Friday, October 14, 2016

The Puck Drop

The NHL launched its 2016-17 season over the last two nights, and what a splendid launch it was. How often do you get stories like these flying at you after each team has played only its opening game?

Once upon a time the thought of a 19-year-old from Arizona being thought of as the hockey savior of Canada's largest city (and self-proclaimed hockey capital of the world) was unthinkable. Not anymore.

In his very first game, top draft pick Auston Matthews didn't just score -- he scored on each of his first three shots, making him the only player in history to record a natural hat trick in his debut. Then he banged in another goal with three seconds to go in the second period, making his the highest scoring debut of all time. One of those tallies came after he picked the pocket of two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson.

And like Travis Yost pointed out over at TSN, the performance was even more impressive when you look beyond the goals. Matthews's line -- with him centering -- controlled the puck 75 percent of the time it was on the ice and produced an averaged of a scoring chance per minute.

A not so small part of me had been hesitant to buy into the Matthews hype, thinking it might be nothing more than typical Toronto hyperbole. Looks like I might have been wrong.

Fate's Fickle Finger
Jack Eichel is the main cog in the young but promising roster that seeks to get the Buffalo Sabres back to the post-season after a five-year absence. Wednesday morning he went down in obvious pain during practice, and was later diagnosed with a high ankle sprain which could keep him on the sidelines for as long as a month and a half.

Out West, the LA Kings approached the season once again hoping to contend for the Cup. But late in the first period of their opening game, their backbone of a goaltender, Jonathan Quick, sustained a lower body injury that was quickly termed "not good" by GM Dean Lombardi. Less than 24 hours later he was placed on injured reserve, which means he could be out for months. And since Quick started 140 of the Kings' 162 games over the past two seasons, his backups don't have much of a resume and it's safe to say that his absence leaves an enormous hole.

Just like that, two good teams saw their prospects for this season dim considerably before they even made it to the second game. The moral of the story is don't take anything for granted.

O Canada
While Auston Matthews was lighting the lamp four times in one provincial rivalry -- Toronto vs. Ottawa in a battle of Ontario -- another provincial rivalry was being staged 2,100 miles to the west with Edmonton and Calgary engaging in a battle of Alberta.

The Oilers christened their new state-of-the-art arena, Rogers Place, by beating the Flames as Connor McDavid, last year's top draft pick, led the way with three points (2G, 1A). He, like Matthews, is 19.

Peeking forward, a cross-country rivalry might be brewing. The Oilers and Leafs are both on the rise and aiming to rekindle the greatness that defined them back in the day. McDavid, with a year under his belt, has already proven that he is a superstar. Matthews, with only one game under his belt, has already proven that he has the skill and smarts and gumption to become one. All the ingredients are here for a great rivalry, one that could be similar to the Celtics/Bird vs. Lakers/Magic showdowns of the 1980's NBA.

My Lightning Indulgence
When you have six different players (none of whom are named Stamkos or Kucherov) put the puck in the net and you overcome a pair of two-goal deficits to beat Detroit, you have to be in a good mood. Especially when the special teams click on all cylinders. So yes, I am happy with Tampa Bay's performance in their opener last night. Now bring on the Devils!

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