKA jumped out to a 2-0 lead on goals from Ilya Kovalchuk and Tony Martensson, but a Andris Dzerins goal would leave SKA up only one after one period.  Miks Indrasis would score the next two goals to put Riga up one midway through the third, but Tikhonov would force overtime, and while that wasn't enough time, the shootout was SKA's friend, as Tikhonov would score the only goal to give SKA the win.  Dmitry Shikin was the winning goalie in both contests.

SKA finishes out this home stand with games at division rivals, with CSKA on Monday, Lev Praha on Wednesday, and Slovan Bratislava on Friday.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

DiPietro Sighting!

When we last left Rick DiPietro, he was given a compliance buyout by the New York Islanders in July.  Well, he has returned...or at least, will be given a chance at a comeback.  Thanks to the rash of injuries that have hit the Carolina Hurricanes' goaltending group, DiPietro will have his chance with the team's AHL affliliate in Charlotte, NC.  When you have injuries to both Cam Ward (who's becoming as fragile as DiPietro these days) and Anton Khudobin, that will take its toll on your minor league system, as both Mike Murphy and Justin Peters had to be called up.  The result?  DiPietro, along with Allen York, were signed to player tryout contracts.

It's a long way from the days when he was given the most ludicrous contract in NHL history (He wasn't alone, as the Islanders had a habit of doing such things.  Just ask Alexei Yashin), but for DiPietro, any chance is better than none, and he would be wise to make the most of this chance in Charlotte.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Fixing the Sabres

As you may know, the Buffalo Sabres just simply can't catch a break this season, and now, they're playing all of their first round picks from the last two years.  Yes, that means Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons from 2012 and Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov from 2013 are in the lineup.  It never had to come to this, and certainly, they could have (and should have) cut their losses with either or both Ryan Miller and Thomas Vanek.  This piece will attempt to find answers in righting the Sabres' rapidly sinking ship, which means I get to put on my General Manager's hat once again.  All of this is obviously presuming that the Sabres will be needing either or both needing a new general manager (not me) and head coach.

Trading Ryan Miller

Yes, his GAA stinks, but it only scratches the surface of the problems of the team, and like all of the other problems, could have been prevented in the off-season.  Miller's value is not going to get any higher, and clearly, the days when he almost lifted the U.S. to olympic gold in 2010 seem like a lifetime ago.  That said, the market for a goalie wasn't particularly kind, as the Vancouver Canucks found out when they attempted to trade Roberto Luongo, where they ultimately ended up trading Cory Schneider instead.  Right now, the Sabres don't have much in the way of options for trade partners, but given the injury issues that both Carolina and Nashville are facing in goal, Miller could step in and contribute for the right price, especially with Cam Ward's recent injury history in Carolina.

Trading Thomas Vanek

Vanek was named captain for the team's home games, which effectively put an end (for now) to the rumors of him getting traded.  He is the team's second leading scorer with seven points, behind only Cody Hodgson, and appears to be producing his expected numbers.  He would carry far more value than Miller at this point, but given his production right now, it is likely the Sabres could hold on to him until closer to the trade deadline, as there will be teams likely lining up at the Sabres' door in an effort to get Vanek as the missing piece for a Stanley Cup run.  If the Sabres play it right, they can get maximum return for Vanek here.

Compliance buyouts

The Sabres foolishly did not exercise the compliance buyouts this past off-season, which means the bloated contracts of Ville Leino, Christian Ehrhoff, and Tyler Myers are still on the books.  Unsurprisingly, none of them are even producing anything close to 0.50 points per game, and Leino has not been able to find the ice much in his time with the Sabres.  The compliance buyouts are still available for next off-season, and the Sabres would be wise to use at least one of those two buyouts.  Leino should definitely be given one, and while it appears to be a long shot that Myers would be given one, as he's still young enough to be given a chance to turn it around, time may be running short.  Ehrhoff's size of contract makes him a target, as well, though he did produce numbers closer to his Canucks days (prorated).

Handling of rookies

The mishandling of Grigorenko last year resulted in the Sabres having to burn a year on his entry-level contract, which made his demotion to the juniors after 25 games sound pointless.  Sometimes, you just never learn from your mistakes, and that is exactly what is happening with Nikita Zadorov this season.  Yes, he has not reached the threshold for number of games played before the decision needs to be made, but it is obvious that the Sabres may very well be making the exact same mistake again, as Zadorov can use another year in juniors.  Both Girgensons and Ristolainen can be sent to the AHL, as neither played in the Canadian juniors prior to their draft year despite their age, with Girgensons already spending a year in the AHL.  How well the Sabres handle both players will be telling, as neither has made an impact with the team yet.  The key will be putting the players in position to succeed, something that hasn't happened with Grigorenko and may very well affect the other three players.

Blowing Down Lethbridge's House

To say that the Lethbridge Hurricanes would like a redo on the start of this season would be an understatement.  In fact, their streak of seasons without a playoff berth is in good shape to reach five, as they currently have given up the most goals (74), were forced to trade away two of their top three scorers from last season, and absolutely have no answers as to how to fix any of their problems.

Where to begin?  Let's begin with the two players they HAD to trade: Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie.  Last week, it was mentioned that both requested trades and were sent home as a result while the team was trying to find a trade partner.  Last night, they found one in the Seattle Thunderbirds, as they sent to Lethbridge Riley Sheen, Carter Folk, and a third round pick in the 2015 Bantam Draft in order to get rid of both Yakubowski and McKechnie.  Both players were behind only Russell Maxwell in scoring last season, yet both also had their struggles this season.  There is no doubt that the new start, combined with playing alongside Shea Theodore and top rookie Matthew Barzal, should energize both players.  As for what Lethbridge gets in return, Sheen was seen as one of the hardest working players on the Thunderbirds while Folk is a younger player that should be integral to the team's future.  For the Hurricanes, they also had a game that evening, as they played Moose Jaw, and for a while, it looked like the turnaround that began with a spirited (albeit one that fell short...again) effort against Portland that saw them nearly come back would carry over into the Moose Jaw game, as they were up 3-0 after two periods.  Unfortunately, an average game of hockey is three periods, and Moose Jaw would score three unanswered goals to force overtime, where they would score the game-winner and hand Lethbridge another defeat.

In total, the Hurricanes are 2-11-1-1 and are clearly the worst team in the league right now.  The days of nearly winning it all seem like an eternity (it was actually 2008, where they lost to Spokane in the WHL finals that year), and unless they magically find a goaltender that won't wilt in the face of a toxic atmosphere, it figures to be a while before they can ever compete again.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Retiring First Rounders

Remember Roman Hamrlik?  I do, and I also happen to have this card, back when I collected hockey cards (for the record, I still have them, but haven't added any in a while).  Yesterday, Hamrlik announced his retirement, which lasted 20 seasons and seven NHL teams.  He will forever go down as the first ever draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning in what turned out to be a rather weak draft, as he went first overall in 1992.  That year, the draft included the talented, but enigmatic Alexei Yashin, a dependable Cory Stillman, and the still-going Sergei Gonchar (currently with the Dallas Stars).  Hamrlik never really got going with the Lightning despite an all-star nod in 1996, arguably his best offensive year, due to some poor teams around him.  He spent time with Edmonton, where he earned another all-star nod in 1999, the New York Islanders, where he earned his third all-star nod in 2003, Calgary, Montreal, Washington, and the New York Rangers.  He also earned a gold medal in 1998 with the Czech Republic and retires with 155 goals and 483 assists in 1395 games.

The other former first round pick to retire recently was Martin Biron, who was taken 16th overall by the Buffalo Sabres in 1995.  He earned the distinction early on as the last player to wear the number 00.  The "Biron Rule," as it's known, was enforced to make players choose numbers between 1 and 99 (99 would be retired league-wide after Wayne Gretzky's retirement in 1999, making it now between 1 and 98) due to a bug in the league's stat-tracking software.  For much of his Sabres career, he was the backup to Dominik Hasek, and when Hasek was traded prior to the 2001-02 season, it was Biron who took the starting job.  Despite putting up decent numbers, the Sabres did not make the playoffs until the 2005-06 season, when Ryan Miller began to take away some of Biron's starts and eventually, the starting job in 2007, when Biron would be traded to Philadelphia.  Biron would continue to play well in Philadelphia, leading to a free-agency deal with the New York Islanders, where he would struggle in his lone year there.  Biron would sign with the cross-town rival New York Rangers and provide capable backup to Henrik Lundqvist for two years.  However, the Rangers' early struggles this season prompted them to send Biron to the minors, where he would announce his retirement.  In 506 games, Biron posted a 230-190-25-35 record with a career GAA of 2.60.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The SKA Report: Strong Beginning, Not So Good End

SKA was on the road this week, as they went through more of the Eastern Conference.  On Wednesday, they paid a visit to last year's Gagarian Cup finalist Traktor, who were without Evgeny Kuznestov.  You can bet they missed his presence, as SKA proved to be rude guests, with goals from Viktor Tikhonov, Vadim Shipachyov, Evgeny Skachkov, Patrick Thoresen, Igor Makarov, Andrei Sigaryov, and Tony Martensson, making it seven different players to have scored en route to a 7-0 romp that also saw Ilya Ezhov get a shutout.  Friday meant a game at Magnitorosk and a date with Metallurg Magnitorosk.  Makarov and Danis Zaripov exchanged goals to make it an even game after one period.  However, it was all SKA, as Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Kucerhyavenko, and Maxim Chudinov scored to allow Ezhov and SKA to leave Magnitorosk with three points and a 4-1 win.  Sunday, SKA traveled to Ufa and met up with Salavat Yulaev.  Unfortunately, things didn't quite go as planned, as former SKA player Kiril Koltsov kicked off the scoring for Salavat Yulaev.  Thoresen tied it, but Yegor Dubrovsky would score to make it a 2-1 lead for the home team after one period.  A scoreless second period gave way to a Nikita Filatov goal for Salavat Yulaev.  Alexei Ponikarovsky pulled SKA within one, but that would be as close as they get, as Alexander Pankov would add an insurance goal and hand Ezhov and SKA a 4-2 loss.

SKA concludes the road trip on Tuesday at Neftekhimik before coming home for a game against Dinamo Riga on Saturday.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Winterhawks Weekly: On a Roll and On the Road

The Portland Winterhawks were able to get some momentum going into a five game road trip and then some.  On Wednesday, the Winterhawks easily handled the Tri-City Americans 4-1 behind goals from Brendan Leipsic, Adam Rossignol, Presten Kopeck, and Oliver Bjorkstrand.  Those goals sandwiched a Tri-City goal from Philip Tot and made a winner of Brendan Burke, who made 29 saves in the win.  Friday was a matchup against Swift Current, and was the last game before the Winterhawks started the road trip.  Connor Sanvido opened the scoring for Swift Current, but Nic Petan would send the Winterhawks to a tie after one period.  Alex Schoenborn and Bjorkstrand opened the scoring in the second period for the Winterhawks, but Tanner LeSann and Graham Black tied things for Swift Current.  Petan would score, giving the Winterhawks a 4-3 lead going into the third period.  Dominic Turgeon and Coda Gordon exchanged goals to make it a 5-4 decision in favor of the Winterhawks and a win for Burke.

The Saturday tilt at Kennewick, WA was the first of five games on the road, and for one period, things were even, as Chase De Leo and Jessey Astles exchanged goals.  Two periods later, the Winterhawks finished their demolition of the Tri-City Americans, as Keegan Iverson, Taylor Leier, De Leo, and Petan scored in the second period and in the process, chased Eric Comrie from the game.  Paul Bittner, Bjorkstrand, and Kopeck scored in the third, finishing a dominating win for the Winterhawks 8-1.  Burke finished the week a perfect 3-0-0-0.

The Winterhawks continue the road trip with games against a struggling Lethbridge Hurricanes team on Tuesday, Medicine Hat on Wednesday, a stop in Cranbrook, BC for a matchup at Kootenay on Friday, and Spokane on Saturday.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Troubling Winds

With a record of 1-9-0-1 and a home game tonight against Saskatoon, the Lethbridge Hurricanes are needing to dig out of an early hole.  Though the Hurricanes are in fact, leading the game 3-0 as of this writing, things are so bad right now that two of their better players are asking for trades.  Jaimen Yakubowski and Sam McKechnie, two of the team's best offensive options, were sent home yesterday and are now awaiting trades.  From General Manager Brad Robson:
Both players through their agents and families have requested a trade, so we have sent the players home to wait for a deal to be done.
This turn of events underscores the team's struggles in recent seasons, and with recently floundering squads such as Prince George and Seattle finding success early on in the season, Lethbridge's troubles are magnified.  Certainly, it was going to be a transition year, as they brought in Drake Berehowsky to be the new head coach and Robson is also in his first year with the team, as they replaced Rich Preston after last season in their respective roles (Preston was both head coach and GM).  However, the eventual trades of both Yakubowski and McKechnie mean that only Russell Maxwell will be left of the team's offensive options.  Add to the mix the fact that their first round pick in this year's Import Draft Kristian Khenkel is not coming over to play with the Hurricanes due to some paperwork issues with the IIHF, and this season is one that the Hurricanes would like to forget...and it's only 12 games into the season.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Peterborough Express: Off to a Great Start

Even though I have not renewed the Peterborough Express for this season, as it got bumped for the SKA Report and I don't want to be bogged down with more than two team reports, today is as good as any to give an update on the Ontario Hockey League team known as the Petes.  As of today, the Petes are third in the division with 13 points, behind Kingston and Oshawa, both of whom have 15 points.  Despite a crushing season opening loss to Kingston 11-4, the Petes have rebounded nicely, going 6-2-0-1 since then, and certainly, Jody Hull behind the bench has made a difference.  I thought had the Petes gotten off to even a slightly better start last season before the coaching change, the Petes could have snuck into the playoffs and caused a scare.  As it is, the Petes are doing well, and Michael Giugovaz has done well in goal when given a chance.  It's a long season, but the Petes are offering the fans hope for the first time in quite a while.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Admiral Commodore

When you're an expansion team in the KHL like Admiral Vladivostok, you'll do anything to gain attention.  Now, as if being the team in the easternmost part of Siberia and surprising SKA on Sunday wasn't enough (Admiral's salary is less than what Ilya Kovalchuk makes, by the way), Admiral is bringing in Oggie Oglethorpe on board...er, Mike Commodore.  If you forgot what Commodore was known for, the picture above should say it all.  He will provide depth for Admiral on the blue line and with any luck at all, bring back the Oglethorpe look for a team that like many others, could use a little color in their lineup.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The SKA Report: Home for the Week

This week, SKA was home for four games, and the results weren't all positive.  Monday, SKA jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Amur, thanks to goals by Artemy Panarin, Dmirty Kalinin, and Vadim Shipachyov.  However, Amur came back to force overtime on goals by Vyatcheslav Livotchenko, Mikhail Klimchuk, and Jan Mursak.  SKA would win in overtime on a Viktor Tikhonov goal to allow SKA to escape with two points and give Ilya Ezhov the win.  Wednesday, they welcomed Sibir Novobsibirsk and it was a struggle to score for both teams, as Tony Martensson scored the lone SKA goal in the first period and Ivan Lekomtsev would tie things up for Sibir.  The game would go to a shootout, where Dmitry Kugryshev would score the winner and hand Alexander Salak and SKA a loss.

Metallurg Novokuznetsk was the opponent on Friday, and this time around, things were never in doubt for SKA, as they jumped out to a 3-0 lead after two on goals by Alexei Semenov, Kevin Dallman, and Martensson.  Ansel Galimov scored for Metallurg Novokuznetsk, but a Kalinin goal made the final score 4-1 and made a winner of Ezhov.  Sunday, SKA hosted the expansion Admiral Vladivostok and Admiral proved to be too much this game.  Evgeny Grachyov and Artyom Ternavsky pushed Admiral out ahead 2-0, but Tikhonov would pull SKA within one at the end of one.  However, Evner Lisin would score for Admrial, and that would be all the scoring in the game, as Admiral won 3-1, with Salak taking the loss.

SKA hits the road again this week, with games on Wednesday at last year's Gagarian Cup finalists in Traktor Chelyabinsk, a Friday game against Metallurg Magnitorsk, and on Sunday at Salavat Yulaev.